The gap between rural and urban poverty rates in 2010 was the smallest since the late 1950s, according to a new report from the Economic Research Service. 

The federal government has been measuring poverty in urban and rural places since the 1960s, and from the beginning rural America has had higher levels of poverty than the cities.

Between 2009 and 2010, however, the gap between rural and urban poverty narrowed significantly, as rural rates remained unchanged and urban poverty rates rose, according to a new report from the ERS, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (This report is based on new data from the Census. Non metro counties are considered rural; metro counties are urban.)

Rural poverty rates remained relatively unchanged from 2009, when the rural rate was 16.5%, to the 2010 rate of 16.6%. Urban poverty, however, increased from 13.9% in 2009 to 14.9% in 2010.

As a result, the gap between rural and urban poverty decreased, as the chart above shows. The 1.6 percentage point gap between rural and urban poverty rates in 2010 is the only the second time since 1959 that the gap has dropped under two percentage points. The only other time this happened was in 1994, when the gap was 1.8 points.

Where You Live Matters

Poverty rates vary dramatically by region, as the chart below shows. The rural and urban rates are most alike in the Northeast and Midwest (where they are also the lowest). In fact, metro rates were higher than rural rates in the Midwest.

The gap has historically been highest in the South, and that remained true in 2010. The gap between rural and urban poverty in the South was 3.4 points in 2010, but that was down 2.1 points from 2009. An estimated 42.4% of the nation’s rural population lives in the South.


Poverty by Race

Rural poverty was higher for all racial groups, but African Americans had the highest rates in 2010, according to the ERS’s calculations. (See the chart below.) The 32.9% poverty rate among rural Blacks remained unchanged from 2009.

Poverty rates among Hispanics was also high and, in fact, those rate rose 1.7 points from 2009 to 29.5% in 2010. Hispanics accounted for less than 3 percent of the rural population in 1990, but compose 7.4 percent of the rural population in 2010.


Family Type

Poverty rates were considerably higher in female headed households. Poverty rates for both male and female headed households increased from 2008 to 2010. The gaps between rural and urban households in this category are particularly large.

Meanwhile, rural families with both a husband and a wife had lower rates of poverty than comparable families living in the cities.



The poverty rate for rural children has been increasing over the past several years and now stands at 24.4%. This rate has risen 2.9 percentage points since 2008. As a result, 2.8 million rural children now live in poverty compared to 2.5 million in 2008.