Poverty Is Higher in Rural Areas
Discussions of poverty in the United States often mistakenly focus on urban areas. While urban poverty is a unique challenge, rates of poverty have historically been higher in rural than urban areas. In fact, levels of rural poverty were often double those in urban areas throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
While these rural-urban gaps have diminished markedly, substantial differences persist. In 2015, 16.7 percent of the rural population was poor, compared with 13.0 percent of the urban population overall — and 10.8 percent among those living in suburban areas outside of principal cities.
Contrary to common assumptions, substantial shares of the poor are employed. Approximately 45 percent of poor, prime-age (25-54) householders worked at least part of 2015 in rural and urban areas alike.
The link between work and poverty was different in the past. In the early 1980s, the share of the rural poor that was employed exceeded that in urban areas by more than 15 percent. Since then, more and more poor people in rural areas are also unemployed — a trend consistent with other documented patterns.
That said, rural workers continue to benefit less from work than their urban counterparts. In 2015, 9.8 percent of rural, prime-age working householders were poor, compared with 6.8 percent of their urban counterparts. Nearly a third of the rural working poor faced extreme levels of deprivation, with family incomes below 50 percent of the poverty line, or approximately US$12,000 for a family of four.
Large shares of the rural workforce also live in economically precarious circumstances just above the poverty line. Nearly one in five rural working householders lived in families with incomes less than 150 percent of the poverty line. That’s nearly five percentage points more than among urban workers (13.5 percent).
According to recent research, rural-urban gaps in working poverty cannot be explained by rural workers’ levels of education, industry of employment or other similar factors that might affect earnings. Rural poverty — at least among workers — cannot be fully explained by the characteristics of the rural population. That means reducing rural poverty will require attention to the structure of rural economies and communities.
Brian Thiede is Assistant Professor of Rural Sociology and Demography at Pennsylvania State University.