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Rural Poverty Increasing, Especially Among Children

March 26, 2014


Rural poverty increased significantly in the U.S. following the 2007 recession, especially among children, according to data released earlier this month in the March Supplement of the Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey (sponsored by the US Census Bureau and US Bureau of Labor Statistics).  The 2012 data reveals that the rural poverty rate (17.8 percent) is the highest it has been since 1986, when the country was reeling from another recession.

It is still too early to tell if rural poverty has hit its peak this time around or if it will continue to get worse.  Urban areas have shown some signs of economic recovery, but rural areas tend to recover more slowly after a recession than urban ones, according to Tracey Farrigan, geographer at the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) and author of the recent Amber Waves article “Poverty and Deep Poverty Increasing in Rural America.”

The situation for children living in the rural U.S. is even more troubling, with more than one in four now living in poverty (26.7 percent) and roughly one in eight (12.2 percent) living in “deep poverty” (living in a household with an income that is less than half of the poverty threshold).  Children are disproportionately affected in recessions, in part because their parents and guardians have to earn more to stay above the poverty line than childless adults.  Making matters worse, childhood poverty often negatively affects children throughout their lives.

Rural/Child Poverty PNG

Research on the ERS’s “Rural Poverty and Well-Being” series offers additional information about the current geography, demographics, and incomes of people struggling to make ends meet.

For example, rural poverty rates are consistently higher than urban poverty rates in the U.S.  In 2012, the rural poverty rate was 17.7 percent while the urban poverty rate was 14.5 percent.  The rate of children living in poverty in rural areas was 26.7 percent in 2012 while the rate for children in urban areas was 20.9 percent.  These differences in urban and rural poverty rates are wider than in the recent past, reflecting rural communities’ slower economic recovery.

Rural/Urban Poverty Gap

Rural poverty also varies by region, with rates being the highest in the Southeast, Southwest, North Central Midwest, and on Native American lands. These geographic disparities often reflect racial and historical inequities.  The poverty rate for rural Blacks is three times the rate of rural Whites, while the poverty rate for rural Latinos and other people of color in rural areas is twice the rate of rural Whites.

Rural Poverty by Race

Increasing rural poverty is no surprise when one considers that the median “real” (inflation-adjusted) income in rural areas has fallen for five years in a row.  Government transfer payments, over 75 percent of which pay for retirement, medical, and disability expenses, now account for 24.8 percent of all personal income in rural areas.  In comparison, government transfer payments make up 16.3 percent of personal income in urban areas.

Advocating for Rural America

NSAC has been a witness to and an advocate for solutions to rural poverty through our work on USDA economic and community development programs over the past several decades.  We helped lead the charge for the very first farm bill investment into rural development – the Fund for Rural America – as part of the 1996 Farm Bill, and later helped create programs like  Value-Added Producer Grants and the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program that create jobs and increase incomes in rural communities.

More recently, NSAC fought hard in the context of the 2014 Farm Bill to promote programs that foster business opportunities and job creation, evidenced in the expansion of the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, increased mandatory funding and program improvements for the Value-Added Producer Grant Program, and an influx of $100 million dollars for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.  Now, NSAC is working to ensure Farm Bill rural development programs are fully funded by Congress and effectively implemented by the USDA.

NSAC is in the planning stage of its work on the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act (CNR), which is set to expire in the fall of 2015 and authorizes funding for a number of child nutrition programs, including school meal programs, the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and Farm to School Grants.  These programs offer relief to rural families struggling to put food on the table and mitigate the calamitous effects of childhood hunger and malnutrition.  According to a 2010 report from the Carsey Institute, 29% of rural households with children participate in at least one of the four major federal nutrition programs (School Lunch, School Breakfast, WIC, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program), and about 20% participate in two or more.

In the 2010 CNR, NSAC worked with the National Farm to School Network and others to win $40 million in mandatory funding for the new Farm to School Grants program.  In this next iteration of CNR, NSAC will be looking for ways to continue to support Farm to School grants and child nutrition programs for the vital role they play in the health and economic prosperity of rural communities.

For more information on rural poverty, please visit the ERS’s series on “Rural Poverty and Well-Being.


Categories: Nutrition & Food Access, Rural Development


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