Stay Connected

Follow ERS on Twitter
Subscribe to RSS feeds
Subscribe to ERS e-Newsletters.aspx
Listen to ERS podcasts
Read ERS blogs at USDA
Image: Business Man Reading Newspaper

The Geographic and Demographic Dimensions of Poverty

Poverty rates vary widely across the country and between various demographic groups, reflecting both current economic conditions and the legacy of historical social and economic forces in individual communities and regions. ERS captures this spatial and demographic diversity in a number of ways that provide useful information for targeting and structuring poverty reduction efforts.


ERS has produced interactive mapping tools that can display a range of poverty-related outcomes in county-level maps. Users can also download all county-level data in spreadsheet format.

ERS research has shown that the rate of rural (nonmetropolitan) poverty has consistently exceeded urban (metropolitan) poverty since poverty rates were first officially recorded in 1959. Trends since the end of the recession of 2007-09 show a growing gap between rural and urban poverty rates.  In 2012, that gap stood at 3.2 points (rural poverty was 17.7 percent in 2012 compared with 14.5 percent for urban poverty). Rural poverty is now at its highest in 25 years.

Gap between rural and urban

ERS research also shows that the share of the rural population in deep poverty – those with family income levels less than 50 percent of the poverty line – increased sharply between 2007 and 2009.

Recent research has documented that increases in poverty rates since 2000 were highest in the manufacturing areas of the Midwest and South, and demonstrated the close connection between rural poverty and the rural unemployment rate.

ERS researchers have also studied the question of the persistence of poverty, that is, the tendency for certain areas to experience high poverty rates year after year. The map below shows several prominent clusters of counties that have persistently had more than 20 percent of the population under the poverty line, particularly in the Deep South, Appalachia, the Southwest, and in counties with large American Indian populations.

Most counties persistently high poverty rates


The elderly poverty rate in the mid-1960s was above 25 percent, but it fell rapidly thereafter, thanks in large part to increases in Social Security benefit levels. Since 2000, elderly poverty has continued its gradual decline, while both adult and child poverty rates have risen. More than 20 percent of U.S. children currently live below the poverty line.

Poverty by age

ERS research has demonstrated that child poverty grew during the economic expansion of 2001-07, and continued to grow during the recession of 2007-09 and beyond. The increases in child poverty were observed in all rural county economic types, regardless of their primary industries.

Child poverty rose for all rural county types

ERS research has also identified significant differences in the well-being of low-income children in urban versus rural areas. For example, parents of low-income children in nonmetro areas are more likely to report that their children are in excellent or very good health than are their metro counterparts.

Work by ERS and others has consistently shown that families headed by females are more likely to be poor, particularly in rural areas. Female-headed families are also more likely to be food insecure.

Poverty rates also differ significantly by race and ethnicity. The poverty rate among African American households is especially high in nonmetro areas, reaching 40.6 percent in 2012.

Related ERS Reports

Rural Veterans at a Glance, November 2013
Rural America at a Glance, November 2013
Federal Tax Policies and Low-Income Rural Households, May 2011
Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food--Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences: Report to Congress, June 2009
The Cost of Living and the Geographic Distribution of Poverty, September 2006
Economic Wellbeing of Farm Operator Households, March 2006
Rural Children at a Glance, April 2005
Rural Hispanics at a Glance, December 2005
New Patterns of Hispanic Settlement in Rural America, 2004
Rural Poverty at a Glance, July, 2004

Related Amber Waves

The Concentration of Poverty is a Growing Rural Problem, Amber Waves, December 2012
Increases in U.S. Poverty Rate Were Highest in the Manufacturing Areas of the Midwest and South, Amber Waves, June 2012
Recession in 2007-09 Widened and Deepened Nonmetro Poverty, Amber Waves, June 2011
Mapping Population and Economic Trends in Rural and Small-Town America, Amber Waves, March 2011
The Two Faces of Rural Population Loss Through Outmigration, Amber Waves, December 2010
Growth in Nonmetro Poverty is Tied to Recessionary Increases in Unemployment, Amber Waves, December 2010
Economic Recovery: Lessons Learned from Previous Recessions, Amber Waves, March 2010
Child Health and Well-Being Differ for Metro and Nonmetro Low-Income Households, Amber Waves, November 2008

For More Information:

USDA’s programmatic efforts to reduce rural poverty and promote rural economic development are discussed in a recent USDA Blog post by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Last updated: Friday, February 28, 2014

For more information contact: Tracey Farrigan and Thomas Hertz