Older Women and Poverty in Rural America

The population in many rural areas is aging steadily as a result of aging-in-place, outmigration of young adults, and inmigration of older persons from metro areas, often straining community resources to provide medical and social services. Rural areas generally have a higher proportion of older persons in their total population than urban areas, and nonmetro poverty rates for older persons are higher than metro rates. Women represent 58 percent of the rural population age 65 and older, and 71 percent of the rural population age 85 and older. Because women outnumber men at older ages and are more likely to be poor, policies affecting rural health and pension programs are key to their financial standing.

Economic status in later life is a cumulative product of earnings, savings and spending, and participation in pension, health insurance, and public assistance plans. Some older women today spent all or most of their working lives in traditional roles, with limited paid work experience. Many who worked in the formal labor market experienced work interruptions due to childbearing and childrearing. Thus, older women may lack adequate financial resources from earnings, savings, or pension plans.

Women constituted 65 percent of the rural poor age 65 and older in 2003. In rural areas, 8 percent of men versus 13 percent of women age 65 and older were poor. Among nonmetro women age 65 and older, poverty rates were three times higher for widows than for married women. Many widowed persons live alone, and women are more likely to be widowed than men. Among the oldest old (a term used to define those 85 years and older), 10 percent of men and 17 percent of women in nonmetro areas were poor.

The older population's impact on a rural community will differ widely depending on whether it is composed of relatively young retirees or persons who have remained and grown old in the community. Rural retirement areas may benefit from growth, as inmigrating retirees boost the tax base and help sustain local businesses. On the other hand, rural areas that have lost population, especially younger persons, and experienced declining tax bases may have greater needs for medical services and long-term care for their remaining older population. Rural areas have a higher share than urban areas of the oldest old, who are the most in need of health, medical, and other services that are more limited in rural areas.