Rural Poverty & Well-being

ERS research in this topic area focuses on the economic, social, spatial, temporal, and demographic factors that affect the poverty status of rural residents. (Food and nutrition assistance topics are covered in depth elsewhere on the ERS website.)

Sections in this topic include the following:

In addition to this topic page, ERS provides annual statistics in its County-level Datasets: Poverty, and State-level (rural/urban) summaries in its State Fact Sheets. A summary of rural poverty and income topics (among other rural issues) is found in the Rural America at a Glance series, updated in the fall each year. See the latest report in the series, Rural America at a Glance, 2017 Edition.

Poverty Over Time

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the Current Population Survey (CPS) data estimates, the higher incidence of nonmetro poverty relative to metro poverty has existed since the 1960s when poverty rates were first officially recorded. Over time, however, the difference between nonmetro and metro poverty rates has generally narrowed, falling from an average difference of 4.5 percentage points in the 1980s to a gap of about 3 percentage points in 2010-16. For purposes of producing subnational and subpopulation poverty estimates, the Census Bureau now recommends using the American Community Survey (ACS), which has a much larger sample size than the CPS. In 2016, the ACS nonmetro poverty rate was 16.9 percent, while the metro rate was 13.6 percent.

The ACS poverty rate differs from the CPS poverty rate due to a number of survey design factors, including: a larger rolling sample, a rolling reference period for income calculation and related Consumer Price Index adjustments, and differences in family composition and weighting. See A Note About Data Sources and What is the Impact of Methodology? for further explanation of ACS and CPS poverty estimate differences.

Geography of Poverty 

In the United States, people living in poverty tend to be clustered in certain regions, counties, and neighborhoods rather than being spread evenly across the Nation. Research has shown that the poor living in areas where poverty is prevalent face impediments beyond those of their individual circumstances. Concentrated poverty contributes to poor housing and health conditions, higher crime and school dropout rates, as well as employment dislocations. As a result, economic conditions in very poor areas can create limited opportunities for poor residents that become self-perpetuating. The 2012-16 ACS is used here to examine poverty at the regional and county levels, see A Note About Data Sources for more information.

While the overall rate of poverty is higher in nonmetro counties than in metro, the difference between nonmetro/metro poverty rates varies significantly across regions. The nonmetro/metro poverty rate gap for the South has historically been the largest. In 2012-16, the South had a nonmetro poverty rate of 21.3 percent—nearly 6 percentage points higher than in the region's metro areas. The difference in poverty rates in the South is particularly important for the overall nonmetro poverty rate because an estimated 42.6 percent of the nonmetro population and 51.1 percent of the nonmetro poor lived in this region in 2012-16. Regional poverty rates for nonmetro and metro areas were most alike in the Midwest and the Northeast in 2012-16.

Nonmetro counties with a high incidence of poverty are mainly concentrated in the South. Those with the most severe poverty are found in historically poor areas of the Southeast, including the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia, as well as on Native American lands. Pockets of high poverty are increasingly found in other regions, such as nonmetro areas of the Southwest and northern sections of the Midwest. The incidence of poverty is relatively low elsewhere, but in general, higher rates of poverty are found in the Midwest, Southwest, Pacific, and Northeast than in the past. Deindustrialization since the 1980s contributed to the spread of poverty in the Midwest and the Northeast. Another factor was rapid growth in Hispanic populations over the 1990s and 2000s, particularly in California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, and Georgia. This group tends to be poorer than non-Hispanic Whites. Finally, the impact of the 2007-09 recession was fairly widespread, and continued to have effects on incomes and poverty for many years after the recession.

About one in four (23.5 percent) rural children in the United States were poor in 2016, compared to about one in five (20.5 percent) urban children. At the county level, on average between 2012 and 2016, there were 41 counties in the United States with child poverty rates of 50 percent or higher, 38 of which were rural (nonmetro) counties heavily clustered in the South (31 of these counties). The rural counties with the highest child poverty rates were Mellette County, SD (70.9 percent), Issaquena County, MS (68.7 percent), and East Carroll Parish, LA (68.4 percent). Thirteen of the rural counties with child poverty rates of 50 percent or higher were in Mississippi—mainly along the Mississippi Delta regionwhere child poverty rates have been persistently high, particularly among the Black or African American child population.

An important dimension of poverty is its persistence over time. An area that has a high level of poverty this year, but not next year, is likely better off than an area that has a high level of poverty in both years. To shed light on this aspect of poverty, ERS has defined counties as being persistently poor if 20 percent or more of their populations were living in poverty based on the 1980, 1990, and 2000 decennial censuses and 2007-11 ACS 5-year estimates. Using this definition, there are 353 persistently poor counties in the United States (comprising 11.2 percent of all U.S. counties). The large majority (301 or 85.3 percent) of the persistent-poverty counties are nonmetro, accounting for 15.2 percent of all nonmetro counties. Persistent poverty also demonstrates a strong regional pattern, with nearly 84 percent of persistent-poverty counties in the South, comprising more than 20 percent of all counties in the region.

ERS provides a file listing the persistent poverty counties as part of the County Typology Codes data product. This list has historically been updated each decade with the release of prior year (e.g. 1979, 1989, and 1999) income and poverty data collected through the decennial Census long form. These data are now collected through the ACS, necessitating the use of the ACS 5-year estimates for county analysis (see the Note About Data Sources). ACS income data are based on the last 12 months rather than the prior year and 5-year estimates reflect annual averages. The most recent persistent poverty list uses the 2007-11 ACS poverty estimates because the midpoint is the 2009 income year, which is most consistent with the 10-year increments used in the past. ERS has also defined persistent child poverty counties using a similar methodology, see the ERS typology section on Persistent Child Poverty.

Poverty Demographics

Areas with a high incidence of poverty often reflect the low income of their racial/ethnic minorities. Nonmetro Blacks and African Americans had the highest incidence of poverty in 2016 (33.0 percent), while nonmetro American Indians and Alaska Natives had the second highest rate (31.8 percent). The poverty rate for nonmetro Whites in 2016 was less than half as much (14.6 percent) of both groups. Nonmetro Hispanics had the third highest poverty rate of any individual race or ethnicity25.9 percent. The high rate of poverty for Hispanics is noteworthy as their share of the nonmetro population increased faster than other racial/ethnic groups over the last several decades.

Family type has a significant bearing on poverty. Families headed by two adults are likely to have more sources of income than single-adult families with children and are therefore less likely to be poor. In 2016, more than one-third of nonmetro families headed by a female with no spouse present were poor (34.7 percent) and nearly half of those with related children were poor (46.0 percent). In contrast, less than one-tenth of nonmetro married couple families were poor in 2016. Poverty rates by family type also reveal large metro-nonmetro differences for single-adult families. In 2016, the poverty rate was more than 8 percentage points higher for nonmetro families headed by females (no spouse present) in general and more than 10 percentage points higher for those with related children than for the same types of metro families.

Poverty rates also differ by age group and nonmetro/metro residence. In 2016, the nonmetro/metro difference was greatest for children under the age of 5 (26.8 percent nonmetro and 20.5 percent metro). Overall child poverty rates (under age 18) were 23.5 percent in nonmetro areas and 18.8 percent in metro areas. In contrast, the poverty rate for senior adults (age 65 and older) was 10.0 percent in nonmetro areas and 9.1 percent in metro areas. Similarly, working age adults (age 18-64) had much lower poverty rates than children in nonmetro areas (16.5 percent), but higher rates than poverty rates of working age adults in metro areas (12.7 percent) in 2016.

These rates do not indicate how long individuals live in poverty. Some families cycle into and out of poverty over time, while others are persistently poor. Persistent poverty among children is of particular concern, as the cumulative effect of being poor may lead to poor health, limited education, and other negative outcomes. Also, research suggests that the more time a child spends in poverty or living in a high poverty area, particularly those with concentrations of racial and ethnic minorities, the greater the chance of being poor as an adult. See these ERS publications for more on this topic: Rural America At A Glance, 2009 Edition ("Child Poverty Persistent and Widespread") and Rural Children At A Glance.

A Note About Data Sources

Official Federal poverty statistics come from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC) to the Current Population Survey (CPS). Individuals or families are defined as poor if their annual pretax cash income falls below a dollar amount, or poverty threshold, that is determined by the Census Bureau each year. For example, an unrelated individual with an annual cash income below $12,228 was defined as poor in 2016. That same person would have been considered poor in 2015 with an annual cash income below $12,082. Note that poverty thresholds are determined for the nation as a whole, and do not vary by geographic region, metropolitan area, or metro/nonmetro location. That is, poverty thresholds do not attempt to account for spatial differences in the cost of living. (See How Is Poverty Defined? for more about definitions and income thresholds used in determining poverty rates.)

For purposes of producing subnational and subpopulation poverty estimates, the Census Bureau now recommends using the American Community Survey (ACS), which has a much larger sample size than the CPS. The ACS, however, does not allow for the same historical perspective as the CPS. Therefore, we begin the ACS series in 2007 and continue to provide annual CPS poverty rates up to 2012. The two surveys are not directly comparable, though, given that the ACS survey design differs from the CPS in a variety of ways and may produce somewhat different poverty estimates. For example, in 2012 the U.S. poverty rate was estimated to be 15.9 percent based on the ACS, compared to 15.0 percent based on the CPS. Poverty estimates for the population living in nonmetropolitan (nonmetro) areas in 2012 were 18.2 percent for the ACS and 17.7 percent for the CPS. The metropolitan (metro) area poverty rates were 15.5 percent (ACS) and 14.5 percent (CPS). The ACS poverty rates for the most recent year (2016) were 14.0 percent for the United States, 16.9 percent nonmetro, and 13.6 percent metro. See the Census Bureau's Fact Sheet: Differences Between the American Community Survey (ACS) and the Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the Current Population Survey (CPS ASEC) and "Poverty and Deep Poverty Increasing in Rural America" (Amber Waves, March 2014) for more information.

For regional and county-level analysis, we use a 5-year average of data. The ACS uses a rolling sample of U.S. housing units (250,000 monthly) to provide basic population characteristics annually for areas with populations of at least 65,000 people. ACS currently accumulates samples over 5-year intervals to produce estimates for areas with smaller populations; only the 5-year average ACS provides coverage for all counties in the United States. The 2012-16 ACS is used here to examine poverty at the regional and county levels.

How Is Poverty Defined?

In the United States, being in poverty is officially defined as having an income below a federally determined poverty threshold. Poverty thresholds were developed in the 1960s and are adjusted annually to account for inflation. They represent the Federal Government’s estimate of the point below which a family of a given size has cash income insufficient to meet basic needs. Any family/individual with total income less than an amount deemed to be sufficient to purchase food, shelter, clothing, and other essential goods and services is classified as poor. (For details, see "How the Census Bureau Measures Poverty.") The amount of income necessary to purchase these basic needs is set by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The 2016 poverty line was $12,486 for an individual under 65 years of age and $11,511 for those 65 or older. The poverty line for a three-person family with one child and two adults was $19,318 in 2016; for a family with two adults and three children the poverty line was $28,643. For a complete list of poverty lines by size of family and number of children, see the U.S. Census Bureau's tables of Poverty Thresholds.) Income includes cash income (pretax income and cash welfare assistance), but excludes in-kind welfare assistance, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and Medicaid.

Although metro-nonmetro comparisons of poverty rates are useful for determining areas where poverty is concentrated, some measurement issues are worth bearing in mind. As one example, U.S. poverty rates do not make any adjustments for differences in cost of living across areas. If the cost of purchasing basic needs is lower in nonmetro areas, then the nonmetro poverty rate would overstate the actual level of poverty experienced by nonmetro residents. The effect of these differences can go in either direction. For example, transportation to work in nonmetro areas may be much more expensive than in metro areas where access to public transit is greater. Housing may be less expensive in nonmetro areas than in metro areas, but the quality of housing may also be lower with a higher rate of substandard housing units. Similarly, the measure of poverty does not account for access to other "public goods" such as health care, schooling, or communication networks, or "public bads" such as noise and air pollution, which also differ systematically across metro and nonmetro areas.

An alternative to the official poverty measure that accounts for some of the aforementioned nonmetro-metro comparison issues is the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM). The SPM is a more complex statistic incorporating additional items such as tax payments and work expenses in its family resource estimates. SPM thresholds are derived from Consumer Expenditure Survey expenditure data on basic necessities (food, shelter, clothing and utilities) and are adjusted for geographic differences in the cost of housing. See Supplemental Poverty Measure for more technical information on SPM.