Child Poverty

Although child poverty invokes an urban image for most Americans, about one-fourth (23.5 percent) of children in rural (nonmetropolitan) areas were poor in 2016, compared to about one-fifth (20.5) of urban (metropolitan) area children (see Poverty by Age in the Poverty Demographics chapter and Child Poverty in the Poverty Overview chapter). Understanding the high occurrence of rural child poverty is crucial, as research has linked poverty to low levels of well-being in childhood and adulthood, including health, economic, and behavioral problems. Using the latest (2016) estimates from the American Community Survey (ACS), poverty rates are described for nonmetropolitan (nonmetro) children according to their age, depth of poverty, family type, region, and race/ethnicity. Using the latest 5-year (2011-15) averages from the ACS (only the 5-year average provides coverage for all counties in the United States) child poverty is examined by county geography. 

A Note About Data Sources and Definitions

The American Community Survey (ACS) was developed by the Census Bureau to replace the long form of the decennial census. 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 accumulates samples over 3- and 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 2015 ACS is used here to examine poverty by various demographic characteristics; the 5-year average 2011-15 ACS is used here to examine child poverty at the county level.

Within the ERS topic pages on poverty, child poverty is defined for two populations. For the overall U.S. (and metro/nonmetro) poverty rate, poverty rates by age group, depth of poverty by age, and race/ethnicity: statistics are shown for individuals under 18 for whom poverty status is determined. For child poverty rates by family type and county-level poverty rates: statistics are shown for related children. Related children are defined by the U.S. Census as "any child under 18 years old who is related to the householder by birth, marriage, or adoption. Related children of the householder include ever-married as well as never-married children. Children, by definition, exclude persons under 18 years who maintain households or are spouses or unmarried partners of householders." In both populations, however, the Census Bureau does not determine poverty for unrelated children (those not related by birth, marriage, or adoption to a reference person within the household) under age 15. See the Census Bureau website for more details about the poverty population universe as it pertains to children and treatment of unrelated individuals under age 15.

Children's Age and Depth of Poverty

Child poverty often has an impact that carries throughout a lifetime, particularly if the child lived in poverty at an early age. At 26.6 percent, nonmetro areas not only had a higher poverty rate among young children (below 6 years old) than did metro areas (at 20.4 percent) in 2016, but nonmetro child poverty was also disproportionately "deep." The deep poverty rate (when a child’s family has income less than half (under 0.50) of their poverty income threshold) for nonmetro children under 6 was 12.6 percent in 2016, compared to 9.2 percent for metro young children. Deep poverty at a young age is concerning because it can mean that a child’s family is grappling with severe economic problems that are likely to persist throughout childhood and lead to long lasting developmental and health effects. For more on this topic, see Deep Poverty and Poverty and Deep Poverty Increasing in Rural America (Amber Waves, March 2014).

Another 14.0 percent of nonmetro young children were moderately poor (with income one-half (0.50) to 0.99 times a child’s family poverty income threshold) in 2016 and 26.7 percent were low-income/nonpoor (from equal (1) to up to 1.99 times a child’s family poverty income threshold). The share of low-income children overall can be an indicator of poverty risk and often serves as a measure of well-being for income-based policy. Deep poverty, moderate poverty, and low-income/nonpoor rates were higher for nonmetro children than for metro children across all child age groups in 2016.

Child Poverty by Family Type

Child poverty is more sensitive to labor market conditions than overall poverty. Scarcity of jobs, physical isolation, and lack of employment and transportation services often pose greater earnings challenges for nonmetro parents than for metro parents. Further, nonmetro parents tend to have less education and a higher incidence of underemployment than do metro parents, putting their children at higher risk of being poor. That risk is greatest among single-parent families, particularly those headed by a female. In 2016, the poverty rate for children in female-headed families with no spouse present was 51.5 percent for nonmetro children and 42.6 percent for metro children. In comparison, the poverty rate for children in married-couple families was 11.9 percent for nonmetro children and 9.0 percent for metro children.

Child Poverty by Region and Race/Ethnicity

Regional variations in child poverty have a marked racial and ethnic overlay similar to that for the total population (see Anatomy of Nonmetro High Poverty Areas, in the February 2004 Amber Waves magazine). The vast majority of nonmetro poor black or African American children (for more information on race and ethnicity categories see ACS 2015 Subject Definitions) lived in the South in 2016, where nonmetro and metro child poverty rates are historically the highest. Overall, nearly half (47.3 percent) of nonmetro black or African American children were poor in 2016, compared with one-fifth (19.7 percent) of all nonmetro white children. American Indian children (whose poverty is concentrated in the Southwest and Northern Plains) or Alaskan native children had the second highest poverty rate among nonmetro children (39.3 percent). And one-third (33.1 percent) of nonmetro Hispanic children were poor in 2016. Their poverty is heavily concentrated in the South and the West, whereas the poverty of white, non-Hispanic nonmetro children is more widely spread across pockets of poverty in Appalachia, which stretches from the northwestern portion of Mississippi to southern New York. Differences among minority child poverty rates for metro areas were not as distinct as they were in nonmetro areas in 2016, but metro area rates were similarly highest for black or African American children and lowest for white children.

County-Level Child Poverty

At the county level, considering the 2011-15 averages from the ACS, there were 46 counties with child poverty rates of 50 percent or higher, 41 of which were nonmetro counties heavily clustered in the South (35 of these counties). The highest nonmetro county child poverty rates were in Mellette County, South Dakota (72.0 percent), Greene County, Alabama (67.0 percent), and East Carroll Parish, Louisiana (66.9 percent). Eleven of the nonmetro counties with child poverty rates of 50 percent or higher for 2011-15 were in Mississippi, mainly along the Mississippi Delta region where child poverty rates have been persistently high, particularly among the black or African American child population.

Persistent Child Poverty

An important measure of the evolution of rural child poverty is how persistent it has been in certain counties over time. Persistent child poverty counties are defined as those with related child poverty rates of 20 percent or more over the last 30 years (measured by the 1980, 1990 and 2000 decennial censuses and 2007-11 American Community Survey 5-year estimates; see Persistence of Poverty for more on this definition). Persistent poverty tends to be a rural county phenomenon that is often tied to physical isolation, exploitation of resources, limited assets and economic opportunities, and an overall lack of human and social capital. Persistent poverty among children is of particular concern as the cumulative effect of being poor may lead to especially negative outcomes and limited opportunities that carry through to adulthood. There are currently 708 persistent child poverty counties, 558 (about 80 percent) of which were nonmetro. A data file listing of the persistent child poverty counties is available.