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People and Places Left Behind: Rural Poverty in the New Century

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines the unique issues faced by rural people and places in the new century, with the goal of raising the profile of disadvantaged rural populations for both scholarly and policy audiences. It begins with a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. official poverty measure—based on absolute money (rather than in-kind) income—for evaluating material disadvantage in rural areas. It then considers six key features of contemporary rural poverty that distinguish it from big-city or inner-city poverty (or suburban poverty). It also places current poverty patterns in rural America in the international context, providing a comparative assessment of theory, measurement, and policy on rural disadvantage in the United States and countries of the European Union including the UK. Finally, it looks at alternative approaches to the social welfare state, to conceptualizing poverty, and to better understanding the implications for rural people and places.

Keywords: rural people, disadvantaged rural populations, poverty measure, material disadvantage, rural areas, rural poverty, rural disadvantage, social welfare state, United States, European Union


Rural poverty is a global problem, and a persistent and distinctive American problem—one with a long history. In 1964, for example, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the War on Poverty, not from the littered streets or in front of boarded storefronts in a big-city slum, but from the porch of a rundown shack in rural Appalachia. At the time, this was a clear signal that rural America was where people and places were most deeply affected by poverty and disadvantage (Ziliak 2012). Despite its association in the public imagination with urban America, poverty has always been higher in nonmetropolitan (nonmetro) than metropolitan (metro) areas (Brown and Schafft 2011; Lichter and Jensen 2002). Yet, the nation’s attention is usually deflected from rural problems by the residential blight, economic decline, and racial transformation of America’s oldest inner cities (e.g., Detroit and St. Louis). Most Americans have had little, if any, exposure to day-to-day life in declining rural areas, much less to those “out of the way” places that have suffered most historically from population and economic decline and cultural isolation (e.g., Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta).1

Poverty in America has proved an especially intractable problem. In the later years of his presidency, Ronald Reagan declared: “In the sixties we waged a war on poverty, and poverty won” (Lemann 1988:37). This applause line had its intended effect on uncritical audiences, containing a clear political message regarding the wisdom of public expenditures on poverty alleviation. It was also a thinly veiled statement about the etiology of poverty (cf., Shucksmith and Schafft 2012; Tickamyer 2007). Poverty is sometimes viewed as a cultural phenomenon, the product of shared behaviors in which individuals are largely held responsible for their economic circumstances. Indeed, policy debates (p. 318) usually privilege individual-level explanations of poverty with accompanying market-based solutions (Somers and Block 2005). Yet, the 1960s brought significant expansions in social programs aimed at expanding services for the poor, including the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, the National Education Corps, the Fair Housing Act, the Model Cities Program, and Job Corps (Massey and Sampson 2009).

The longer-term picture, however, has not been quite so sanguine, either in terms of public commitment to anti-poverty programs or in terms of continuing reductions in poverty (O’Connor 2001; Somers and Block 2005). To be sure, poverty rates in nonmetro America have been cut in half, dropping from 33 percent in 1959 to 17 percent in 2011 (Farrigan 2013). But most of the decline occurred in the 1960s (see Figure 14.1). In fact, the rural poverty rate in 1971 was 17.2 percent, virtually the same as in 2011. Metropolitan poverty rates also have shown scant progress, moving from slightly above 15 percent in 1959 to slightly below by 2011. The past 40 years have therefore brought little if any reduction in poverty, at least as officially measured by the federal government.

People and Places Left BehindRural Poverty in the New Century

Figure 14.1 Poverty Rates by Residence, 1959–2011

Source: Current Population Survey.

This chapter has several specific objectives. First, we discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. official poverty measure—based on absolute money (rather than in-kind) income—for assessing material disadvantage in rural areas. Second, we highlight six key features of contemporary rural poverty that distinguish it from big-city or inner-city poverty (or suburban poverty, for that matter). Third, and finally, we give some international context to current poverty patterns in rural America, providing a comparative assessment of theory, measurement, and policy on rural disadvantage in the United States and countries of the European Union (EU), with a particular focus on the United Kingdom. Although an extended discussion of rural poverty in developing country contexts is beyond the scope of this chapter, we nevertheless sketch out key comparative issues regarding rural poverty globally. We highlight alternative approaches to the social welfare state, to conceptualizing poverty, and to better understanding the implications for rural people and places. An overarching goal is to (p. 319) highlight the unique issues faced by rural people and places in the new century—in the United States and elsewhere—and to raise the profile of disadvantaged rural populations for scholarly and policy audiences alike.

Measuring Rural Poverty

The official U.S. poverty line was established in 1964 during the Johnson Administration using recommendations provided by the president’s Council on Economic Advisors. Based on absolute money income, poverty income levels were based, first, on a minimum cost per day for food (e.g., an “economy food plan”) and, second, on the assumption that low-income households typically spent about one-third of their income on food. Poverty income cutoffs reflect household differences in family size, age of family head, and number of children under 18 years of age; and they are adjusted each year for changes in the cost of living. This definition is quite unlike measurement schemes used in Europe, where low income or poverty is typically benchmarked against a national median or average income (i.e., a relative measure of poverty), or in low-income developing countries, where poverty is extreme by any absolute and relative measure (e.g., shares of people living on $1 or $2 a day).

If the statistical evidence in the United States showing higher rural poverty is straightforward, the interpretation is often unclear. In 2013, a family income of over $19,530 was required for a family of two adults and one child to escape poverty, whether they lived in Manhattan, New York or Manhattan, Kansas; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania or Philadelphia, Mississippi. The official poverty line does not adjust for spatial differences in the cost of living (e.g., transportation, housing). It ignores in-kind income, such as housing vouchers and food stamps, and other programs that benefit low-income populations. It fails to consider place-to-place differences in consumption, the basket of goods that define the Current Price Index, which is used to adjust the poverty income thresholds from one year to the next. It does not take into account the cost of employment (e.g., clothing, transportation, or union dues), nor does it consider the income lost to alimony or child support. And neither does it adjust for state and local differences in taxes, such as property taxes, state income taxes, or sales taxes, all of which can place an enormous burden on the poor.

If the assumption is correct that money goes farther in rural America, then should the result be less material deprivation? The empirical evidence suggests otherwise. Higher percentages of rural people face food insecurity (Coleman-Jensen et al. 2012), and a larger share of rural people have inadequate housing, if defined by percentages without plumbing, running water, or electricity. Unlike their urban counterparts, rural people typically lack access to reliable or affordable public transportation. About 40 percent of rural residents lack access to any public transportation in their communities (Stommes and Brown 2008). The rural poor also are more likely to fall through the welfare safety net, as smaller eligible shares of the rural poor receive cash assistance, food stamps, or public housing.

(p. 320) The problem of low family income is compounded by physical isolation, inadequate infrastructure (e.g., lack of safe drinking water), and limited institutional resources and social support services (Burton, Garrett-Peters, and Eason 2011; Jensen, McLaughlin, and Slack 2003; Tickamyer 2007). The rural poor often lack basic services that their urban counterparts take for granted. A large share, for example, live in so-called food deserts (Schafft, Jensen, and Hinrichs 2009; Ver Ploeg et al. 2009); that is, areas with limited access to full-scale grocery stores and fresh fruits and vegetables. Others lack access to health care—doctors and hospitals—even if they have health insurance or the income to purchase it on the market (Burton et al. 2013). The underground economy (e.g., bootlegging, drugs, bartering, and odd jobs), often a response to hardship, is thriving in many rural areas (Jensen, Cornwell, and Findeis 2010; Reding 2009; Sherman 2009). Rural people also are more likely to be exposed to environmental toxins (e.g., herbicides and insecticides) or face long-standing traditions of race discrimination and economic oppression (Lichter and Brown 2011; Saenz 2012). Finally, rural places, in contrast to urban areas, are often assumed to be backward and antimodern (Corbett 2007), and their residents frequently socially stigmatized as hillbillies, rednecks, trailer trash, and so forth (Lichter and Brown 2011; Theobald and Wood 2010; Wray 2006). Evidence of higher rates of rural poverty—despite its many flaws—is consistent with multiple indicators showing that rural people, especially the poor, face extraordinary material and cultural deprivation.

Key Dimensions of U.S. Rural Poverty Today

The demography of America’s rural areas is rapidly changing, the stock of human capital has eroded, and rural America has been on the frontline of economic globalism. In the following sections we identify six distinct characteristics of rural poverty that are critical to better understanding the rural disadvantage: (1) spatially concentrated rural poverty, (2) persistent poverty, (3) work and poverty (e.g., the growth of the working poor), (4) poverty among historically disadvantaged rural minorities and immigrant newcomers, (5) rural family instability and poverty, and (6) access to public welfare and the safety net.

Spatially Concentrated Poverty

Most previous research on concentrated poverty has focused on neighborhood poverty in the nation’s largest cities (Massey 1996; Reardon and Bischoff 2011). But poverty is also highly concentrated in rural regions and small towns across the United States, especially those that have large concentrations of racial and ethnic minority (p. 321) populations, such as the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, or Indian country. As in the nation’s cities, rural poverty became more spatially concentrated during the 2000s (Lichter, Parisi, and Taquino 2012; Farrigan and Parker 2012) after declining during the 1990s (Lichter and Johnson 2009). The rise in so-called rural ghettos (Burton et al. 2011; Eason 2012) implies that the rural poor are increasingly cordoned off, marginalized, or excluded from middle-class and affluent segments of society. The number of poor rural places—those with poverty rates over 20 percent—increased by over 30 percent during the 2000s. In the late 2000s, over 35 percent of the nonmetro poor lived in these poor places. In contrast, about 30 percent of the metro poor lived in poor communities (Lichter, Parisi, and Taquino 2011).

Rural poverty concentration is reinforced by the selectivity of migration, that is, by differences in the socioeconomic characteristics of people who move in and out of rural areas. This is usually conceptualized in terms of “brain drain”: rural areas typically lose their most highly educated and skilled workers to metro labor markets (Carr and Kefalas 2009; Lichter, McLaughlin, and Cornwell 1995). Significantly, not only are the nonpoor most likely to move from poor communities, but economically disadvantaged movers are most likely to move into poor communities. The implications are obvious: The poor are not simply becoming poor “in place,” but the effects of the economic downturn and chronic unemployment and low wages are reinforced by socioeconomic differentials associated with in- and outmigration (Fitchen 1995; Foulkes and Schafft 2010).

The spatial concentration of the rural poor people—and their growing separation from the rural nonpoor—can thus be self-reinforcing (Fitchen 1995; Foulkes and Schafft 2010; Schafft 2006). Of course, the retention and attraction of the “best and brightest” have much to do with negative perceptions of job opportunities—jobs with a future—and the quality of life in rural communities (e.g., the lack of cultural amenities). Migration processes are arguably driven by the conditions of local opportunity and economic development, which underlie the recent acceleration of concentrated rural poverty. Unfortunately, the 2000s ushered in a new spatial balkanization of America’s population along economic and class lines.


Rural poverty is characterized in part by its persistence over time (Partridge and Rickman 2007). Intragenerational and intergenerational poverty has gone hand in hand with the persistence of poverty in many economically depressed rural areas (Duncan 1997). The Economic Research Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture has classified 386 counties as persistently poor, which are defined as counties having poverty rates exceeding 20 percent in each decade since 1970. Of these, 340 are nonmetro counties. Overall, only 4 percent of metro counties are persistently poor, compared with 13 percent of micropolitan counties (i.e., nonmetro counties with places of 10,000 or more) and 18 of noncore counties (i.e., other mostly rural counties). The overwhelming share (280 counties) of persistently poor nonmetro counties is located in the U.S. South (p. 322) (Farrigan 2013). These counties tend to be disproportionately comprised of African Americans and Hispanics. Many chronically poor counties face high rates of unemployment and slow job growth, especially in occupational and industrial sectors of the economy that pay less than a living wage.

Chronic rural poverty, measured at the community level, is reinforced by ongoing demographic processes, including immobility among the most disadvantaged, who languish behind in rural areas. Yet, the problem in Appalachia, and in other regions of chronic poverty, is much less a matter of selective out-migration of the “best and brightest,” but of attracting skilled workers in search of good jobs that make use of their education and training, good schools for their children, and cultural amenities that make life more enriching and satisfying. Rural residence, in fact, may be endogenous if those groups most at risk of poverty are most likely to move to or stay in rural areas.

Persistence is also reflected in intergenerational patterns of poverty. In general, the past decade was marked by a slowdown in upward intergenerational mobility, that is, the children at the bottom of the income distribution are less likely than in the past to move up in the income distribution during adulthood (Beller and Hout 2006). This is perhaps unsurprising during a period of growing income inequality in America, when America’s class boundaries have become more rigid and less permeable. We are not aware of any studies that have shown rural-urban differences or temporal differences of changing intergenerational poverty in rural areas. Yet, it seems clear that patterns in rural areas are reinforced by shared risk factors for poverty between parents and children (e.g., race and ethnicity, low education, and family dynamics, including nonmarital fertility).

Working Poor

To “play by the rules” typically means to work for a living rather than rely on the government for subsistence. To do otherwise suggests moral lassitude in America’s “blame the victim” culture (Brady, Fullerton, and Moren 2010; Prins and Schafft 2009; Rank 2005). Rural America is usually associated with self-reliance, independence, and hard work. Despite rural poverty concentration, most recent studies show that a larger share of the rural rather than the urban poor are in the labor force (Lichter and Jensen 2002). That is, larger shares of workers in rural America are poor: they work hard but are rewarded less.

Unemployment rates are similar in metro and nonmetro areas, and rates followed similar upward trajectories during the 2007–2009 Great Recession and its aftermath (Kusmin 2011). By the second quarter of 2011, the unemployment rate was 8.2 percent in nonmetro areas and 9.2 percent in metro areas. Metro areas, however, had a higher employment rate (58.5 percent) than in nonmetro areas (55.4 percent), in part because of the larger retiree population in rural areas. The postrecession employment recovery has also been slower in nonmetro areas, at least through the two quarters of 2012 (Kusmin 2012).

(p. 323) These figures indicate that higher rates of nonmetro poverty than metro poverty are not due to differentials in employment or unemployment, but rather to higher rates of part-time unemployment and lower wage rates in rural areas (Lichter and Jensen 2002; Slack 2010). In perhaps the most comprehensive study on this topic, Slack (2010) documented the share of all poor families over the 1979 to 2003 period with at least one family member who worked at least 27 weeks or more in the past year. In 2003, 43.5 percent of poor rural families included a worker compared with 37.5 percent in metro areas. The rural poor are disproportionately comprised of the working poor. Declines in metro-nonmetro gap in working poverty declined from 15.3 percent to 6.0 percent over the study period, but this was due largely to increases in working poverty in metro areas rather than to large declines in nonmetro areas.

At the same time, work is essential for avoiding poverty. For example, Slack (2010) showed that only 6.6 percent of nonmetro workers were poor in 2003. Still, this percentage was higher than the percentage of poor workers in metro areas (4.7), and there was little evidence of convergence over the 1979 to 2003 period. Moreover, in the multivariate analysis of working poverty, the nonmetro “effect” was .484, indicating that nonmetro workers were 1.62 times more likely than metro workers to be poor. The relative risk of working poverty was substantial even when controlling for family labor supply, employment characteristics, gender, family status, and other demographic covariates (Slack 2010).

Comparative patterns of employment and unemployment arguably misrepresent economic hardship in rural America. Previous studies suggest that rural areas suffer disproportionately from underemployment (Lichter 1989; Slack and Jensen 2002). Slack and Jensen (2002) defined underemployment using the labor utilization framework (Clogg and Sullivan 1986), which is made up of discouraged workers, unemployed workers, involuntarily part-time workers, the working poor, and the “overeducated” (i.e., those whose education level is much higher than others with a similar job). They found that the underemployment rate was 16.2 percent in 2000 compared with 15.5 in metro central cities and 11.3 in metro suburban areas (Jensen and Slack 2003). Rates of rural underemployment skyrocketed during the late 2000s recession (Slack 2014).

Work and poverty are inextricably linked in rural America. High poverty in rural America, however, cannot be reduced to an issue of low attachment to the labor force. Instead, the empirical literature tells us that work is less highly rewarded in rural areas, even for people with similar demographic backgrounds, education levels, and job characteristics.

Rural Minorities and Immigrants

The nation’s minority and immigrant populations are highly concentrated (and highly visible) in the nation’s largest cities (Lichter 2012; Saenz 2012). Yet, a metro-centric approach risks ignoring the empirical fact that some of America’s most impoverished (p. 324) minority populations live in rural areas. Table 14.1, using American Community Survey three-year estimates, shows the economic and educational attainment status of selected racial and ethnic groups in metro and nonmetro areas. For each racial and ethnic group, nonmetro poverty rates exceeded their metro counterparts. For example, among African Americans living in rural areas, the poverty rate was 34 percent compared with 25 percent in metro areas. Some of the difference reflects differences in education. Among nonmetro blacks, over 30 percent lack a high school education compared with less than 20 percent in metro areas. The exceptionally low education levels of rural Hispanics, in particular, undoubtedly contribute to their high rates of poverty (27 percent). About 45 percent of rural Hispanics lack a high school education.

Table 14.1 Economic and Educational Attainment Status of U.S. Racial and Ethnic Groups by Metropolitan Status, 2006–2008













Economic Status

Poverty rate












Under 18











Median income











Educational Attainment












HS grad











Some college











Bachelor’s +











Source: Brown and Schafft (2011); U.S. Census 2006–2008 American Community Survey Three-Year Estimates, Tables B15002; B15002A-D; C150021; C17001; C17001A-D; and C1700.

A sobering portent of the future of rural minority populations is contained in today’s child poverty rates (Table 14.1). For example, nearly 46 percent of nonmetro African American children live in poverty, as do over 38 percent of American Indians and 33 percent of Latinos. Among the nation’s rural minority children, poverty rates exceed their counterparts in metro areas; rural minority children also are overrepresented among the rural minority poor (i.e., race-specific poverty rates are larger among children than among the total population). Rural minority children clearly are among the most economically vulnerable populations in America.

Average poverty rates—even for rural minorities—sometimes hide substantial geographic variation. For example, among Native American Indians, poverty is geographically concentrated and persistent, which separates them from the economic mainstream and good jobs (Snipp 1989). On Indian reservations, poverty is often extreme. For example, in South Dakota, Ziebach County had a poverty rate of 49.9 percent, based on 2011 estimates provided by the Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty (p. 325) Estimates program. Ziebach County is a remote rural county (i.e., it is coded as a 9 in the ERS’s 1–9 Rural-Urban Code) in North Central South Dakota. It also is home of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, with a population that is 77.6 percent American Indian (U.S. Census Bureau 2013c).

Geographic disparities are also evident among rural African American populations. In 2011, African Americans in the rural South experienced exceptionally high rates of poverty—higher on average than their inner city metro counterparts (36.0 vs. 30.8 percent) (U.S. Census Bureau 2013a). More significantly, averages in the South hide the extreme cases (Poston et al. 2010). In Louisiana, for example, the highest poverty rates in 2011 were observed in East Carol and Madison Counties (Economic Research Service 2013a). These two counties are located on the Mississippi River, in the Delta in the northeast corner of the state. East Carol was 64.8 percent black in 2010, while Madison County was 60.6 percent black (U.S. Census 2013b). Extreme black poverty in the rural South is a historical legacy of the slave and plantation economy (Poston et al. 2010).

More recently, interest in rural minority populations has grown with the diaspora of America’s native- and foreign-born Hispanic populations (Massey 2008). In 1990, over 90 percent of U.S. Hispanics lived in just 10 states, gateways in the Southwest and some states with large immigrant populations, like Miami, Chicago, and New York City. Today, many rural and small towns have become new immigrant destinations (Lichter 2012). Hispanics have moved in large numbers to work in agriculture and food processing in America’s heartland, in the Southeast, and in the Northwest (Johnson and Lichter 2010). America’s rural aging-in-place native white population is being replaced rapidly by young immigrant populations in the family-building stage of the life course.

In 2011, the poverty rate among nonmetro Hispanics was 30.2 percent, well above the national figure for Hispanics (24.9 percent) (U.S. Census Bureau 2013d). Ordinarily, spatial and social mobility go hand in hand; to get somewhere in life you have go elsewhere. Yet, Hispanic in-migrants to new immigrant destinations often have exceptionally high rates of poverty, especially in rural areas (Raffaelli et al. 2012). A large number of small towns have been transformed into majority-minority communities, and many of these have also experienced big upticks in poverty. New Hispanic immigrant populations are “at risk” of poverty by virtue of low levels of education, few job skills, and limited English-language ability, which sometimes leads to a white backlash and job discrimination and exploitation (e.g., wage theft).

At the same time, rural Hispanic poverty has been highly concentrated in areas of traditional settlement (Colonias along the borderland) (Slack et al. 2006). Averages hide wide place-to-place disparities. Starr County is located at the southern-most tip of Texas, just to the north of Tamaulipas county Mexico. It is 95 percent Hispanic, with an overall poverty rate in 2011 of 36.3 percent, based on the 2007–2011 American Community Survey (Economic Research Service 2013). Like East Carol County, Louisiana, and Ziebach County, South Dakota, Starr County is unfamiliar territory to most Americans. The shifting geography of poverty will arguably be an increasingly salient dimension of racial and ethnic inequality as America is transformed racially over the next 40 years (Lichter 2013; Massey 2008).

(p. 326) Family Change

The conventional wisdom is that strong families and kinship networks are a source of strength in rural America. Indeed, stable families are sometimes viewed as safe havens from the economic and social dislocations associated with a rapidly urbanizing society (Lichter and Brown 2011). But rural areas have not been immune to changing urban values, normative expectations about marriage and family life, and sexual behavior and fertility. Rapid rural family change has placed unprecedented upward demographic pressure on poverty and inequality (Snyder and McLaughlin 2004). The reality is that rural and urban families—their structure and processes—look remarkably similar to each other. More significantly, evidence of substantial rural-urban convergence over the past 20 years largely reflects unprecedented changes in rural rather than urban families (Lichter and Graefe 2011).

There are some notable differences, however. For example, a recent study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy (2012) found that the teen birth rate in rural counties was nearly one-third higher than that in America’s suburban and urban areas. The majority of rural teen births are to whites (63 percent), unlike the nation’s large cities of over one million, where the overwhelming share of teen births is to minority women (84 percent). This is not a matter of race and ethnicity. Even if the discussion is restricted to white teenagers, the birth rate was more than twice as high in rural areas than in major urban centers. Moreover, although both rural and urban areas experienced declines in teen pregnancy and childbearing between 1990 and 2010, declines were substantially slower in rural counties. The large majority of teen births are to unmarried mothers. Higher rates of rural teen nonmarital fertility, according to the authors of the National Campaign study, are not due to differences in education or economic background, or to more permissive values and sexual behavior. Rather, they largely reflect the lack of reproductive health services (including access to abortion providers) and comprehensive sex education in the classroom. Rural teen birth rates are especially high in southern Bible Belt states, where pregnancy-prevention programs could benefit an underserved rural population.

Family change and poverty rates are clearly inextricably linked (Edin and Kissane 2010). Nationally, the poverty rate among persons living in female-headed families was 34.2 percent in 2011 (U.S. Census Bureau 2013d). It is even higher in rural areas (41.6 percent). For rural persons living in married couple families, the poverty rate was 7.9 percent, a figure comparable to their metro counterparts (7.3 percent). Not only has family change been especially rapid in rural areas, but the putative economic consequences, at least as measured in poverty rates, also prey most heavily on “at risk” families. This point is sometimes overlooked in studies of rural poverty (see Lichter and Jensen 2002), where the emphasis is usually placed on economic development and job growth, not healthy or strong families. For rural single mothers, they (p. 327) typically have fewer quality opportunities for employment, and they also have less access to work supports, including dependable and affordable childcare and transportation. Also, their knowledge of eligibility requirements for cash assistance and other government programs is often limited.

Changing rural family patterns have also affected children’s vulnerability to poverty. The nonmetro poverty rate for female-headed families with children was 50.7 percent in 2011 compared with 41.2 percent in metro areas (U.S. Census Bureau 2013e). The overall poverty rate for nonmetro children in 2011 was 25.9 percent, and nearly 40 percent of all rural children were below 200 percent of the poverty line. The corresponding poverty rate for metro children was 21.2 percent. The rate was 29.2 percent inside principal cities in 2011.

The disproportionately high rates of poverty for rural children has potentially significant implications for their developmental trajectories, for their cognitive development and academic achievement, and for their ability to escape poverty as the transition to productive (or not) adult roles (Duncan, Ziol-Guest, and Kalil 2010). The long-term deleterious consequences of childhood poverty in rural areas are reinforced by underresourced schools, a growing drug epidemic in rural areas, and low educational or academic expectations. High rates of poverty among today’s rural children provide a portent of the future.

The Safety Net

Rural people, as we have documented here, experience disproportionately high rates of poverty—poverty that is often chronic, intergenerational, spatially concentrated, and reinforced by family demographic processes and the lack of local job opportunities. The implications of these distinct disadvantages are compounded by issues of race and ethnicity, which typically go unrecognized in an urban-centric literature on inequality. Yet, the rural poor are often underserved by America’s social safety net. The War on Poverty has seemingly been replaced by a War on Welfare, which is reflected in cutbacks in America’s safety net, and more tangibly, the dollar amount of cash assistance to welfare beneficiaries (Rank 2005; Tickamyer 2006).

Interestingly enough, government transfer payments to individuals accounted for 24.8 percent of total nonmetro personal income and 16.3 percent of metro personal income in 2011 (Economic Research Service 2013). But this primarily reflects rural America’s large retirement-age population, which has raised the cost of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid expenditures, and the lower average income from earnings in rural areas. Retirement and medical benefits alone accounted for roughly 75 percent of all government payments to rural persons.

Government transfers to nonmetro areas mask the fact that the rural residents eligible for government assistant are less likely to receive help from the government, and the cash receipt is often substantially lower (Lichter and Jensen 2002). Some of the (p. 328) rural-urban difference was made up by SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, i.e., food stamps), which is based on money income, which means that states with low TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) levels are (partially) compensated with above-average dollar amounts of food stamps. Still, the monthly average dollar value of food stamps per recipient was only $124 in 2009, which greatly benefited the poor, especially those with incomes less than one-half the poverty income threshold (Tiehen, Jolliffe, and Gundersen 2012).

Rural people, and especially the rural poor, are disproportionately represented in the South and in states located in the agricultural heartland (e.g., South Dakota), which typically have less generous cash assistance programs or other government subsidies (e.g., housing vouchers). This is important because states have great latitude in determining how TANF is implemented (i.e., eligibility requirements, payment levels, assets allowed, including automobiles, work requirements, earnings disregards, and time limits). For example, our calculations from the three-year file of the American Community Survey (2009–2011) revealed that only 2.5 percent of households in heavily rural Mississippi received public cash assistance, compared with 3.3 percent in New York state. Moreover, despite much higher rates of rates of family poverty in Mississippi than New York (17.5 vs. 11.5), the average cash assistance received per recipient in Mississippi was $2,605 compared with $4,039 in New York. The federal government helped make up the difference with food stamps. In Mississippi, 16.3 percent of its population received food stamps compared with 13.8 percent in New York.2

These data illustrate a familiar story of unmet need in rural America but also of all disadvantaged families. The limited availability of cash assistance and food stamps is hardly the only problem. About 15 percent of American families have no health insurance; 22 percent are not in the labor force. In Mississippi and New York, 17.9 and 11.6 percent, respectively, are without health insurance. And the percentages are higher yet among nonworkers (25.8 and 15.4 percent, respectively). To be sure, the expansion of America’s largest public assistance program, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), has played an important role in ameliorating poverty. But EITC is limited to families with workers and the benefits are graduated by earnings. Therefore, the comparative benefits of EITC tend to favor urban over rural areas, where wages are lower. Rural areas and states (like Mississippi) have rates of labor force nonparticipation, unemployment (especially among disadvantaged minorities), and low wages that limit EITC participation and average dollars received.

Finally, we have emphasized the benefit (or lack of benefits) from government transfers. Another understudied topic that affects the ability of the poor to provide for basic needs is burdensome state and local taxes. In many states, but especially in the South and largely rural states (South Dakota, Wyoming, New Hampshire, Alaska), highly regressive sales taxes (even on food and clothing) take a disproportionate bite out of the buying power of low-income families. As documented by Newman and O’Brien (2011), sales taxes often have to “make up” for the lack of state income and corporate taxes, which are etched into state tax laws and often require a super-majority vote in state legislatures to change. This clearly indicates another pernicious aspect of current definitions of poverty; it is based upon pretax rather than posttax income.

(p. 329) What Can Be Learned From Europe and Vice Versa?

Comparative local area studies of poverty in the United States and Europe are surprisingly sparse despite many shared demographic dimensions of the problem, which suggests new opportunities for mutual understanding and collaboration. This scholarly disconnect is due, at least in part, to country-to-country differences in the conceptualization and measurement of poverty. In the United States, the poverty line is an absolute measure denoting a specified level of income below which one is considered to be poor; the emphasis is placed on whether basic needs for food, shelter, and clothing are met. European poverty scholars, however, typically emphasize relative measures of poverty (Brady 2005). Poverty thresholds are typically set at 60 percent of average family income (adjusted for purchasing power of different currencies). While unambiguous interpretations of comparative rural poverty in Europe and the United States are made difficult by conceptual and measurement differences, if measured in absolute terms, rural poverty on the whole is considerably lower in Europe than in the United States (Shucksmith 2012; Tickamyer 2007).

European scholars and policymakers often focus on the concept of social exclusion which emphasizes how individuals and groups are prevented from full participation in economic, political, and civic life (Milbourne 2004; Shucksmith 2012; Walker and Walker 1997). The conceptual utility of social exclusion has attracted far less attention in the United States among rural scholars and government agencies (Commins 2004; Shucksmith and Schafft 2012). The concept of social exclusion “emphasizes dynamic social processes, the multi-dimensional nature of disadvantage and inequality, and the importance of local context in shaping and reproducing the social logic that regulates the distribution of resources and power” (Molnár and Schafft 2003:55–56). Its conceptual focus illuminates the systemic factors that limit individuals or groups from full participation in the civic, economic, and cultural realms of social life. Not surprisingly, the emphasis on social exclusion in Europe is expressed by the use of myriad indicators of material deprivation, including the quality of housing, levels of homelessness, access to public services, or on welfare provisions rather than on income or relative income (Cloke, Marsden, and Mooney 2007).

Avoiding poverty in rural European communities (or elsewhere) does not ensure social inclusion (Commins 2004; Palacios 2007), and critics of the concept of social exclusion argue that the concept risks overemphasizing social-boundary formation, and it suggests that a “cohesive society undifferentiated by class or social division” (Shucksmith and Schafft 2012:107) from which some are “excluded.” More recently in political debates in the United Kingdom, the concept has lost some currency, with both Conservative and Liberal sides of the governing coalition emphasizing, as in the United States, more individual and “cultural” explanations of poverty, and disincentives for welfare dependency (Shucksmith and Schafft 2012). (p. 330)

To be sure, relative poverty measures are more conceptually consistent with concepts like social exclusion. In 2011, there were nearly 120 million people or 24 percent of the population who lived in relative poverty in the 27 countries comprising the EU (Eurostat 2011). Published breakdowns of European poverty by urbanity are difficult to locate, however, and peer-reviewed papers are virtually nonexistent. Fortunately, Eurostat now provides a rural-urban typology that defines three types of regions: predominantly urban, intermediate, and predominantly rural. Data show that rural poverty in Europe (as a relative measure) is on average higher than urban poverty; indeed, 24 of 30 EU countries had higher rural poverty than average, while the lowest rates tended to be in intermediate areas (i.e., akin perhaps to suburban or exurban areas in the U.S. case) (Eurostat 2013). The highest rates of rural poverty are found in Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, and Bulgaria (see Figure 14.2), where relative poverty rates exceed 25 percent in rural areas. With the establishment and expansion of the European Union, it is more important than ever to build a comparative understanding of rural poverty (Shucksmith 2012).

People and Places Left BehindRural Poverty in the New Century

Figure 14.2 Share of Population at Risk of Poverty, by Degree of Urbanization, 2009

Source: Eurostat (

Poverty in the EU, as in the United States, reflects local, national, and international labor market processes or other structural causes, it is experienced disproportionately by minority populations (both native and foreign born), and it is often highly concentrated and persistent (Tickamyer 2007). This has been most pronounced in the new transition economies of the Central and Eastern European countries from the old Soviet bloc (Brown and Schafft 2003). The expansion of the European Union has (p. 331) contributed, as in the United States, to new international labor flows (mostly from east to west) into rural areas to work in agriculture, fishing, and “green jobs.” The growth of unskilled or uneducated laborers from Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, and other parts of Eastern and Southern Europe to work in agriculture in the North and West is a new but understudied feature of rural poverty in Europe (e.g., McAreavey 2012). The policy implications for immigrant incorporation and cultural integration are similar to those in new immigrant destinations in the rural United States.

Yet, compared with the North American case, the research literature on rural poverty in Europe is surprisingly underdeveloped. In the United States, published empirical studies of rural poverty—in sociology, demography, economics, and policy sciences—are comparatively abundant and well developed, perhaps owing to the U.S. land grant tradition of many publicly funded state universities such as Iowa State, Penn State University, and others. These institutions, which came about through the Morrill Act in 1862, were established with experiment-station research programs emphasizing the needs of rural people and communities. There is no clear organizational or funding counterpart to the Morrill Act in Europe, which means that the overwhelming share of poverty research studies on rural European countries have adopted a decidedly urban-centric approach to the problem. The rural European poverty literature is often idiosyncratic, emphasizing local or regional case studies that lack the geographic reach necessary to build a cumulative knowledge base that informs our understanding of rural poverty in Europe or its differences from the United States.

The rural poverty literature from the United Kingdom is probably the most well developed in Europe. But, interestingly enough, rural areas in the United Kingdom are sometimes viewed as places for the affluent—for the gentry who desire a safe haven and the quietude of the countryside. Indeed, in many rural studies in England, the emphasis is less on the rural poor and more about the political tactics used by the rural gentry or economic elite to effectively exclude economically disadvantaged populations. Rural places are to be preserved rather than transformed. Similar processes are sometimes the topic of study in America’s rural resort communities, for instance in tests of the so-called gangplank hypothesis where affluent urban-origin migrants seek to pull up the gangplank to prevent others from changing their communities (Smith and Krannich 2000). Rural retirement communities, in particular, often have strong incentives to attract the “right kind” of people who preserve the status quo (and property values and low taxes).

Rural Poverty in the Global South: Emergent Trends and Issues

Approximately 1.4 billion people around the world live in extreme poverty, with incomes of $1.25 or less per day (IFAD 2010). Of this population, some two-thirds live (p. 332) in rural areas in developing countries. Extreme poverty in rural areas has declined over time; in 1988, 54 percent of the rural population in developing nations lived in extreme poverty, while by 2010 that figure had dropped to 35 percent (IFAD 2010). While some progress has been made in reducing the incidence of rural poverty globally, wealth and income inequality has increased during the same time period. Currently nearly half the world’s wealth is controlled by 1 percent of the population, a figure that is equivalent to 65 times the wealth held by the lower economic half of the world’s population (Fuentes-Nieva and Galasso 2014).

With regard to developing countries, the term “development” is a contested concept because it is connected to historical legacies of colonial domination and the normative first world assumptions regarding the trajectories of social and economic modernization (Ballard 2012; McMichael and Morarji 2010; Peet and Hartwick 2009). These assumptions have had mixed and contradictory outcomes for the well-being of people and nations located on the peripheries of the global economy. This is particularly the case with regard to economic liberalization policies imposed upon postcolonial nations (often by global lending institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund) on governance, education, land use, and social safety nets (Bello 2008; Dao 2004; McMichael 2011; Patel and McMichael 2004; Prashad 2013). For these reasons, the “Global South” has increasingly been used to refer to the countries of Latin America, Africa, and Asia on the global economic peripheries, a term employed in part to problematize the development discourse, while emphasizing “asymmetry and inequality amidst intensifying global interdependency” (Sparke 2007:117).

For much of the post–World War II development era, rural areas in the Global South were seen as lags on development or as export platforms for industrial agriculture, whereas economic modernization was understood to be largely driven by urbanization and industrialization (McMichael 2011). In the Global South, about 80 percent of rural households are involved in some form of agriculture as a form of household provisioning, paid labor, and/or market production (IFAD 2010). In many countries, however, long-term urban biases in governance and in expenditures on education, health care, housing, and sanitation have directly contributed to the economic and political marginalization of the extreme poor, in rural areas and elsewhere (Ballard 2012; Dao 2004). Under these conditions, as a recent IFAD report states,

… agriculture in developing countries has operated in the context of low global prices for food products coupled, in many countries, with unfavourable domestic environments. Low levels of investment in agriculture, inappropriate policies, thin and uncompetitive markets, weak rural infrastructure, inadequate production and financial services and a deteriorating national resource base have all contributed to creating an environment in which it has been risky and unprofitable for small holders to participate in agricultural markets.

(IFAD 2010:14)

This occurred in the context of highly subsidized agricultural production in OECD countries, indebtedness, and the subsequent need for agriculture geared toward export (p. 333) rather than domestic production. Unilateral trade liberalization pushed by the North created conditions in many developing nations in which smallholders struggled with depressed market prices for the goods produced, increased input costs, and reduced credit access (Bello 2008; Byerlee et al. 2007; Peine 2010).

Thinking on the relative prioritization of different agricultural production models has shifted somewhat in recent years, however, and rural areas are now increasingly recognized as sites of economic resiliency, with smallholder agriculture in both rural and urban fringe areas acknowledged as an important means of combating poverty, increasing food security, enhancing household livelihood strategies, and creating community assets consistent with local economic and cultural rationalities (Byerlee et al. 2007; IFAD 2010; Lerner and Eakin 2011; Thorpe and Sahan 2013).

This perspective was only reinforced by the food crisis in the late 2000s, when in 2006 to 2008 global food prices doubled, thrusting the most vulnerable around the world into new depths of insecurity (Bello 2008; Byerlee et al. 2007). The crisis in food price increases is also creating new global concerns about rising demands for food in the context of not only increasing land, water, and energy scarcities but also changing and unpredictable environmental conditions associated with climate change, which is predicted to have the harshest impacts on areas experiencing the most intense concentrations of extreme poverty, notably sub-Saharan Africa (Hertel, Burke, and Lobell 2010).

By many counts, climate change arguably represents one of the most significant long-term risks of deepening the vulnerability of poor people in developing nations because of the increased probability of droughts, extreme weather events, and reduced food security. Uneven in its effects, agricultural yields in places dependent upon rainfall, in some areas, may be halved by 2020. Globally, however, climate change may place as many as 49 million additional people at risk of hunger (IFAD 2008). Climate change as an anthropogenic event (IPCC 2007) casts new attention not only on increased vulnerability for poor populations but also on the consequences of different agricultural practices for mitigating and/or exacerbating social, environmental, and climatic impacts.

Under these circumstances, heated debates continue regarding the most appropriate policy directions, with some advocating continued trade liberalization and global market integration while improving price incentives and supports for smallholder farmers (Byerlee et al. 2007). Others raise serious concerns about the exclusionary practices of market-based development and its contradictory outcomes (Ballard 2012; Bello 2008; Sparke 2007; White et al. 2012).


High rates of rural poverty have been a persistent problem around the globe. In the United States, rural people and places are often overlooked among scholars and (p. 334) policymakers, who view poverty as largely an urban and minority problem. This is reinforced by a neoliberal economic perspective that dominates thinking today about the root causes of poverty and inequality (Somers and Block 2005; Tickamyer 2007). Economists dominate the poverty research and policy community—in the United States and elsewhere; their theoretical approach and ideological policy lens emphasizes choice rather than the ascriptive constraints of place (i.e., opportunity). Most of the scholarly interest in rural communities and poverty resides with rural sociologists and geographers, who emphasize the constraints of place over choices. Rural poverty reflects the lack of opportunities—good schools and stable jobs—that serve to concentrate poverty and reproduce it generation to generation. Not surprisingly, they also tend to emphasis place-based policy (e.g., economic development) rather than policies directed at individuals, regardless of where they happen to live (e.g., punitive welfare policies).

The global reality is that the boundaries of rurality and urbanity are rapidly blurring (Lerner and Eakin 2011; Lichter and Brown 2011; Shucksmith, Brown, and Vergunst 2011). Improvements in communication and transportation, the emergence of global markets for labor and goods, and government devolution has accelerated the breakdown of urban and rural distinctions. Poverty arguably must be seen as part of an interconnected system of economic and social relations that perpetuate the disadvantaged circumstances found in historically disadvantaged rural communities (e.g., Brown and Schafft 2011). We see this when poor and powerless rural communities become dumping grounds for urban toxic waste, sites for America’s prison populations, and the target of exploitation of natural resources (e.g., fracking for natural gas). And we see it in the nations of the Global South where rural populations have born the brunt of structural adjustment and trade liberalization policies that have impoverished small-scale agricultural producers, and gutted social safety nets, while reinforcing conditions for uneven wealth accumulation. The problem of rural poverty cannot be neatly separated from the larger political economy, yet it is typically cordoned off from other scholarship on poverty and inequality.

In the final analysis, this chapter is a call for new research on rural people and places left behind in a globalizing economy supported by neoliberal economic policy (where the poor are blamed for their current economic circumstances). Reducing poverty in America—rural or urban—requires political will, especially during a period of growing political polarization, fiscal austerity, rising antitax and antigovernment sentiment, and new racial and ethnic antagonisms. Paradoxically, as we learned from Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas, rural voters often support cultural and political agendas that seemingly work against their collective economic interests (Frank 2005; cf., Sherman 2009). As a starting point, improving the circumstances of the rural poor will therefore require greater commitment to public engagement and information outreach than we have seen to this point.


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                                                                                                                                                                                                        (1.) This chapter was completed, in part, while the first author was a visiting fellow at the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI) in Den Haag. The support of NIDI is gratefully acknowledged. The authors also acknowledge the support of the Cornell Population Center, and Penn State’s Children, Youth and Family Consortium. We are grateful for the helpful comments of the editors, external reviewers, and Sharon Sassler.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (2.) To put these figures in national perspective, only 2.8 percent of all American households received cash assistance and 11.7 percent received food stamps. The annual average dollar amount of cash assistance was $3,860.