The Daily Yonder's coverage of rural economic issues, including workforce development and the future of work in rural America, is supported in part by Microsoft.
It’s no surprise that poverty increased for rural children during the recession of 2007-09.
But even after the Great Recession ended and many groups began to see economic improvement, the percentage of rural kids living in poverty continued to rise.
That’s one of the grimmer facts in the new Rural America at a Glance 2015 edition from the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. The annual report, a standard reference for groups working on rural issues around the country, provides just what the title promises: a quick look at key economic, demographic, and social data for the most recent year.
Before the recession, 21.9 percent of rural children (less than 18 years old) lived in poverty. By the close of the recession in 2009, the percentage had grown about 2 points. In 2014, five years after the official end of the recession, the rural child poverty rate stood even higher at 25.2.
“Even after the recession ended, rural child poverty rates continued to increase due to falling average incomes – especially among families with children living near the poverty line – as well as changes in family structure,” the report says. Child poverty is on ERS’s current agenda, the report says, and “researchers are seeking to disentangle the relative impacts of different factors on rural child poverty.”
While Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack put an optimistic spin on the report, saying it reflected “a rural America on the road to recovery,” the post-recession years have been hard ones for many rural communities.
Aside from the growth in child poverty, many measurements of rural America’s economic and social health remain stagnant since the recession.
(The report defines rural as counties that lie outside metropolitan statistical areas – an area that contains about 15 percent of the U.S. population or about 46 million. Other federal definitions of rural have higher population figures.)
Poverty is higher in 2014 than it was before the recession for all rural ethnic groups, except Hispanics, which saw a slight improvement from 2007 in 2014.
Nearly half of female-headed households with children lived below the poverty line, while less than 7 percent of married couples did. “Single mothers are more likely to work in low-wage occupations that are among the most vulnerable to instability during periods of economic recession,” the report says.
Overall, rural unemployment is down, but it’s not because of more jobs, as we’ve reported in the Daily Yonder. There are fewer people looking for work because rural people are dropping out of the labor force or migrating to metropolitan areas. The number of jobs in nonmetropolitan counties is still 3.2 percent lower in mid-2015 than it was before the recession. In contrast, the number of jobs in metropolitan counties has bounced back from the recession and “is now well above its pre-recession peak,” the report says.
The report notes that the rural population dropped for the fourth year in a row in 2014. About 700 rural counties did gain population last year, mostly ones located in scenic parts of the Rockies and Appalachians.
On a brighter note, educational attainment has improved significantly for rural residents. The percentage of residents who don’t have a high school degree fell from 24 to 15 percent from 2000 to 2014. And the percentage of rural residents who have taken some higher education classes but not received an advanced degree is higher than the urban percentage. The percentage of rural residents with a college degree climbed 4 points since 2000 to 19 percent. But the “college degree gap” between rural and urban grew from 11 points to 13 points. While 19 percent of rural residents have a college degree, 32 percent of urban residents do.
The report also links educational attainment with economic success. The least-educated rural residents have about twice the unemployment rate of high-school graduates. And child poverty is higher in rural counties with a greater percentage of high school drop-outs.