Rural children are more than twice as likely as urban kids to grow up in areas where a high proportion of young people live in poverty for generations, a new report says.

That concentration of entrenched poverty creates special challenges for rural children, according to the report, produced by the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire. The nation needs to do a better job of addressing those issues, the report concludes.

“The overwhelming focus of welfare programs in the United States is urban,” write authors Andrew Schaefer, Marybeth J. Mattingly, and Kenneth M. Johnson. But “any national discussion of child poverty must address the challenges faced by children living in isolated rural areas.”

The study looked at “persistent, high-poverty counties.” Those are areas where the poverty rate for children was 20 percent or greater for the past three decades.

About a quarter of all U.S. counties fit that category. Three quarters of those counties are rural, the report found.

Rural areas are much more likely to experience persistent child poverty than urban areas: 77 percent of counties with persistent high child poverty are nonmetropolitan [rural], and 29 percent (581) of nonmetropolitan counties had persistent high child poverty compared to just 15 percent (174) of metropolitan counties.

Also, a lop-sided share of rural children live in these persistently poor counties:

A disproportionate share of poor children live in rural places. Only 14.3 percent of the total child population resides in a rural county, but these counties contain 17.2 percent of the nation’s poor children. In contrast, urban counties contain 85.6 percent of all children but only 82.7 percent of poor children.


The study also looked at regional and racial trends in long-term child poverty:

  • Persistent child poverty clusters in the Appalachian portions of Kentucky and West Virginia, the Mississippi Delta, parts of the Southeast and Southwest, and Indian country counties in the Great Plains.
  • The Northeast, Great Lakes regions, and portions of the Great Plains outside Indian Country fare much better.
  • Poverty affects all races, but counties with persistently high child poverty have higher concentrations of minority children. That includes blacks in the old plantation South, Native Americans in the Great Plains, Hispanics in the Southwest. There are also large pockets of white child poverty in the Appalachians and Ozarks.
  • Minority children have a greater chance of living in poverty. “Persistent-high-child poverty counties are disproportionately minority. About 77 percent of persistent-high-child-poverty counties have a substantial minority child population, compared to just 54 percent of all counties,” the report says.

Being poor creates difficulties for children, but being poor in an area where other families are more likely to be living below the poverty line creates special problems, the report says.

Being poor in a relatively well-off community with good infrastructure and schools is different from being poor in a place where poverty rates have been high for generations, where economic investment in schools and infrastructure is negligible, and where pathways to success are few. The hurdles are even higher in rural areas, where low population density, physical isolation, and the broad spatial distribution of the poor make service delivery and exposure to innovative programs more challenging.

While the study focuses on long-term trends, it also notes the more recent resurgence in child poverty after the Great Recession. The share of counties with high child poverty grew from 36 percent in 2000 to 58 percent in 2010.


How this study defined rural: The report, “Child Poverty Higher and More Persistent in Rural America,” defined rural as nonmetropolitan counties. These are counties that are not located within a Metropolitan Statistical Area, or MSA. Counties in an MSA have a city of at least 50,000 or are adjacent to such a county and have strong economic ties to it. For more about how researchers categorize rural America, visit the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

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