Poverty rates are higher in rural America than they are in the cities. Only one in 20 urban counties has a poverty rate above 20 percent. For remote rural counties, the ratio is one in five. The counties that have been poor over a period of decades are overwhelmingly rural, writes Oregon State economist Monica Fisher.
One explanation is that there are structural problems in rural areas that, in a sense, enforce poverty. There are fewer good jobs in rural areas. At one time, the theory was that as extractive industries (mining, oil and agriculture) grew more efficient, they had less need for workers — and that change created a labor surplus that depressed wages. Work in rural America tends to pay minimum wages, offer less security and provide fewer opportunities for advancement.
There appears to be another reason for rural America’s persistent poverty, however, and that’s migration. There is a growing body of evidence that rural communities are poor because poor people are moving there:
“¢ Mark Nord studied data collected in the Census that tracked the movement of people between 1985 and 1990. The U.S. Department of Agriculture economist found that people who were working-age and poor moved in large numbers to poor rural counties. It was also true that poor people left downtrodden rural counties, Nord found. But even more poor people moved in.
And Nord found that during the same period richer residents moved out of poor, rural counties. There was double impoverishment: Poor people moved in and rich ones moved out — leaving the counties poorer still, with fewer prospects for better times.
“¢ Anthropologist Janet Fitchen interviewed poor families in a rural New York State community. She wrote in 1995 that the already poor place “became a migration destination for urban poor people, causing dramatic increases in poverty rate, welfare rolls and service needs.” The rural community collected the spillover of poor people fleeing the more expensive cities.
“¢In an unpublished paper, Nord later wrote that people with less than a high school education moved disproportionately to rural communities. Rural America had an outsized number of people without high school diplomas not because rural schools were failing to graduate their students but because poorly educated people were migrating in.
“¢ Finally, this spring Monica Fisher, the Oregon State economist, concluded that “the higher incidence of poverty in nonmetro compared with metro America is partly explained by a sorting into nonmetro areas of people with personal attributes associated with human impoverishment.” Rural America was poor in part because it attracted poor people, many of whom came from cities.
All these scholars of rural economies and communities found the same phenomenon: People were sorting. Poorer people, those with less education and fewer skills, were sorting themselves into a large number of rural counties. And people with more education and higher skills were sorting themselves out.
There are a number of reasons poor people are moving to poor rural areas. Housing is cheaper there. People are drawn to these places in part because it’s less expensive to live there. Jobs in poor, rural places often require few skills, and those jobs may also be attracting people who couldn’t find jobs in urban areas where jobs demand more education and training.
(The sorting phenomenon is not simply a rural phenomenon. Harvard University economist Ed Glaeser has found that since 1970 educated people have been sorting themselves into a particular group of cities. Some cities — Portland, Austin, Seattle — are gaining people with college degrees and the wages in these places are rising. Stagnant cities — Cleveland, Buffalo — are losing their best-educated citizens — just like poor, rural communities.)
Monica Fisher stresses that the sorting of poorer people into poor rural communities is only partially the reason poverty rates in rural America are so consistently high. But the effects of migration are hardly ever taken into account in rural development efforts, despite evidence that the movement of people is rapidly changing rural communities. Recently, rural development experts in the South concluded that migration was one of the least important factors in developing local economies.
“The assumption has been that persistent rural poverty had nothing to do with individuals,” Fisher said this week. “So the policy implication was there had to be a lot of money put into these communities and if that happened, then poverty will fall.” Policies and programs were designed to fix rural places in the expectation that these inputs would help the people who lived there.
The sorting phenomenon Nord and Fisher describe makes this single-minded approach seem shortsighted. For example, poorer rural communities educate their young only to see them move out, replaced by those with less education and with fewer skills.
“It’s hard for rural communities,” Fisher said. “If you educate people, they tend to leave. It’s an investment you make that has a payoff for urban areas.”
Nord wrote a decade ago that it is probably impossible to right the economies of poor rural places without taking into account national labor markets and urban economies. “The cause of high poverty in the persistent-poverty counties may be as much the lack of entry-level jobs and low-cost housing in low-poverty counties as it is the lack of good jobs in the high-poverty counties,” Nord wrote.
In other words, as economies in booming cities improve, pushing up wages and housing prices, people with fewer skills and less education will move to more rural, high poverty counties. Unknowingly, cities are exporting their poor to rural areas.
Rural communities are then expected to fix what is actually a national problem, one that’s originating in urban areas.