The Changing Spatial Concentration of America’s Rural Poor Population.

September 2006

Daniel T. Lichter, Department of Policy Analysis and Management, Cornell University, and Kenneth Johnson, Loyola University of Chicago.

Download 'working_paper06-33.pdf'.


This paper documents changing patterns of concentrated poverty in nonmetro areas. Data from the 1970 through 2000 U.S. Census Summary Files reveal the changing shares of poor people and children living in rural counties with disproportionately poor populations. Nonmetro poverty rates -- both overall and for children -- declined more rapidly than metro rates in the 1990s. The 1990s also brought large reductions in the number of high-poverty nonmetro counties, and declines in the share of rural people, including rural poor people, who were living in them. In particular, the number and percentage of rural people living in extremely poor counties (i.e., over 40 percent) declined dramatically. This suggests a "drying up" of America’s rural pockets of poverty and indicates a decline in spatial inequality in nonmetro America, at least at the county level. On a less optimistic note, concentrated poverty among rural minorities remains exceptionally high (e.g., almost one-half of rural blacks live in poor counties). Moreover, the recent transformation of concentrated rural poverty may be short-lived. Rural children -- especially rural minority children -- have poverty rates well above national and nonmetro rates, the concentration of rural minority children is often extreme (i.e., over 90 percent lived in high-poverty counties), and the number of nonmetro counties with high levels of persistent child poverty remains high. Rural children may be more disadvantaged than ever, if measured by their lack of exposure to middle-class role models, and their economic divergence with the rest of the nation’s children.

Poverty Trends and Measurement, Rural Poverty