Rural Poverty in the 21st Century

Rural Poverty in the 21st Century

Timothy Taylor 21/02/2021 6
Rural Poverty in the 21st Century

Rural poverty is often overlooked.

In the Spring 2021 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation ReviewRobert Atkins, Sarah Allred and Daniel Hart discuss "Philanthropy’s Rural Blind Spot," about how philanthropies have typically put much more time and attention on urban poverty than rural poverty. They write: 

Most large foundations are located in metropolitan areas and have built relationships with institutions and organizations in those communities. ... [M]any grant makers assume that urban centers have higher rates of poverty than rural areas. Moreover, many funders believe that they maximize impact and do more good when their grants go to addressing distress in densely populated areas. The rates of poverty, however, are higher in rural areas than in urban areas. In addition, it would be difficult to demonstrate that a grant going to a metropolitan community to improve high school graduation rates, increase the food security of agricultural workers, or reduce childhood lead poisoning assists a greater number of individuals than if the same grant goes to a nonmetropolitan community. In other words, giving to more densely populated areas does not clearly result in a greater equity return on investment for the grant maker.

The authors point to a resource with which I had not been familiar, the Multidimensional Index of Deep Disadvantage produced by H. Luke Shaefer, Silvia Robles and Jasmine Simington of the University of Michigan, using methods also developed by Kathryn Edin and Tim Nelson at Princeton University. They collect a combination of economic, health, and social mobility data on counties and the 500 largest cities in the United States. They then rank the areas. In an overview of the results, Shaefer, Edin, and Nelson write:

When we turn the lens of disadvantage from the individual to the community, we find that five geographic clusters of deep disadvantage come into view: The Mississippi Delta, The Cotton Belt, Appalachia, the Texas/Mexico border, and a small cluster of rust belt cities (most notably Flint, Detroit, Gary, and Cleveland). Many Native Nations also score high on our index though are not clustered for historic reasons. ...

The communities ranking highest on our index are overwhelmingly rural. Among the 100 most deeply disadvantaged places in the United States according to our index, only 9 are among the 500 largest cities in the United States, which includes those with populations as small as 42,000 residents. In contrast, 19 are rural counties in Mississippi. Many of the rural communities among the top 100 places have only rarely, if ever, been researched. Conversely, Chicago, which has been studied by myriad poverty scholars, doesn’t even appear among the top 300 in our index. Our poverty policies suffer when social science research misses so many of the places with the greatest need. ...

How deep is the disadvantage in these places? When we compare the 100 most disadvantaged places in the United States to the 100 most advantaged, we find that the poverty rate and deep poverty are both higher by greater than a factor of six. Life expectancy is shorter by a full 10 years, and the incidence of low infant birthweight is double. In fact, average life expectancy in America’s most disadvantaged places, as identified by our index, is roughly comparable to what is seen in places such as Bangladesh, North Korea, and Mongolia, and infant birth weight outcomes are similar to those in Congo, Uganda, and Botswana.

If should be noted that a list of this sort is not an apples-to-apples comparison, in part because the population sizes of the areas are so very different. Many counties have only a few thousand people, while many cities have hundreds of thousands, or more. Thus, the data for a city will average out both better-off and worse off areas, while a low population, high-poverty rural county may not have any better-off places. 

But the near-invisibility of rural poverty in our national discourse is still striking. For example, when talking about improving education and schooling, what should happen with isolated rural schools rarely makes the list.  When talking about how to assure that people have health insurance, the issues related to people who are a long way from a medical facility are often not on the list of topics. When talking about raising the national minimum wage to $15/hour, much of the discussion seems to assume an area relatively dense in population, employers, and jobs, where various job-related adjustments can take place, not a geographically isolated and high-poverty area with few or no major employers. These issues aren't new. Many of the current high-poverty areas (rural and urban) have been poor for decades.

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  • Paul Harrison

    I feel bad for those living in rural areas, they are neglected by the government.

  • Hayley Rose

    Welcome to the USA, where urban people are more likely to be in poverty than rural people. I still can't accept those inequalities. Why can't we all enjoy a decent standard of living?

  • Wayne Thompson

    Very interesting

  • Aaron Meyland

    Excellent analysis

  • John Kirsop

    Rural poor can at least let their kids play outside without fear of a drive-by or sexual predators.

  • Shaq Holmes

    I'd take urban poverty over rural any day.

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Expert

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.

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