Does rising rural poverty signal a longer-term decline?

One-third of rural counties have a poverty rate above 20 percent, a dramatic increase since 2000 that is unlikely to be cured by the slow, post-recession economic recovery, says a report by the Carsey School of Public Policy. “The consistent increases in poverty rates in rural counties suggest that rural areas are facing a longer-term decline in economic conditions.”

So-called micropolitan counties, which include or adjoin small cities of up to 50,000 people, experienced the greatest increase in concentrated poverty, nearly doubling to 32 percent in 2013, said the Carsey report. “Economic conditions in these micropolitan areas increasingly resemble the more isolated and sparsely populated rural counties that historically have been the worst off.

“The reasons for this convergence are not well understood but the pattern we find suggests that rural poverty cannot be explained simply as a matter of spatial isolation or low population density,” write authors Brian Thiede, assistant professor at Penn State; Hyojung Kim, a doctoral candidate at Louisiana State; and Matthew Valasik, assistant professor at Louisiana State. The larger number of high-poverty counties should concern policymakers since such areas have many social, economic and health challenges, they said.

Census Bureau data indicated 416 rural counties were high poverty areas in 2000, rising to 657 counties in 2013. In percentage terms, the share was 21 percent in 2000 and 33 percent in 2013. Some 18 percent of rural Americans lived in high-poverty counties at the start of the century and now 32 percent are in high-poverty counties.

Earlier this month, the USDA said the rural population was dropping for the first time in history for reasons that included the out-migration of young adults, fewer births, higher death rates among working-age adults from drug abuse and other causes, and an aging population. Rural job growth has been half of the urban rate since the end of the 2008-09 recession. Six times as many rural counties as urban counties are persistently poor.

Even so, the USDA said there are more high-poverty counties than before the Great Recession. “Only a few of these newly poor counties are located in or around existing persistent-poverty regions. Most are in regions that are typically more affluent, including northern California and counties in the Midwest and South that were affected by the loss of manufacturing jobs during the Great Recession,” said USDA Economic Research Service in its “Rural American at a Glance” report.

To read the Carsey report on increased prevalence of high poverty, click here.