ERIC Identifier: ED335180
Publication Date: 1991-05-00
Author: Huang, Gary - Howley, Craig
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools
Recent Trends in Rural Poverty: A Summary for Educators.
Intended primarily for educators and policymakers, this Digest summarizes
recent information about poverty in rural areas. The discussion considers
the recent growth in rural poverty and presents a profile of the rural
poor. It also reports evidence about possible causes of rural poverty and
interprets possible meanings for teachers and administrators.
Discussion is based on the distinction between metropolitan (urban)
and nonmetropolitan (rural) areas. Briefly, metropolitan areas are closely
integrated (by economic relations, communication, and transportation links)
with central cities of at least 50,000 residents. Nonmetropolitan areas
comprise everything else. The advantage of this definition is that it is
commonly used by the U.S. Bureau of the Census.
TRENDS IN RURAL POVERTY
Although poverty is a historical fact of life in many rural areas in
America, by 1973 rural poverty seemed to be decreasing (Deavers & Brown,
1985). Many observers predicted better times. Nonetheless, throughout the
decade, the most chronically poor counties in the nation continued to be
located in nonmetropolitan areas (Deavers & Brown, 1985). In the 1980s
hopes for better times dimmed. Studies showed that rising poverty and population
loss were once again general features of rural life.
By 1986, the poverty rate in rural areas was 50 percent higher than
the urban rate--18 percent versus 12 percent (O'Hare, 1988). In fact, the
poverty rate for all nonmetro counties nearly equalled the poverty rate
for central cities (18.6%), where urban poverty is most notable (O'Hare,
1988; Porter, 1989).
Rural poverty in the 1980s also seemed to be more deep-seated than urban
poverty. It stayed higher, rose more rapidly during recession, and fell
more slowly in the "recovery" period (O'Hare, 1988). Displaced rural workers
were unemployed more than 50 percent longer than urban workers. When they
returned to work, they were more likely than urban workers to take pay
cuts and to lose insurance benefits (Podgursky, 1989). Rural residents
were also prone to other conditions associated with poverty: malnutrition,
substandard housing, poor health, and high rates of disabilities (Lazere,
Leonard, & Kravitz, 1989; Shotland, 1988).
A PROFILE OF THE RURAL POOR
Recent analyses report characteristics that distinguish the rural poor
from the urban poor (O'Hare, 1988; Porter, 1989; Shapiro, 1989; Shotland,
1988; Tickamyer & Tickamyer, 1987). These characteristics include,
among others, employment status, family structure, and race.
Working but poor. In 1986, 62 percent of rural poor adults aged 18 to
44 worked at least parttime. Their earnings, however, remained under the
poverty line (O'Hare, 1988). A recent national report based on 1987 data
(Shapiro, 1989) noted some key facts:
(1) Almost three of every four nonmetro poor family heads who were not
disabled or retired worked for all or part of the year.
(2) Nearly one of every four nonmetro poor family heads who were not
disabled or retired worked fulltime, year-round.
(3) About two of every three rural poor lived in a household where at
least one household member worked during that year.
(4) A large number of the rural poor looked for jobs but could not find
(5) More rural poor family heads (including both two-parent and single-parent
families) worked in 1987 in comparison to metro poor family heads.
The result is that a family with working parent(s) is about twice as
likely to be poor in nonmetro as in metro areas. This relationship holds
across all races and types of work (Shapiro, 1989). Despite their difficulty
in finding work, the rural poor are more likely than the urban poor actually
to work. Their wage levels, however, keep their families in poverty.
Two-parent households. In urban areas, the poor family is typically
headed by a single parent (usually a woman). This pattern is, however,
not typical among the rural poor. The majority (about 62%) of poor rural
families are two-parent families. In these families, moreover, it is not
unusual for both parents to work. Rural poor families that depend entirely
on earned income (that is, families without public assistance or other
nonwage income) are, unfortunately, the poorest (Shapiro, 1989).
Racial composition. The rural poor also differ racially from their urban
counterparts. A much larger portion of the rural poor are whites than in
urban areas. In rural areas, 71 percent of the poor are whites, whereas
in central cities, 54 percent are whites (Porter, 1989). Racial minorities
in rural areas, however, suffer more severely from poverty than their urban
counterparts (O'Hare, 1988; Porter, 1989; Shapiro, 1989). Porter, for example,
reports that 44 percent of rural blacks were poor in 1987, in comparison
to 33 percent of urban blacks.
WHAT CAUSES RURAL POVERTY?
Some analysts believe that poverty--wherever it is found--is more a
function of history and economic structure than of individual or group
characteristics (for example, Tickamyer & Tickamyer, 1987). Studies
of rural economies tend to support this view.
The rural economy is, in general, characterized by a number of features
(Deavers & Brown, 1985; O'Hare, 1988). They include:
* dependence on natural resources,
* a narrow industrial base in a given locale, and
* emphasis on low-skill labor.
In fact, agriculture is no longer the largest employer in rural areas.
Routine manufacturing industries now tend to be the largest employers (for
example, plants that process raw materials, light assembly plants, and
branch plants of national firms).
These developments pose two problems. First, specialization makes rural
economies less "elastic" than urban economies. This means that rural areas
tend to suffer more from recession and benefit less from recovery than
urban areas (Deavers & Brown, 1985; O'Hare, 1988). Second, because
routine manufacturing is based on low-skill labor, manufacturers are tempted
to leave rural areas for foreign countries, where wage rates are much lower
(Deavers & Brown, 1985; O'Hare, 1988).
Structural conditions also affect the responses of individuals in two
ways not reflected in official unemployment rates. First, displaced workers
may cease to look for work. Second, they may accept parttime work in lieu
of fulltime work. These trends are, according to Shapiro (1989), major
contributors to recent increases in rural poverty. Shapiro suggests that
a long-term trend of declining employment prospects may have already begun
in rural America. Reid (1990) reports that the major limit to rural economic
growth is lack of demand for a highly educated work force, not a shortage
of workers to fill existing jobs.
When growth does come to rural communities, however, its benefits to
the poor are questionable. Most new jobs are low-paying or minimum-wage
jobs (Reid, 1990). Further, rural workers in service occupations have the
highest poverty rates. This is a vexing fact, since the service industry
is the part of the rural economy most likely to grow in the future (O'Hare,
THE ROLE OF EDUCATION
Some analysts believe lack of human capital is a major cause of rural
poverty (Summers, Bloomquist, Hirschl, & Shaffer, 1986). An educationally
disadvantaged labor force in rural communities is likely neither to attract
outside investment nor to launch new economic development efforts of its
Amount of education, however, cannot alone account for the difference
in poverty rates between urban and rural areas. Although differences in
rural and urban high school graduation rates have narrowed over the last
decade, the poverty gap has grown larger (Reid, 1990; Shapiro, 1989). In
fact, the largest poverty gap between urban and rural populations is among
those with more education, and the smallest is among high school dropouts
(O'Hare, 1988; Shapiro, 1989). This situation is an incentive for the better
educated to leave rural areas. Migration from rural areas has always been
led by the better educated (O'Hare, 1988; Reid, 1990).
In the future, the growing effects of continued poverty may further
endanger school improvement efforts in rural areas, for example, by eroding
the tax base or demoralizing communities. Many rural schools are already
struggling to provide adequate services to the current population of economically
Alternatives have, however, been proposed, and Reid (1990) speaks for
many observers. He believes that rural schools should provide three things.
These include better basic instruction to strengthen work force skills,
serving as resources for solving local community problems, and participating
directly in community development projects. Reid notes, however, that such
a mission will require sustained effort to address substantial problems.
Poverty is a condition that puts students at risk of school failure.
As a potential influence on the well-being of individual students from
poor families, education is clearly important (Reid, 1990). On the other
hand, the role of education in changing the structural features of rural
poverty is clearly much more limited. Education is not likely to be a very
direct way to remedy poverty in rural areas, though, as in Reid's analysis,
a supportive role may be possible.
The analysts cited in this Digest have recommended--in the works cited--concrete
changes in federal and state policies to address rural poverty. Implementing
some of these recommendations can involve educators in their professional
roles, whereas others imply a need for the support of educators as informed
Deavers, K., & Brown, D. (1985). Natural Resource Dependence, Rural
Development, and Rural Poverty (Rural Development Research Report No. 48).
Washington, DC: Economic Research Service, US Department of Agriculture.
(ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 258 775)
Lazere, E., Leonard, P., & Kravitz, L. (1989). The Other Housing
Crisis: Sheltering the Poor in Rural America. Washington, DC: Center on
Budget and Policy Priorities and the Housing Assistance Council. (ERIC
Document Reproduction Service No. ED 320 753)
O'Hare, W. (1988). The Rise of Poverty in Rural America. Washington,
DC: Population Reference Bureau. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No.
ED 302 350)
Podgursky, M. (1989). Job Displacement and the Rural Worker. Washington,
DC: Economic Policy Institute. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No.
ED 325 281).
Porter, K. (1989). Poverty in Rural America: A National Overview. Washington,
DC: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. (ERIC Document Reproduction
Service No. ED 309 901)
Reid, J. (1990, April). Education and Rural Development: A Review of
Recent Evidence. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American
Educational Research Association, Boston, MA.
Shapiro, I. (1989). Laboring for Less: Working But Poor in Rural America.
Washington, DC: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 319 566)
Shotland, J. (1988). Off to a Poor Start: Infant Health in Rural America.
A Report. Washington, DC: Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, Inc.
(ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 323 075)
Summers, G., Bloomquist, L., Hirschl, T., & Shaffer, R. (1988).
Community Economic Vitality: Major Trends and Selected Issues. Ames, IA:
North Central Regional Center for Rural Development. (ERIC Document Reproduction
Service No. ED 306 059)
Tickamyer, A., & Tickamyer, C. (1987). Poverty in Appalachia (Appalachian
Data Bank Report No. 5). Lexington, KY: Appalachian Center, University
of Kentucky. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 309 005)