(March 2004) This report explores the well-being of the 14 million children who live in rural America. Rural families represent a significant share of our total population and they are disproportionately poor, less educated, and underemployed. Yet poor children and the unique challenges they face are often overlooked by policymakers. Poor children living in rural America face significant educational, social, and economic challenges just as their urban counterparts do, but many of these problems are exacerbated by the isolation and limited access to support services common in rural areas.

Historically rural America was linked to family farming, but today less than 5 percent of the rural labor force works on farms, whether family- or corporate-owned, and consolidation continues to diminish this percentage. The farm economy remains extremely important in some regions, but overall there are more rural workers in manufacturing jobs (19 percent), retail trade (14 percent), and professional services (24 percent) than in farming (4 percent).

Just as the rural economy has changed, so too has the rural family. Urban families are now larger than their rural counterparts. Data from the 2000 Census show the average family size inside metropolitan areas was 3.2 persons compared with 3.0 outside metropolitan areas. Two important demographic forces account for this transformation. First, fertility rates in rural areas have declined, and rural women now have about the same number of children as urban women. Second, the rural population is now considerably older on average than the urban population. The median age in 2000 was 37.2 in nonmetropolitan America, compared with 34.9 in the nation’s metropolitan areas. Rural areas also have a higher proportion of people ages 65 and older (15 percent), compared with urban areas (12 percent). Family size in rural areas has decreased because a growing share of rural households are headed by older Americans, who are less likely to have children in the household.

We hope that this PRB Reports on America will revise many outdated yet still popular images of rural family life. Because our understanding of the nation’s children is primarily informed by national data, our assumptions are heavily influenced by the 58 million children residing in urban areas. This report provides a fresh perspective by offering a comprehensive profile of rural children. We use several widely accepted measures of child wellbeing to examine the similarities and differences between rural and urban children.

William P. O’Hare is a social demographer who directs the KIDS COUNT project at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore. Kenneth M. Johnson is a demographer and professor of sociology at Loyola University- Chicago.