(January 2004) At the end of the 1990s, one of the most prosperous decades in our country’s history, one of every five rural children was living in a family with income below the official poverty line. In raw numbers, that amounts to more than 2.6 million rural children. Millions more live just above the poverty line in families struggling to make ends meet.

In recent decades, rural poverty has been overshadowed by the plight of impoverished families living in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. Though little public attention has focused on the plight of the rural poor, statistics indicate that rural poverty is very serious. Census 2000 provides a stark picture of child poverty in rural America, showing that of the 50 counties with the highest child poverty rates, 48 are located in rural America.

One of the challenges in reducing child poverty in rural areas is the diversity of the rural poor. For many people, the term “urban poverty” conjures up a mental image of minority families living in disadvantaged inner city neighborhoods. In contrast, rural poverty has many faces. The following descriptions of high-poverty rural counties illustrate their racial and ethnic variety and their residents’ widely different circumstances.

Owsley County, Kentucky
2000 Population: 4,858
Population Change 1990 to 2000: -3.5 percent

Owsley is a core county of the eastern Kentucky hill country, but it was historically a small-scale farming area, not a coal-mining county. The population today is only half as large as it was in 1940. Without adequate sources of work, it has evolved into the poorest non-Hispanic white county in the country, with a child poverty rate of 56 percent and a total poverty rate of 45 percent. The median household income of $15,800 in 1999 was less than half of the U.S. nonmetro median of $33,700. There is very low labor force participation — just 39 percent compared with 60 percent for all nonmetro counties nationally. More than a third (36 percent) of children in Owsley County have no working parent in the household; this is the fourth-highest rate of all the counties in the country. There is a very high incidence of disability among people ages 21 to 64 (42 percent compared with 21 percent nationally), and educational attainment is low, with 34 percent of adults having completed less than one year of high school, compared with 9 percent nationally.

Washington County, Maine
2000 Population: 43,926
Population Change 1990 to 2000: 2 percent

Bordering Canada and the Atlantic Ocean and known as the “Sunrise Coast,” Washington County contains the easternmost point of land in the United States. The county is 94 percent white. Washington County has the highest poverty rate of all nonmetro counties in the Northeast. The child poverty rate was 22 percent, and the total poverty rate was 19 percent in 1999. Median household income is $25,869. Over many years, jobs in the county’s fishing, farming, and wood industries have declined considerably. The population level is smaller now than it was 100 years ago. Tourism brings revenue to the area in the summer — 25 percent of housing stock is second homes — but many families have to piece together income from different seasonal jobs, and few retirees come so far up the Maine coast. More than half (54 percent) of the children in Washington County receive subsidized school lunches, compared with only 31 percent statewide.

East Carroll Parish, Louisiana
2000 Population: 9,421
Population Change 1990 to 2000: -3.0 percent

East Carroll Parish, in the northeastern corner of Louisiana, is in the heart of Mississippi River Delta plantation country. The county is still highly dependent on the production of soybeans, cotton, and rice. Blacks make up 70 percent of the population. Forty-four percent of households with children under age 18 are headed by women with no husbands present, compared with 20 percent nationally. The lack of two potential breadwinners is one reason East Carroll Parish has the sixth-highest child poverty rate in the country. The labor force participation rate for males (42 percent) is not just very low, but lower than that for women — a very unusual circumstance. The child poverty rate was 59 percent, compared with an overall poverty rate of 40 percent. Median household income was just $20,700. The incidence of overall poverty in the black population is nearly four times that of the white population — 54 percent compared with 14 percent.

Starr County, Texas
2000 Population: 53,597
Population Change 1990 to 2000: 32 percent

Starr County is in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, bordering Mexico. The county contains many colonias, where homes are often built from used or dilapidated materials and typically do not meet building codes. The population is very young, with a median age of 26 years compared with a U.S. nonmetro average of 37 years. This age structure stems both from large families (with many children) and continued immigration. Ninety-eight percent of the population is Hispanic, with Spanish the common household language. Half of the residents report that they do not speak English very well. Formal education is low, with 46 percent of adults having finished no more than the 8th grade. The proportion of children in two-parent families is higher than normal, a condition conducive to low poverty. However, earnings are very low. Even men with full-time, year-round jobs earned an average of only $17,500 in 1999 in the county’s low-wage, agriculturally dominated economy, compared with the national average of $30,900. Among children, 59 percent were living in households with poverty-level income. The overall poverty rate is 51 percent.

Liberty County, Montana
2000 Population: 2,158
Population Change 1990 to 2000: -6.0 percent

Liberty County is similar to a number of other counties in the northern Great Plains states in that it is very thinly settled, has no urban area, and is almost fully dependent on agriculture. The population is non-Hispanic white, with educational levels at the U.S. average, both for high school completion and college degrees. There is a high proportion of two-parent families. But the dependence on agriculture in an area of marginal rainfall means that incomes fluctuate from one period to another based on harvest yields and on grain and cattle prices. After several years of drought, income received in the year preceding the 2000 Census was low enough to characterize 20.3 percent of the population as poor, with the rate for children at 28.9 percent. Here and in some other counties of the northern Plains, the poverty rate is somewhat elevated in times of stress by high levels in Hutterite communities. The Hutterites, a religious group practicing communal farming, have very large families with a much higher percentage of children than in the general population, resulting in lower per capita incomes.

Shannon County, South Dakota
2000 Population: 12,466
Population Change 1990 to 2000: 26 percent

Shannon County is the largest area of the Pine Ridge Reservation, and 95 percent of the people in the county are American Indian. Conditions are not suitable for productive agriculture, and the location is too remote for the kind of highly profitable casino business that some tribal governments have developed. In 2000, fully 60 percent of employed people worked in providing public services — education, health, social services, or government — whereas only 25 percent do so in the nonmetro United States. Nearly 18 percent of the labor force is unemployed. The median age of the population (20.8 years) is extraordinarily young, similar to that of the United States in 1880, because of high birth rates and below-average life expectancy. With an unusually high proportion of children and few earning opportunities for adults, 61 percent of all children are in families with poverty-level income. Shannon County has the fourth-highest child poverty rate in the country. Children account for fully half of all people in poverty, a rare situation; the overall poverty rate is 52 percent.

Calvin Beale of the Economic Research Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture selected these counties and provided basic data on them. The authors gratefully acknowlege his assistance and expertise. This article is excerpted from the March 2004 report “Child Poverty in Rural America,” on PRB’s website.


William P. O’Hare is a social demographer who directs the KIDS COUNT project at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore. His research and writing focus on disadvantaged children and their families. He is the author of “The Rise of Poverty in Rural America” and many other working papers on rural poverty and rural youth, and of Population Bulletins including “A New Look at Poverty in America.” Kenneth M. Johnson is a demographer and professor of sociology at Loyola University–Chicago. He has written extensively on population redistribution, nonmetropolitan demographic trends, and migration. He is the author of the PRB Reports on America “The Rural Rebound.” His research is supported by grants from the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.