High Poverty Rates in ‘Midsize’ America

(December 2008) New data from the U.S. Census Bureau reveal high—and increasing—poverty rates in America’s midsize counties, small towns, and rural areas. Poverty rates for children have increased since 1999, while most older Americans have stayed out of poverty, even in economically depressed areas.

The data come from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and provide us with our first opportunity to look at post-2000 social and economic trends in midsize counties—areas with 20,000 to 64,999 people.1 Most large counties (65,000+ population) are located in large metropolitan areas, while the majority of midsize and small counties are made up of small towns and rural areas. The Census Bureau released the new data in the form of three-year estimates based on ACS surveys conducted from 2005 through 2007.

Poverty rates are inversely related to county population size. In 2005-2007, about 13 percent of people living in large counties were poor, compared with 15 percent of those in midsize counties and 17 percent of people in the smallest counties. High poverty rates in rural areas are linked to long-term social and economic trends in these areas, rather than short-term fluctuations in wages or unemployment.2 Many high-poverty counties in Appalachia, the rural south, the Rio Grande Valley, and the upper Midwest have had persistently high poverty rates for several decades.3

Diverging Trends for Children and the Elderly

Poverty rates in 2005-2007 were highest among children, especially those living in less populated areas (see table). In 2005-2007, 23 percent of children in small counties were poor, compared with 18 percent of children in large counties. There was a similar metro/nonmetro poverty gap for those ages 65 and older. However, poverty rates for the elderly were nearly 10 percentage points lower than those for children.

Children and Older Americans in Poverty


Children Under Age 18 Population Ages 65 and Older
1999 2005-2007 Change 1999 2005-2007 Change
Total U.S. 16.6 18.3 1.8 9.9 9.9 0.0
Large counties 16.0 17.7 1.7 9.1 9.3 0.2
Midsize counties 18.4 21.1 2.7 12.3 11.6 -0.7
Small counties 20.7 22.8 2.1 13.9 13.8 -0.1

Note: Large counties are defined as those with 65,000+ people, midsize counties have 20,000–64,999 people, and small counties have fewer than 20,000 people. Data for 1999 are from the decennial census while data for 2005-2007 are from the American Community Survey.
Source: PRB analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.


Since 1999, the poverty gap between children and the elderly has widened across all three county types. Child poverty has increased, while poverty for the elderly has stayed the same or dropped. The widening gap is most evident in midsize counties. In 1999, the poverty gap between children and the elderly was 6 percentage points. But by 2005-2007, the gap had increased to 9.5 percentage points. Social Security has helped keep older Americans out of poverty, even in areas with persistently high poverty rates. Families with children have not fared as well, and could see even higher poverty rates in the future; these ACS data do not reflect this year’s weak labor market and rising unemployment rate.


Mark Mather is associate vice president of Domestic Programs at the Population Reference Bureau.




  1. Post-2000 county poverty estimates are also available through the Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates Program, but the latest data available are from 2005.
  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, “Rural Income, Poverty, and Welfare: High-Poverty Counties,” accessed online at, on Dec. 7, 2008.
  3. Kenneth Johnson and Daniel Lichter, “Persistent Child Poverty in Nonmetropolitan America: Demographic Causes and Consequences,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the Rural Sociological Society, Louisville, Kentucky, Aug. 10, 2006.