(February 2005) A new PRB analysis of 2000 Census data shows that, while children in rural areas of the Southern United States1 match their urban Southern counterparts on several measures of well-being, these children lag in other important categories such as percentage in poverty. For some measures, the disparity between rural and urban children is quite large.

We used county-level data from the 2000 Census and new metropolitan area definitions (issued by the Office of Management and Budget in June 2003) to examine several measures of child well-being in the rural and the urban South. In this study, a county is considered urban if it is inside a metropolitan area. A metropolitan area has an urban core of at least 50,000 residents. Any county that is not inside a metropolitan area can be referred to as nonmetropolitan, and is considered rural for purposes of this analysis. Data discussed here refer to 5.3 million children in the rural South and 20.1 million children in the urban South.

Not Much Disparity in a Few Categories

In some categories—children in single-parent families, high school dropouts, and vehicle availability—children in rural areas of the South are quite similar to their urban counterparts. Children in the rural South are just as likely as urban children to live in a single-parent family (29 percent and 28 percent, respectively), and most of these rural and urban children are in single-mother families.

Figure 1

Similarities Among Children in the Rural and Urban South


Source: Author’s calculations using 2000 Census data.

Figure 2
Economic Conditions of Children in the Rural and Urban South


Source: Author’s calculations using 2000 Census data.

Also, as Figure 1 shows, approximately the same proportion of teens ages 16 to 19 are high school dropouts regardless of whether they live in a rural area or an urban area.

And roughly the same proportion of rural (7 percent) and urban (6 percent) children in the South live in homes without a car. Although these proportions are similar, children of families without a car who live in rural areas are arguably at a greater disadvantage than those in urban areas, partially due to their lack of access to public transportation—if a public transportation system exists at all in these rural areas.

Rural Children Worse Off Economically

Other important measures of child well-being show that rural children in the South are behind those living in urban areas. As Figure 2 illustrates, economic conditions are strikingly worse for the region’s rural children: Approximately 25 percent of rural children are in families below poverty, compared with 17 percent of children in urban areas.

Rural/urban disparities are even larger for families that are below 200 percent of the poverty threshold. More than one-half (51 percent) of rural children live below 200 percent of poverty, compared with 37 percent of urban children. Yet 56 percent of both urban and rural children below 200 percent of poverty have at least one parent who worked 50 or more weeks the previous year. Further analysis reveals that more than 80 percent of those who worked 50 or more weeks were working full time (i.e., 35 or more hours per week).

The Census data also show that more children in rural areas of the South (27 percent versus 21 percent for urban areas) are living with a householder who does not have a high school education or the equivalent—a proven indicator of diminished well-being and academic readiness for these children.2 The disparity in households without a telephone (7 percent for rural Southern children versus 3 percent for urban Southern children) is also a telling indicator of reduced economic opportunity and increased vulnerability for the region’s rural families.

Such disparities—in poverty rates, education levels of parents, and household ownership of phones or cars—suggest higher levels of economic hardship and isolation for rural Southern children as well as more vulnerability. In the context of other analyses that show these children lagging behind other U.S. children in measures of well-being, this analysis paints a portrait of reduced opportunities for many children in the rural South.

Kerri Rivers is a research associate in the Domestic Programs department of the Population Reference Bureau.


  1. The Census Southern region includes 16 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.
  2. Many research studies have linked higher levels of parental education with higher levels of child well-being. Most of the research in this area focuses specifically on maternal education. Researchers have found positive correlations between mothers’ educational attainment and children’s academic outcomes and cognitive development (Bee et al., 1983; Haveman and Wolfe, 1995; Smith et al., 1997). More recently, Magnuson and McGroder (2003) revisited this issue because, while much prior research showed correlations between a mother’s education and her children’s outcomes, not much research had been done to show a causal link. Magnuson and McGroder indeed found a causal link by using data from a welfare-to-work experiment in which welfare recipients with young children were randomly assigned to an education-first program, a work-first program, or a control group. The researchers found that “increases in maternal education are significantly and positively associated with children’s academic school readiness” (Magnuson and McGroder, 2002: 3).

For More Information

Helen L. Bee et al., “Prediction of IQ and Language Skill From Perinatal Status, Child Performance, Family Characteristics, and Mother-Infant Interaction,” Child Development 53, no. 5 (1982): 1134-56.

Robert Haveman and Barbara Wolfe, “The Determinants of Children’s Attainments: A Review of Methods and Findings,” Journal of Economic Literature 23, no. 4 (1995): 1829-78.

Katherine A. Magnuson and Sharon M. McGroder, “The Effect of Increasing Welfare Mothers’ Education on Their Young Children’s Academic Problems and School Readiness,” Joint Center for Poverty Research Working Paper (2002), accessed online at www.jcpr.org, on Feb. 1, 2005.