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"Race and Rural Poverty,"

by Gene Summers January/February 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

There are two ways to describe the rural poor: to focus only on the population of poor people, seeking to describe the kinds of people who are poor; or to examine the prevalence of poverty among various segments of the United States population by calculating the probability of being poor for various groups of people, such as rural residents, women, African--Americans, the elderly and so on. The answers yielded by these two approaches are seldom the same, but both are extremely important. Unfortunately, people often confuse the two sets of answers and therefore have misconceptions of the rural poor.

In 1990, there were slightly over 9 million rural residents of the United States who were poor. The overwhelming majority of these rural poor were white (72.9%). Fewer than one-fourth were African-Americans (23.6%), and Hispanics made up only 5.4% of the total. Nearly half (44.4%) of the rural poor lived in married-couple families (two or more relate persons who live together). Only 17% of the rural poor were children living in families headed by a female householder with no husband present. Another 17.6% of the rural poor were children living in married-couple families. Thus, children made up 34.6% of the rural poor. The elderly made up 14% of the rural poor, and 9.4% of the rural poor were disabled persons. (Notice that one should not add these percentages, for individuals are counted in more than one way.) Nearly two-thirds of rural poor families (64.6%) had at least one member working in formal employment, and approximately one-fourth had two or more members working. These are the "working poor" of rural America.

Rural poverty is concentrated in the South: 55.3% of poor rural Americans lived in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma or Texas. There were 6.6 million rural white people living in poverty in 1990; 2.9 million of them lived in the South (43.6%). At the same time, there were 2.1 million African-Americans living in rural poverty; 96.8% of them lived in the South. Thus, black rural poverty is almost exclusively a Southern phenomenon, but Southern poverty is not a black phenomenon; more than half of the rural poor living in the South are white.

The second approach to the question, Who are the rural poor? is to examine rates of poverty for various segments of the population. If you are a white person living in a rural area of the United States, what is the probability of being poor? In 1990, the probability was .135; in other words, 13.5% of white rural residents were poor; they had a poverty rate of 13.5. That same year the rural poverty rates were 40% for African-Americans, 35% for Mexican-Americans and 30% for Native Americans. Rural racial and ethnic minorities are major victims of poverty, with rates double and triple that of whites.

The only social characteristic that imposes a heavier burden than race or ethnicity is family status. Married-couple families living in rural America had a poverty rate of 9.9% in 1990. When children were present the rate increased to 14.0%. In sharp contrast, female-headed families (with no hus-band present) had a poverty rate of 43.2%. When children were present, that rate jumped to 56.8%.

There are 540 rural counties that have had poverty levels of 20% or more in each of the last four censuses 1960 through 1990. In 1990, these counties were home to 30% of the rural poor. In 1960, the average poverty rate for these counties was 57.3%. In 1990, the average rate had declined to 28.7%, still double the rate for all other rural counties and more than double that of urban America, often exceeding that of the worst of the central cities. Moreover, for racial and ethnic minorities living in these counties, poverty rates often exceed 50%; female-headed families where children are present often have poverty rates exceeding 70%. Clearly, in many of these persistent poverty counties, racial and ethnic minorities are the predominant victims.

We must continue to search for accurate and complete information about who are the rural poor; what distinguishes them from the rural nonpoor; how they differ from one another regionally, racially, culturally and politically; and how they compare with the urban poor. The rural poor are a very diverse segment of America's population whose quality of life is extremely debilitating. In many instances, their life is as austere as that of the residents of the worst central city slums in America.

Gene Summers Gene Summers is Director of the North American Program of the land Tenure Center (Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, 1357 University Ave., Madison, WI 53715, 608/265-5709, E-mail: gfsummer@facstaff

A fuller treatment of this topic may be found in Prof. Summers’ chapter, “Persistent Rural Poverty, in Emery N. Castle (ed.), The Changing American Countryside: Rural People and Places (Lawrence, KS: Univ. Press of Kansas, 1995), pp. 213-28.

A “Rural Poverty Resource Directory, “compiled by Gene Summers, R. Michelle Decker, Dorothy Mougin & Lynn Meinholz (144 pp., April 1996), is available ($12) from Rabel Burdge, Rural Sociological Society, 510 Arntzen Hall, Western Washington Univ., Bellingham, WA 98225-9081.

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