Rural Poverty: 11 Myths and Realities


Julie N. Zimmerman compiled eleven myths about poverty. I've compiled all eleven here from two separate articles. Much of this evolved around welfare reform and what t do about it. Her last contact info is as follows:

Department of Community and Leadership Development
500 Garrigus
University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY 40546-0215

Myth 1: The majority of the poor live in inner-city neighborhoods.

While poverty rates are highest in inner cities, only 23 percent of those in poverty live there. Overall, poverty rates in rural areas have been and continue to be consistently higher than those found in urban areas, which includes inner cities.

In this case, rural areas have the second highest poverty rates of 16.3 percent when compared to urban areas (RSS Task Force 1993:32). In 1990, there were 9 million people in rural areas living in poverty; nearly one in five rural residents. In 1993, in the North Central region, the rural poverty rate stood at 13.6 percent, whereas the poverty rate for urban areas was only 11.4 percent.

Myth 2: Poverty in rural areas looks much like that found in urban areas.

While poverty exists in both urban and rural areas, the characteristics of those living in poverty in these two places are distinctly different. Not only do rural areas have consistently higher rates of poverty than urban places, but those living in poverty in rural areas are more likely to be white and living in two-adult households.

Rural areas also have higher rates of persistent poverty and they are dispersed over a larger geographic area. Still, compared to their urban counterparts, those living in poverty in rural areas are more likely to be working.

Myth 3: The poor live off government welfare.

Given the public debates over welfare reform, one would assume that this was indeed the case. However, the majority of those living in poverty do not receive government welfare assistance. Such assistance accounts for only one-quarter of the income of adults living in poverty (O'Hare 1996). For rural areas, participation rates in social service programs are even lower.

Myth 4: Homelessness is an urban problem.

Homelessness in rural areas is often overlooked because it is thought of as an urban issue. An accurate count of the homeless is difficult if not impossible. Estimates of the rural homeless vary from 6.9 percent (Census 1992) to 18 percent (NRHA 1996:3) of the total homeless population.

As shelters are a rarity in rural areas, those without a fixed place of residence find shelter in places such as doubling-up with other families, living in abandoned homes, or living in their vehicles at camping facilities. Research suggests that the characteristics of the homeless in rural areas differ from those in urban areas. For example, they are more likely to be white, more likely to be working, and more likely to be two-parent families (Wright and Wright, forthcoming).

Myth 5: Poor families are trapped in a cycle of poverty that few escape.

The population of individuals and households living in poverty is actually a dynamic group. For many, `spells' of poverty are temporary, lasting less than a few years (O'Hare 1996). On the other hand, rural areas have higher rates of persistent poverty than urban areas. Persistent poverty refers to places with poverty rates of 20 percent or more in each census 1960-1990.

Persistent poverty tends to be found in particular regions such as Appalachia and the South. In the North Central region, areas of persistent poverty are located primarily in North Dakota, South Dakota and Missouri.

Myth 6: Most of the poor are single mothers and their children.

Single women with children are more likely to be living in poverty, as reflected by their high poverty rates in both rural and urban places. But, in terms of the number of households living in poverty, their are very nearly as many living in two adult households. Only 38 percent of those households living in poverty were single-mother households and 34 percent were in two-adult households. Of the remaining 28 percent, 22 percent either live alone or with non-relatives (O'Hare 1996).

For rural areas both in our region and nationally, the percent of those in poverty living in two adult households is much higher. Nationally, 44.4 percent of those in poverty in rural areas in 1990 lived in married couple families (RSS Task Force 1993:32). For the North Central region, husband-wife family configurations comprised 42.3 percent of those in rural poverty in 1993.

Myth 7: The vast majority of the poor are African American or Hispanics.

In contrast to the myth, the majority of those living in poverty in both urban and rural areas are not minorities. Forty-eight percent of those living in poverty in America are white (O'Hare 1996). In 1990, 72.9 percent of those living in poverty in rural areas in the United States were white (RSS Task Force 1993:32). In the North Central region, the rural poor are even more likely to be white, comprising in 1993 more than 90 percent of those in rural poverty, with African Americans comprising 3.7 percent and Native Americans 2.9 percent...

Myth 8: Most people are poor because they do not want to work.

This is perhaps the most tenacious myth of all those discussed here. First of all, many of those living in poverty are not of working age. Many of the poor are elderly and even more are children (about 40 percent) or have a work disability. More importantly, many people living in poverty who are able to work are indeed already employed. Nationally, about 30 percent of the working-age population living in poverty in 1994 were already working (O'Hare 1996).

For rural areas, this myth holds even less truth. Nationally, the majority of rural poor families have at least one member employed. For the North Central region in 1993, this also remains true. Of those living in poverty in rural areas, 35.5 percent of families had at least one person working at least part time or part year. Another 25.4 percent had one or more family members working full time-full year. Of the remaining families, almost 24 percent of the rural poor have no working-age family member. This category is predominantly the elderly.

Myth 9: Antipoverty programs are designed to reduce poverty.

A major criticism of federal programs has been that they are not moving people off of welfare. However, this position also assumes that these programs were designed to do this. Until recently, federal poverty programs were designed as a safety net, not as programs to assist individuals out of poverty.

Myth 10: Rural equals agriculture.

Confounding the distance between myth and reality regarding poverty in rural areas is that for many, rural is synonymous with agriculture and farms. Deeply embedded in our nation's history is the image of rural areas as a patchwork of family farms built around tranquil communities. Today, less than 10 percent of the rural population lives on farms and people in rural areas are engaged in a wide range of activities.

In 1992, only 7.6 percent of rural employment was in farming (ERS/USDA 1995:5). Service employment, on the other hand, accounted for 50.6 percent and has experienced the greatest growth over the past two decades. Counties which derive 20 percent or more or their earned income from farming are concentrated in the Great Plains states. However, even in these areas, nonfarm employment still accounts for nearly 80 percent of jobs in the area (ERS/USDA 1995:12).

Myth 11: Poverty rates are particularly low in the Midwest compared to other regions.

In actuality, poverty in the rural North Central region is more likely to be hidden than lower in incidence. Only the South, with 51.2 percent of all rural poverty, has more individuals living in poverty in rural areas. The North Central region is home to 25.8 percent of all people living in poverty in rural areas.

As Flora (1992) points out, characteristics such as norms against conspicuous consumption, the ideology that hard work will automatically result in financial growth, and the prevailing view that "we're all just folks" combine to hide what can be large differences in income and wealth within communities.