Poverty Growing in Rural Communities


Headlines about the decline in the poverty rate don’t capture the full story told by recently released county-level data. A new analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau reveals what the overall rate misses: a third of American counties are experiencing more poverty.

The report from Pew found that the poverty rate—defined as the percentage of people in households earning less than $25,750 for a family of four—grew in 30% of the nation’s counties from 2016 to 2018. The hardest hit were rural counties in the South.

In Alabama, poverty grew in 27 of the state’s 67 counties. Bullock County’s poverty rate rose almost 10 points between 2016 and 2018—the second-largest increase in the country. Despite an official unemployment rate of about 3%, nearly half of the county (42.5%) is living in poverty.

Bullock County economic developer David Padgett told Pew that the official figures miss “a lot of disadvantaged people who are not in the workforce,” including many people who remain stuck in poverty because they’re too old to look for work.

“This goes way beyond Bullock County,” Mr. Padgett said. “This is about rural areas across Alabama.”

Fourteen of the 20 counties with the biggest poverty increases were in the South. In Carter County, Kentucky, the poverty rate increased 8.5 points in two years, leaving a third of the county (31.1%) mired in poverty.

“This is rural America. We’re rich in self-sustaining nature and neighbors helping neighbors but we don’t have resources,” state Sen. Robin Webb, a Democrat who lives in Carter County, told Pew.

Like Bullock County, Carter has an aging population, and its largest employer is a meat processing plant. It’s also been hit by the opioid crisis, she said.

The poverty gap is even more dramatic in some Native American-majority counties. Poverty jumped 13.3 points in Oglala Lakota County in South Dakota, where more than half (54%) of residents live below the poverty line. A third (32.7%) of Bethel Census Area residents in Alaska are now living in poverty—an increase of 7.2 points.

David Padgett said unemployment figures aren’t the only government statistics that can paint an inaccurate picture in counties like Bullock. He told Pew that the 2010 census may have undercounted low-income residents in Bullock, resulting in an artificially high median income figure in 2010 that left the county with less money for things like police cars.

In counties across America where poverty is growing, ensuring that low-income people are more accurately counted in the 2020 census is especially urgent. But experts have raised serious concerns about the 2020 census, including fears that efforts to include a question on citizenship will lead to an undercount even though the question did not make it onto census forms.