Photo credit: Sara Scott Inman

Introduction to Rural Poverty

Rural poverty presents many of the same challenges that urban poverty presents.  However, there are some identifying factors that differentiate rural and urban poverty. The purpose of this work will be to highlight some of the characteristics of rural poverty as well as identify resiliency frameworks which can help families develop in positive ways.  It is my hope that through this study researchers and policy makers might get a clearer picture of strategies that might be put in place to reduce creating an environment where poverty, specifically generational poverty, may be exacerbated.  It would seem that the first logical step in reducing the rates of rural poverty will be to identify what barriers impoverished families face. Also, identifying proven methods that lift families into the middle class may help professionals direct families in ways that can improve their quality of life.

In the most remote places of the United States, many families live from day to day and year to year without their basic needs being met.  To be born into a family of generational poverty, which happens to be located in a more remote region of the United States, looks a great deal different than those families who exist in urban areas.  These differences will be briefly examined; however, the core content of the paper will be dedicated to identifying specific risk and resilience factors for families in rural regions. Topics which will be considered include employment, childcare, health, transportation, and educational barriers.

Comparing Rural and Urban Poverty

Poverty in rural areas of the United States is often geographically associated with the Deep South as well as communities in Appalachia.  Challenges that are unique to rural areas may include several factors which those who live in more urban locations might not realize.  I will define rural for the purpose of this paper as this: “of or relating to the country, country people or life, or agriculture and, open countryside, rural towns (places with fewer than 2,500 people), and urban areas with populations ranging from 2,500 to 49,999” (USDA 2016).

Challenges presented will be primarily focused on rural towns with a population of 2500 or less. Urban poverty has received more attention in recent decades as the population in urban areas has increased (Sridhar 2015).  However, in the United States rural poverty has remained a constant problem generation after generation. 7.5 million poor Americans live in rural areas and more than 14% of the population that lives in rural areas, live in poverty (Broussard, Joseph 2009).Therefore, those living in rural poverty make up a significant portion of the US population. Those counties in which families live in persistent poverty, or under the poverty level for more than 30 years, are at an increased risk of remaining impoverished.  Poverty also is not only emotionally expensive for those who experience it, but also economically expensive to the society that funds it.  It is estimated that the impoverished in America (specifically children) annually cost the United States society nearly $500 billion per year in lost productivity, earnings, health care, and crime related expenses (Annie E. Casey Foundation 2015).

Risk Factors for Families in Rural Regions


Unemployment, underemployment, and low income employment are challenges that those who live in rural areas know all too well as a way of life.  In rural areas it is common for there to be limited jobs that pay a living wages (Burton, Lichter, Baker, Eason 2013).  The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.  According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a family of three must earn $20, 160 or more to not be considered impoverished. It could easily be debated that an income of more than $20,160 would not be sufficient to meet the needs of a family of three, whether they were living in an urban or rural area.  For this article we will assume that $20,160 would cover the basic needs of a family of three.  In order for a family to earn $20,160 making the federal minimum wage, a single parent would work 53 hours per week (Minimum Wage 2015). However, many single parents who are willing to work 53 hours per week, will struggle to find that many hours of available work in a rural area.  While the unemployment rate in rural areas may more closely resemble that of state or national averages, the underemployment rate in rural areas is 16.2% (Broussard, Joseph 2009).  It seems as if many families in rural communities may become accustomed to underemployment as a way of life.  However, underemployment is often a factor in other negative factors that contribute to a decrease in a family’s quality of life.


The data that correlates with transportation in rural areas typically has focused on health and food access (Deller, Canto, Brown 2015).  While these topics are certainly important to the population of impoverished families, it is also important to be noted that with challenges in transportation also come challenges in employment in rural areas.  Those living in rural areas have an increase in miles per day required to obtain and retain employment.  Families who live in towns with populations of 2500 or less will often find that they must travel 20+ miles per day to retain regular employment.  Transportation issues can become a vicious cycle for those who are in or near poverty. The expense of a vehicle, upkeep, insurance, and fuel may cut deeply into an already struggling family’s budget.  When the adults in these families have ongoing transportation issues, it can negatively impact their ability to retain employment as well as limit their ability to obtain positive references for future employment.  This issue has been recognized as a significant issue dating as far back as 1998. The Center for Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin – Extension noted that an important aspect for low income families to retain work is that they have the ability to get to and from work.  It is also noted that employed caregivers need the added advantage of being able to attend to immediate family necessities including Dr. Appointments, parent/ teacher conferences, and daycare requirements; such as closings for poor weather conditions (University of Wisconsin Extension 1998).

Health and Food Access 

It has been noted that access to food and health care resources are challenges that those who live in rural geographic areas face (Dellar et al., 2015). The linkage between poverty and poor health outcomes is one that has been noted as “inextricably intertwined”.  Much of the research that has been done about health and food access, for impoverished families has been focused on urban areas.  However, there is new attention to the topic of food deserts that is being focused on rural areas.  In urban areas there is increased access to public transportation and walking to food vendors is more of an option than in more rural areas.

Mental health issues among those living in rural areas are another topic for concern among researchers (Simmons, Braun, Charnigo, Havens, Wright 2008).  Depression and poverty are closely associated with women suffering from major depressive disorder at a rate of 35.5% in rural areas.  Poor physical health was noted a precursor to an increased risk for depression among rural women.  Those women who live in chronically poor areas are at the highest risk to suffer from mental and physical health issues. Unemployment and underemployment of rural populations is linked to higher levels of depression in rural populations (Broussard, Joseph 2009).

Lack of access to mental health care providers in rural areas is a challenge that rural populations face, along with an increased stigmatism of mental health issues (Broussard, Joseph 2009).  When researched it was found that there are significantly higher rates of stigmatism of mental health issues and is cited as the most significant barrier to receiving mental health services (Polaha, Williams, Heflinger, Studts 2015).  Many rural residents are often forced to turn to primary care physicians for mental health care due to the lack of mental health care providers in rural areas.  Lack of access to mental health care restricts families from accessing services for children who are at an increased risk for developing mental health issues due to the prevalence of depression among caregivers in rural areas.

In rural areas families are less apt to use SNAP benefits than impoverished families in urban areas (Kids Count 2015). The it is assumed that the reason for the lack of use of government programs to increase health is often due to the stigmatism of leeching from society (Broussard Joseph 2009).  Many families do not take advantage of programs that will increase their health and quality of life due to the fear of what others in small towns might think. It is a common belief in rural areas that word travels fast within smaller communities, and  community members fear being ostracized for using programs that are considered entitlement programs.

Resilience Factors: Advantages of Rural Poverty

It should be noted that in regard to resilience of families living in rural poverty caution must be used (Béné, Newsham, Davies, Ulrichs, Godfrey-Wood 2014).  While resilience factors among poor families exist, researchers must be careful not to dismiss the unique challenges that those living in rural impoverished areas face. Resilience tools can be a way for families to achieve a higher quality of life, however too much emphasis on promoting protective social factors for these families might lead researchers and policy makers to not as aggressively combat the significant problem of rural poverty.

Identifying family strengths is increasingly gaining popularity among family scholars over all socioeconomic backgrounds (Patterson 2002).  Resilience factors have typically been measured by identifying functioning levels of family units who have met with adversity, and how they meet levels of functionality in the aftermath of the adversity.  Families living in poverty must work together closely to meet their family’s basic necessities.  For example, closer relationships between extended family members may be present to satisfy the need for childcare.  Those families who struggle with housing may find themselves often doubling up with relatives during times of crisis (Payne 2005). Family support is a resilience factor in place for those living in poor rural communities. It is important that resilience factors for these families are developed while at the same time not undermining the need to create better systems to lift families out of poverty.

Conflicts in Literature

A striking conflict in literature can be found in how community action agencies were put in place in by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, when he declared “War on Poverty”(Torstensson 2013). While this policy was put in place to primarily combat rural poverty, scholars agree that there has been no reduction in impoverished rural areas, since these policies were put into place (Blalock, Tiller, Monroe 2004).  It is also agreed upon by researchers that there continues to be more research done on poverty in urban areas than rural areas (Sridhar 2015). This phenomenon no doubt plays a role in the lack of effective policy and programs being established for rural populations.


While those raised in impoverished rural areas face a vast array of socioeconomic challenges, advantages can also be found for these families.  A reliance on people and relationships create protective factors which may not be as evident in middle class, or wealthy families (Payne, 2005).  Families rely on each other to survive in ways that other economic classes do not.  It is important to remember that these parts of the culture of rural poverty are not typically parts that families want to walk away from.  In order for children to seek better financial opportunities, they often must leave their tight knit circles of immediate and extended family which have often been their primary source of all support received.  During difficult economic times, families may cleave to building stronger emotional or spiritual support systems within the family unit.  While we continue to search for solutions to meet the needs of all citizens, we should also realize that the family culture and resilience found in rural regions is something that families find security in, and sometimes it’s the only security these families have known. There are emotional consequences to leaving the security of family for those who have been raised in generational poverty. Much can be learned reviewing the strengths the poor families exhibit during times of adversity. 


Béné, C., Newsham, A., Davies, M., Ulrichs, M., & Godfrey-Wood, R. (2014). Review article: Resilience, poverty and development. Journal of International Development J. Int. Dev., 26(5), 598-623. doi:10.1002/jid.2992

Blalock, L. L., Tiller, V. R., & Monroe, P. A. (2004). “They get you out of courage:” Persistent deep poverty among former welfare-reliant women. Family Relations, 53(2), 127-137. doi:10.1111/j.0022-2445.2004.00003.x

Broussard, C. A., & Joseph, A. L. (2009). Family poverty in diverse contexts. New York: Routledge.

Burton, L. M., Lichter, D. T., Baker, R. S., & Eason, J. M. (2013). Inequality, family processes, and health in the “new” rural America. American behavioral scientist, 57(8), 1128-1151. doi:10.1177/0002764213487348

Deller, S., Canto, A., & Brown, L. (2015). Rural poverty, health and food access. Regional Science Policy & Practice, 7(2), 61-74. doi:10.1111/rsp3.12056

Measuring Access to Opportunity in the United States – The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (n.d.). Retrieved June 20, 2016, from

Minimum Wage. (2015). Retrieved June 19, 2016, from

Patterson, J. M. (2002). Integrating family resilience and family stress theory. J Marriage and Family Journal of Marriage and Family, 64(2), 349-360. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2002.00349.x

Payne, R. K. (2005). A framework for understanding poverty. Highlands, TX: Aha! Process.

Polaha, J., Williams, S. L., Heflinger, C. A., & Studts, C. R. (2015). The perceived stigma of mental health services among rural parents of children with psychosocial concerns. J. Pediatr. Psychol. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 40(10), 1095-1104. doi:10.1093/jpepsy/jsv054

Simmons, L. A., Braun, B., Charnigo, R., Havens, J. R., & Wright, D. W. (2008). Depression and poverty among rural women: A relationship of social causation or social selection. The Journal of Rural Health, 24(3), 292-298. doi:10.1111/j.1748-0361.2008.00171.x

Sridhar, K. S. (2015). Is urban poverty more challenging than rural poverty? A review. environment and urbanization Asia, 6(2), 95-108. doi:10.1177/0975425315589159

Torstensson, D. (2013). Beyond the city: Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty in rural America. J. Policy Hist. Journal of Policy History, 25(04), 587-613. doi:10.1017/s0898030613000316

Transportation barriers to employment of low income people. (1998, April). University of Wisconsin Extension.

What is Rural? (n.d.). Retrieved June 17, 2016, from


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