Let’s Not Forget Poor Rural Children

A new report from the Casey Foundation aims to widen our vision of child poverty in America. It’s called The Forgotten Fifth because one in five poor children lives in a rural community. Yet their plight is commonly overlooked by both policymakers and the general public.

That wasn’t always the case, the authors say. But, in recent years, the image of child poverty has become “an overwhelmingly urban one,” to the detriment of poor families in small, out-of-the way communities.

Here’s a sample of the wealth of facts and figures the authors bring to bear on this problem.

First off, the child poverty rate is higher in rural than in urban areas, and a higher percentage of rural children are in deep poverty, i.e. below 50% of the federal poverty threshold. As of 2007, all but one of the 51 one counties with the highest child poverty rates were rural.

Thirteen states–all in the South, lower Midwest or Southwest–have rural child poverty rates over 25%. Only 10 states that have non-metropolitan areas have rural child poverty rates under 15%.

In various respects, poor rural children suffer greater disadvantages than their urban counterparts.

  • Child poverty rates are highest in counties most remote from an urban area, so access to support services is more limited.
  • Rural children are exposed to all the adverse impacts of poverty for longer periods because poor rural families tend to stay poor longer than poor urban families.
  • States with the highest percentages of rural poor children provide lower TANF benefits and are less likely to have their own Earned Income Tax Credit than states with the lowest percentages.
  • States with the largest numbers of rural children spend considerably less per child than states with the fewest.

The Casey authors say it would cost $10 billion to lift all rural children out of poverty. Can we afford this?

Consider first the human costs of doing nothing more than we’re doing now. According to a UNICEF assessment of child well-being, children who grow up in poverty are more vulnerable to a host of problems, including poor health, learning and behavioral difficulties, academic under-achievement, early pregnancy and ultimately lower skills and aspirations, low pay and unemployment. Over the years, we could save countless children from such life-long disadvantages.

And then there’s the dollar cost. In 2007, a Center for American Progress task force estimated that persistent child poverty costs our country$500 billion a year.

Looked at this way, how can we afford not to ramp up our anti-poverty efforts? How afford not to ensure that they do a better job of addressing the particular needs of poor rural families?

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