March 27, 2015

Reflection / Joan Hess

Understanding rural poverty

(Editor’s note: Indiana’s bishops earlier this month issued a pastoral letter on poverty. This column continues discussing the challenges the poor face in our state.)

The faces of rural poverty, on the surface, seem no different from those in urban landscapes. Hungry children, lonely elderly, despondent adults. A more in-depth look at what brought them to and keeps them in poverty may tell a different story.

Three major issues—while not the only ones—immediately come to mind when considering rural poverty: transportation, employment and health care.

It is extremely important for social service providers and advocates to understand that often poor people cannot readily benefit from services or programs because they are not easily accessible.

In rural areas, public transportation is rare, if not non-existent. If public transit exists, there are not regularly scheduled routes and access must be reserved in advance—sometimes up to a week.

If geographic inequalities in access to social service providers are dramatic or persistent, one might infer that poor families living in rural areas may find it harder to achieve greater well-being than those living in urban areas.

In addition, persistently poor rural areas typically enjoy fewer public and philanthropic resources to devote to services for poor populations than urban areas.

For example, scholars have noted that the tax revenue and philanthropic base necessary to fund adequate child care programs, job training services, comprehensive needs assessments, and other social services are not great enough. The few services that are offered often require individuals to commute great distances, and often come with a higher than average per capita cost due to lower population density.

Rural children are not only more likely to be poor, they are more likely to be living in deep poverty, with family incomes less than 50 percent of the poverty threshold. The official federal poverty rate is a “bright line” threshold. It does not differentiate between levels of poverty.

Rural workers tend to be employed in smaller establishments, occupations and industries that offer fewer family-friendly policies. Education is a strong predictor of access to family-friendly policies in the workplace.

More than 80 percent of rural mothers without a high school degree work in jobs that do not provide access to training. More than 50 percent work in jobs that do not provide dental insurance, parental leave and paid sick days. Mothers at the bottom of the educational distribution—both rural and urban—not only work for low wages, but also have less access to important family-friendly benefits.

Rural work is more likely to be seasonal and/or temporary, and many rural labor markets are dominated by one employer. Lower earnings for rural workers and higher poverty rates for their children do not stem from a lack of work ethic.

Among families with just one worker, family poverty in rural areas is higher: 19 percent for rural families compared to 15 percent for urban families.

Underemployment—working less than full time—is more prevalent among rural workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 19 percent of rural workers were underemployed compared to 15 percent of urban workers.

On average, rural residents spend a larger proportion of their income on health care than Americans living in metropolitan areas. The rise in health care costs in recent years has only made the disparity worse. This means fewer rural families can afford the health care they need.

Rural counties tend to have fewer primary care doctors per capita population than urban areas, and very few specialists.

Accessing medical care also presents many challenges in rural areas. Rural residents often have to travel farther for regular checkups and emergency services, significantly increasing the cost of medical treatment and reducing positive outcomes when time is critical in emergency situations. These factors translate to fewer checkups, less early detection of disease, and worse health outcomes.

Persistent poverty can have an impact at the personal and community level. The median length of poverty in rural areas is 15 percent longer than in urban areas.

People who are persistently poor are disadvantaged, but so are other residents of communities that are persistently poor. The community itself will become poorer over time. Persistently poor families who live in persistently poor communities are doubly disadvantaged.

Isolation and limited access to support services common in rural areas exaggerate the educational, social and economic challenges children living in rural America face. Rural parents are more likely to have less education, and are more likely to be underemployed.

The urban focus of welfare programs means policymakers often shortchange needy rural families when designing and implementing the social safety net programs. The socioeconomic environment that poor rural families face should be considered before designing and implementing policies and programs for the poor.

Our Catholic call for human dignity includes understanding the diversity of our communities—including an understanding of the poor in all communities, large and small.

(Joan Hess is agency director of Catholic Charities in Tell City. To read the Indiana bishops’ poverty pastoral letter in English, go to To read it in Spanish, go to The bishops are asking people to take part in a survey to gather more information that they will use to further address the issue of poverty in Indiana. The survey can be found in English at, and in Spanish at

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