Rural child poverty is at its highest level since the mid-1980s, according to two recently released USDA Reports: Rural America at a Glance, 2013 Edition and Rural Poverty & Well-being.

Like the overall poverty rate, child poverty in nonmetropolitan (rural) areas of the US has historically been higher than in metropolitan (urban) areas.  In 2012, rural child poverty increased to 26.7 percent—its highest level in nearly three decades—while the urban rate declined slightly to 20.9 percent.  

Definition of poverty. The federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) defines poverty as less income than is necessary to purchase basic needs, which include food, shelter, clothing and other essential goods (e.g., medication) and services (e.g., transportation).   

For a single adult under age 65 in 2012 the OMB estimated $11,945 was needed to pay for basic needs, while $18,480 was needed by a family of two adults and one child and $27,400 was needed by a family of two adults and three children.  Persons with less income are considered to live “below the poverty line.”

During the 1990s the rural poverty rate declined fairly steadily from a high of 17.2 percent in 1993 to a record-low of 13.4 percent in 2000.  For the next few years both the urban and rural poverty rates intermittently increased until the recession that began in 2008 was accompanied by significant increases in the poverty rates of both demographic groups.  

An additional 1.1 million nonmetropolitan residents fell below the poverty line from 2007 to 2012.  The overall rural poverty rate increased from 15.1 percent in 2008 to 18.1 percent in 2012 and rural child poverty increased to 26.7 percent in 2012.  Meanwhile, urban poverty rates slowly declined from their 2010 peaks of 14.9 percent overall and 21.9 for urban children under 18 years of age.   

Those in deep poverty have also increased. Deep poverty, the USDA report Rural Poverty & Well-being indicates, is commonly defined as having cash income below half of one’s poverty line.  In 2012 that meant a subsistence level of less than $1,000 per month for a family of four.  

Deep poverty was more acute in 2012 in rural areas (12.2%) than urban areas (9.2%).  Since 2012, little additional information has accumulated about the demographics of persons experiencing poverty and deep poverty.

How can poverty be increasing in rural America when farming has been profitable the past few years? Hasn’t farm income sustained the rural economy?

Most highly agricultural states have endured fewer economic difficulties than nonagricultural states during the recent recession.  Most agricultural producers have made money since 2007 onward, but the people who operate agricultural enterprises and their families comprise only about 10 percent of the rural population of 60 million.

The wages of the vast majority of rural laborers have always been lower than the wages paid to urban workers.  Wages are positively correlated with the amount of education.  The 2010 US Census indicated that 15.4 percent of rural Americans possessed a college degree, in comparison to 30 percent of urban residents.

Farm workers’ wages have held more or less steady during the recent recessionary period, adding to the slow recovery among laborers in rural areas who have little or no college training.  

Until 2013, the rate of unemployment among rural residents was lower than among urban residents, but recent job reports indicate a slightly higher unemployment rate among rural residents who want to work.  Many demographic and economic specialists predict poverty levels will worsen until a larger segment of the unemployed in both rural and urban areas have jobs that pay more than the current minimum wage.  

What lies ahead? It is not known if the federal minimum wage will increase.  Common sense says increasing the minimum wage will put more money in the hands of low income wage-earners and give them more buying power.  Their poverty will decrease.

Rural nonfarm and farm laborers especially need a boost in the minimum wage so they can afford their basic daily needs, improve opportunities for themselves and their children and pay for the educations needed to mobilize upward in a socioeconomic sense.  

Most small and large entrepreneurs and corporate businesses know that rural people work hard.  A major reason many companies move to rural communities is to hire hard-working rural laborers, many of whom have moved from farms into rural communities.  

Rural life has many advantages, such as access to land for gardens, recreation, a solid work ethic and the desire to contribute to the improvement of their communities, but rural workers need a boost in the minimum wage.

It’s not surprising that poor rural residents contribute a higher percentage of their available income to worthy causes, as reported on federal tax forms, than well-to-do tax-payers.  A pay boost will enable these low income residents to contribute even more to their communities.

See what you think about poverty and an increase in the minimum wage, and express your opinion to your elected officials.

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