Poverty’s rural face


In the United States, myths abound about income inequality, economic stagnation, and which Americans have to struggle to get back on their feet. Contrary to what many of us believe, the tougher economic battle is waged in rural America, specifically in what are called “nonmetro” counties.

That’s according to data in this year’s edition of Rural America at a Glance, released this month by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A “metro” county includes an urban area of at least 50,000 people, or has large flows of commuters from an adjacent county with at least one such urban area. Nonmetro, or rural, counties lack these factors.

Based on Census data, the nation’s nonmetro counties in 2012 had 46.2 million people (14.7 percent of the total U.S. population) and 20.2 million people who were employed (14.2 percent of the nation’s total).

Although the USDA report doesn’t engage in political analysis, rural counties are mostly represented in the U.S. House by Republicans. Despite the greater economic struggles in these areas, GOP lawmakers are more likely than Democrats to oppose safety-net measures such as food stamps, government-sponsored health care, jobless-benefit extensions and a higher minimum wage.

These findings in the report should give second thoughts to Republican lawmakers with many rural constituents:

● Job growth lags in nonmetro counties. USDA researchers reported that while employment between the second quarters of 2011 and 2012 grew by 1.6 percent in metro areas, it rose by only 0.5 percent in rural zones.

● Earnings disparities continue. Last year, median earnings for full-time workers in nonmetro areas were $32,000, almost 17 percent lower than the $38,500 median for their metro counterparts.

The gulf was even larger at the upper end of the pay scale. At the 95th percentile, workers in rural areas earned a median $91,000 — 27 percent less than the $125,000 median in metros.

● Higher poverty persists. In 2012, 15 percent of Americans lived in poverty. The rate was 14.5 percent in metro areas, but 17.7 percent in rural America.

High-poverty counties — those with a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher — also tilt rural. Of the nation’s 703 high-poverty counties in 2007-11, 571 were in nonmetro areas.

These should be eye-opening numbers for all Americans, whether they live in the city or the country, and whether they hold elected office or not. The USDA report puts a different face on economic struggles in the United States.

It should also foster a different attitude among lawmakers, particularly Republicans whose rural constituents deserve and would benefit from federal support.