While the word "poverty" may evoke images of blighted city neighborhoods, poverty levels actually are higher in rural counties. But rural poverty tends to be less obvious because it tends to be dispersed, rather than clustered in specific neighborhoods, note Katherine Curtis and Leann Tigges, University of Wisconsin-Madison professors of community and environmental sociology.
Tigges and Curtis talked about some of their research findings in the following interview.
What does poverty in rural Wisconsin look like?
Katherine Curtis: One thing that makes rural poverty particularly interesting is that it's actually hard to see. Often, when considering urban poverty, neighborhoods with boarded windows, litter and graffiti, or other symbols of disorganization and economic hardship come to mind. Poverty in urban places tends to be clustered and visible. In contrast, rural poverty is "hidden" in the sense that impoverished people and households are not spatially clustered. The rural poor live near the financially secure or, in especially sparsely settled communities, they tend to be isolated from other people. The rural poor are often out of view.
How serious is the problem of rural poverty in Wisconsin? Has it increased in recent years?
Curtis: For the state as a whole, poverty grew from 8.7 percent in 2000 to 13.2 percent for the period covering 2006 to 2010, marking a nearly 52 percent increase in poverty. At the same time, poverty increased in rural counties in Wisconsin. In 2000, the average poverty rate for rural counties was 9.6 percent. For the 2006–2010 period, poverty had grown to 12.6 percent. Poverty increased similarly in the state's urban counties (7.2 percent in 2000 and 10.1 percent in 2006–2010). However, the level of poverty was consistently lower among urban counties compared to rural counties.
Can you please define rural poverty?
Leann Tigges: The poverty level in the United States is around $11,000 a year for a single person. You add about $4,000 per person to that to determine the level for different-size families. So for a family of three: about $19,000. If you make more than that, you're not considered "poor" and if you make less than that, you are. That's true whether you're in a high cost of living area or a low cost of living area.
Many people think that people in rural areas actually need much less than urban people in terms of income, but a lot of things besides housing take more of a rural family's budget. Transportation costs can be higher, utility costs can be higher. So lots of things that rural families need are more expensive. If you just adjusted poverty for cost of living, which would mainly be housing, you wouldn't capture that rural–urban difference.