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Rural Communities in Child Welfare Resource Center

Rural Communities

Rural: areas designated as outside a metropolitan statistical area. The Census Bureau describes a metropolitan statistical area as "a geographical area consisting of a large population nucleus, together with adjacent communities, which have a high degree of economic and social integration with that nucleus." According to the Census Bureau 1998 estimates, 24.9% of the population lives outside of metropolitan areas. (Population Estimates Program, Population Division, US Census Bureau) We will define a rural community as one that exhibits the following three characteristics: low population density, distance from urban centers with access to social services, and specialization of economic function. 1  

Challenges Rural Communities Face

The needs of children and families in rural communities are related to a range of conditions that typify rural communities as a whole, such as poverty, barriers posed by cultural and racial differences, and geographical and social isolation. Some of these conditions include:
  • 23% of poor homeowner households and 27% of poor renter households were inadequately housed, compared to 17% and 22% in urban areas.
  • Higher poverty levels among rural families are tied to specific economic disadvantages: lower average incomes, low or seasonal employment, and out-migration of the better-educated. Poverty is also tied to significant health risks, such as higher rates of infant mortality, childhood illness, and nutritional deficits.
  • Poverty and rurality are both correlated with higher rates of disability. According to 1995 data, the 12.5 million people with disabilities who live in non-metro areas (23%) make up a higher proportion of the total than those who live in metro areas (18%).
  • Poor rural people cannot afford their housing because they lack necessary income, not because rural housing is very expensive.  2  
Some statistics From the Economic Research Service on Rural Communities:
  • Poverty is 2 percentage points higher in rural areas than in urban areas (15.6% rural; 13.4% urban).
  • Non-metropolitan poverty rate, at 15.9%, was higher that the rate inside metropolitan areas, at 12.6%. It was also higher then the national poverty rate of 13.3%.
  • Poverty in the rural south is 19.2%.
  • The unemployment rate is 16% higher in rural areas than in urban areas (1st quarter 1997).
  • 3.2 million rural children live in poverty.
  • Child poverty rates in US rural communities increased 76% between 1973 and 1992.
  • The gap between urban and rural unemployment rates increased and child poverty has remained intractable.
  • 23% of rural poor were either full time workers or were in families with one or more full time workers.
  • 6.3 million rural households have household incomes under $15,000.
  • More than 60% of rural people in poverty worked at least part time or had a family member who worked at least part time.  3  
The 40 million Americans who live in rural communities often lack access to critically needed social services. Sparse populations generally rule out the economies of scale that urban services can realize. Without vital human and material resources, many rural communities have not been able to develop effective infrastructures, train enough social service practitioners, or plan and deliver social services that take into account the general characteristics of rural populations. Since advocacy expressly focused on the needs of rural communities has been lacking, there has been little concerted, nationwide effort to mobilize resources for rural social services provision.  4  

Cultural and Racial Barriers

Many rural communities are composed of ethnic and racial minorities with language, cultural traditions, and family structures that differ from the dominant culture and from one another. According to 1998 US Census Bureau data, African Americans comprised only 9% of the rural population but make up 20% of the population which lives below the poverty level.  5  
  • 48% of rural African-American children live in poverty.  6  
  • 46% of rural Latino children live in poverty.  7  
  • 41% of Native American children live in poverty.  8  
According to 1999 Census data, 29.8% of non-urban African Americans were living below the poverty line in 1998, compared to 25.5% of urban African Americans, and 26.9% of non-urban Latinos, compared to 25.5% of urban Latinos. Poverty data indicates that these individuals may be employed but not earning enough to sustain themselves, let alone a family.  9  

The Challenge of Serving Rural Communities

The reality of social service practice in, and resource allocation to, rural communities presents both a policy and fiscal challenge for the federal government and many state jurisdictions. Governmental responsibility, including planning, research, policy formulation, and service delivery, have been difficult to achieve for rural communities. Most departments of the federal government, including Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, Commerce, and Justice have not focused on the unique needs of rural families, and state governments usually concentrate on the demands of urban areas.  10  


  1. Shaping Responsive Social Services for Rural America, Phase I: National Action Agenda CWLA Draft, Child Welfare League of America, March 20, 2001, Washington, DC
  2. Ibid
  4. Shaping Responsive Social Services for Rural America CWLA Draft, CWLA
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. Shadburn, Jan E., Statement , Rural Development Congressional Testimony, 2000 Congressional Session, Washington, DC
  8. Ibid
  9. Ibid
  10. Ibid

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