Chapter 11: Poverty Across Rural People and Places

In Chapter 11, “Poverty Across Rural People and Places,” we unpack the double jeopardy of rural poverty, where persons with characteristics predisposing them to be poor live in poor places also experiencing underdevelopment. While poverty is frequently assumed to be an economic phenomenon, we argue that it is far more complex, containing multiple political, social, structural, and spatial dimensions. Context matters in understanding poverty, and the federal poverty line can leave out place-based factors involved in the construction of poverty. Looking further at the multidimensional aspect of poverty, this chapter outlines various case-studies to demonstrate that the lived-experience of the rural poor also entails: a lack of access to health care, child care, and social services; diminished educational and employment opportunities; limited political power; and exposure to living environments that may be physically unsafe and/or environmentally hazardous. We conclude this chapter by examining the individual, cultural, and structural explanations of poverty, highlighting that rural poverty is widespread and persistent, and deserves higher visibility on the national policy agenda.

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Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions

1. In the U.S., official measurements of poverty are based on economic measures, such as income. That is, as the chapter argues, we often think of poverty as a primarily an economic phenomenon. Use the two profiles of poor adults in the chapter (referred to by the pseudonyms Sharon Wright and Ann Lewis) as a springboard for discussion. How do these two profiles suggest the ways in which poverty both is an economic phenomenon and at the same time is not simply an economic phenomenon, but is in fact multi-dimensional in nature? What do the two profiles, as well as the other discussion in the chapter, suggest regarding the nature and definition of poverty?

2. What is the difference between poverty and social exclusion? How might these different concepts be used to understand how social inequality produces different policy responses? What might the differences be between policies aimed at reducing poverty and those aimed at reducing social exclusion? Are all forms of exclusion contingent on a relative lack of income? What might the implications be for those targeted by these policies?

3. This chapter discusses the poverty rate and the composition of poverty. What is the difference? Explain how this has had an impact on rural poverty discourse and policy development.

4. Box 11.1 states that published studies have “tended to treat social categories like gender, race, and age separately rather than suggesting their interrelations in reproducing poverty and disadvantage,” (p. 266) Why do you think this is? What can we learn by understanding the complexity of poverty through the lens of interacting power relations? What are the implications for public policy?

5. Chapter 4 (Understanding Community in Rural Society) discusses the ideological shift from collective commitments in community and society to an emphasis on the promotion of individual rights. Many scholars have argued that the balance between rights and commitments have swung too far toward individual freedom and away from civic responsibility. Do you agree that this shift to individualism has occurred? Why or why not? What does this imply about the nation’s responsibility towards less well-off individuals or/and places?

6. In this chapter we discuss cultural vs. structural ways of understanding and explaining poverty. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each approach? Can these two perspectives be reconciled?


1. Cultural vs. Structural Explanations of Poverty. In this chapter, we discuss cultural vs. structural ways of understanding and explaining poverty. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each approach? Use the two profiles of poor adults in the chapter (referred to by the pseudonyms, Sharon Wright and Ann Lewis). Divide the class into small group and have each group analyze the circumstances described in each profile from the standpoint of either a cultural or a structural perspective. Based on the information provided, which perspective yields a more convincing explanation of disadvantage in rural society? Share out and discuss.

2. Poverty, Academic Outcomes, & School Experiences. This chapter reviews cultural vs. structural ways of understanding and explaining poverty. Several years ago, the Newberg School District in Oregon, which serves students from both rural and urban areas, took on an initiative to better understand the experiences of students in their district struggling with economic disadvantage. One of the outcomes was the following video which was used, in part, for the professional development of educators.

The video can be accessed at this link.

Pay particular attention to the way these high school students describe their experiences in this brief, school-produced video documentary, All Means Me Too. As you watch the video, take notes on the following:

  • How do these students themselves describe their experiences of poverty and social exclusion (directly and/or indirectly)?
  • To what extent do these narratives speak to cultural or structural ways of understanding poverty? To what extent do they speak to intersectional ways of understanding poverty?
  • How do their experiences outside of school affect their experiences in school?
  • What are the implications for educators?

After viewing the video, discuss.

3. Trends in the Spatial Distribution of Poverty. Chapter 2 notes that, while populations concentrate in metropolitan areas, poverty concentrates in nonmetropolitan areas. That is, poverty rates have historically been higher in nonmetro than in metro-designated places. Explore these patterns in your own state. Keep in mind the differences between places designated as “metropolitan” and “nonmetropolitan,” “urban,” and “rural.” You may want to refer back to Chapter 2 which discusses these designations. Conduct an analysis of census data for your state that compares poverty rates for the entire state and for metropolitan, nonmetropolitan, urban and rural areas for 2000, 2010, and the most recent American Community Survey data available. Represent the data in the form of a table or a bar chart. What do the data suggest regarding the spatial distribution and persistence of poverty?

Data Instructions:

To determine total, rural only, urban only, metropolitan, and nonmetropolitan populations for 2000 and 2010, follow the steps below:

  • i. Navigate to the U.S. Census American Fact Finder by going to
  • ii. On the American FactFinder main page, locate the heading “What We Provide” on the left side of the page. Locate “Decennial Census” and click “Get Data.”
  • iii. Next to “Enter a geography name or use the Geography Filter Options below:” type in the name of your state (for example, “New York”). Click on “Go.”
  • iv. Select “Geographies” located on the left sidebar. A popup window should appear.
  • v. On the “Select Geographies” page, select “Name” on the second tab at the top.
  • vi. In the “Geography Results” section to the right, you will see a long list of geographies covering multiple pages. At the top of the list, continuing with our example, you should see “New York” and “New York–Urban.” Select the two categories’ checkboxes and click “Add.” You should now see the two geographies under “Your Selections” at the top left of your window.
  • vii. To find the other geographic components, you will need to repeat these steps with: “New York–Rural,” “New York–In metropolitan statistical area (MSA)/consolidated metropolitan statistical area (CMSA),” and “New York–Not in metropolitan statistical area (MSA)/consolidated metropolitan statistical area (CMSA).” You will have to scroll through several pages of geographies to find all the geographic components. You should now see all geographies under “Your Selections” at the top left of your window.
  • viii. Select “Close” on the top right of the “Geographies” selection box.
  • ix. At the top of the list, you should see “Profile of Selected Economic Characteristics: 2000” (2000SF1 100% Data). Clicking on the link will generate a table that shows the total population for urban, rural, metro, and nonmetro in 2000, as well as those populations broken down by a variety of demographic and household characteristics. Make a note of this data in your table.
  • x. To obtain the 2010 data, repeat the same procedure, but instead of selecting “Decennial Census,” select “American Community Survey.” Be sure to select the same geographies (United States, United States–In metropolitan statistical area, United States–Not in metropolitan statistical area, United States–Rural, United States–Urban). Do not forget to select the checkbox “Show Geographic Components (e.g., urban, rural).” All selections should be on the first page.
  • xi. To view the 2010 data, locate the “Show Results From” box on the top right corner of the Search Results” box. Click the dropdown menu and select “2010” for 2010 data.
  • xii. The 2010 ACS 5-year estimates will be the first result. Click on the link to access the data needed to complete your table.
  • xiii. Repeat the same procedures for the most recent American Community Survey estimate data.

4. Factors of Rural Poverty: Divide into four groups. Each group will be assigned a factor of poverty: education, health, geography, and household/family structure. Feel free to add or replace with other factors. Within each group, list several circumstances that may cause/keep people in rural communities from escaping poverty. Encourage students to consider topics from other chapters. After these factors have been identified, ask the class to interview relevant community leaders such as school superintendent, mayor, county health commissioner, etc. to see if they agree with the identified factors. If not, find out what factors these leaders do believe constrain social mobility among less well-off persons in the community.