What Does Poverty Look Like in Rural and Urban Communities?

Urban and rural districts alike encounter a variety of distinct difficulties each day. Alongside this, they must also consider the difficulties their customers contend with—including family situations, cafeteria bullying and poverty. As noted in “Pastoral Perspectives,” an article put forth by the Editorial Team in this June/July’s edition of School Nutrition, it is important to explore how poverty affects the students you nourish and, incidentally, how poverty differs in different areas. This topical bonus web content takes a look.

Poverty affects all communities in different ways. And while many correlate poverty to urban areas, the effects can be seen and felt in rural parts of the country, too.

Poverty is determined through a set of money income thresholds, set by the Office of Management and Budget. People who are unable to afford basic needs like food, shelter, clothing and other essential items, are deemed as poor.

Poverty rates steadily climbed after 2000, but there has been a recent reversal to the trend. Rates are now on the decline, with the official poverty rate at 12.7%, or 40.6 million people, as of 2016. But what does poverty look like in urban and rural communities?  For rural communities, it’s on the rise. In fact, rates of poverty have been historically higher in rural communities than urban areas since the 1960s. In 2015, 16.7% of the rural population was poor, while 13% of urban dwellers were living in poverty.

Although often faced with the same obstacles—transportation, education, jobs, etc.—the rural and urban poor face these barriers uniquely.  

Poor Health

Living in poverty can have adverse effects on a person’s health. Marginalized groups and vulnerable individuals are most affected and have a lack of access to information, health services like preventions and treatments, and the money to pay for it all.

Sometimes, there is a social stigma surrounding health services, which causes marginalized groups to frequent these services less. Ailments can go undiagnosed and untreated.

Impoverished families are stressed, which can lead to an increase in accidents. Parents often work several jobs sometimes with poor working environments. In cities, neighborhoods are often more dangerous and living conditions are unstable.

Children exposed to poverty often face health problems for much of their lives. “Poverty has a profound effect on specific circumstances, such as birth weight, infant mortality, language development, chronic illness, environmental exposure, nutrition, and injury,” states a study from the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Children living in poverty are at increased risk of difficulties with self-regulation and executive function, such as inattention, impulsivity, defiance, and poor peer relationships.”

The effects of living in poverty are often felt over generations. “More than 70 percent of the African American residents in the nation’s poorest urban neighborhoods are the children and grandchildren of those who lived in similar neighborhoods and conditions 40 years ago,” according to a report from American Progress.

Job Growth & Job Access

Contrary to many assumptions, many people living in poverty are employed, both in urban and rural areas. But it can be hard to benefit from any job when wages are low and hours are few. 

After the Great Recession, rural communities had a hard time bouncing back. Job growth became stagnant or nonexistent. Census data shows that the job market is smaller now than it was in 2008, by about 5%. The jobs that are created are most often in the service sector, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. And these jobs, are often lower-paying jobs, with an hourly rate of $14 or less.

The lack of jobs creates a problem for areas that once defined themselves by the work they do. Rural areas often house larger concentrations of skilled laborers like machinists and makers. As coal mines shutter, plants shut down and loggers find themselves without work, these hardworking employees are only finding customer service positions.

In urban communities, not only are their more businesses seeking employees, but the applicant pool is larger. The most high-skilled, high-paying jobs are often found in urban areas, and these centers specialize in knowledge-based work. You’ll find more jobs available to engineers, technicians, scientists and executives in urban centers.

But not all urban dwellers have access to these jobs. As more of these high-paying, high-tech jobs are created, the risk is that it will drive out the middle and working classes in the future.

As the rates of rural unemployment rise faster than rates of urban poverty, a report issued from the Journal of Rural Studies states that these rates of unemployment cannot be tied by a rural worker’s level of education, industry of employment or other factors that could affect earnings. Rural poverty may be more closely tied to the structure of rural economies and their communities.


From bus stations to underground subway systems, rentable bikes and ride share services, urban communities have access to a wide variety of transportation options. Although some modes of transit may still be an inconvenience (and unreliable), residents are often able to get to and from their jobs, homes and stores. However, these costs can add up. Some urban neighborhoods are in a transportation desert—with very limited options to affordable transit.

“In urban areas, poor neighborhoods often suffer from the lack of affordable access to public transit,” says a 2011 article in ITE Journal. “Unaffordable transport causes geographic, social and economic isolation.”

Public transportation is often unavailable in rural communities. Forget ride share opportunities or rentable bikes. These communities are isolated for those who do not have or have access to a car.


Poverty is linked to academic achievement. Children from poor families often lag behind their classmates physically, emotionally, socially and cognitively.

In rural communities, there is a teacher drought. There are problems of hiring, training and retaining both teachers and principals. The talent pool is smaller. However, often when a teacher position is filled, teachers stay for their career, pushing greener teachers to seek employment in other communities. While rural schools are often an area’s largest employer, salaries and benefits are lower, and there is a lack of professional development opportunities. Access to the Internet and exposure to advance coursework in high schools are other issues plaguing rural schools. Federal education efforts do not always take rural considerations in mind in terms of competitive grants and funds that favor larger districts. 

“Overall, rural areas have experienced shrinking tax bases, shifting local economies, and brain drain among young people who move to more urban areas after high school graduation,” according to a report from American Progress.

What rural communities do have is strong community support. These communities are small, and many families have been residents for decades. In terms of education, teachers are able to develop rich relationships with families, and students are able to connect directly to local employers.

Although sharing some similarities, the challenges of education look different for urban communities.

“Nationally, about 30% of white students attend low-poverty schools, while only 8% attend high-poverty schools. In other wordswhite students are about four times more likely to attend low-poverty schools than high-poverty schools,” states a report from the Urban Institute. The pattern is flipped for students of color, whereas over 45% of black students attendhigh-poverty schools. Only 7% of blacks attend low-poverty schools. 

Similarly to rural schools, urban schools, too, face a lack of educational resources like access highly-trained staff, college pre requisiteclasses and extracurricular activities. Urban districts also have high student-to-teacher ratios.

“These inequitable educational offerings are compounded by the toll of poverty itself on the physical and psychological development of children,” states the Urban Institute. “As a result, high-poverty schools are tasked with a tremendous load and are often unable to provide either the quality of education or the additional resources and supports needed to help students in low-income families succeed. This is concentrated disadvantage: the children who need the most are concentrated in schools least likely to have the resources to meet those needs.”

Food Costs & Access

Hunger is another challenge both urban and rural communities face. Food deserts are a common problem in both areas, where there is no primary food retailer for several miles. In an urban community, access to food could mean stopping at the local gas station or corner store. Pantry staples like eggs, breads, milk and some canned goods are often marked up at these small bodegas. Without access to a grocery store, fresh produce cannot be found for miles. Because of transportation limitations in cities, it may be too hard for a family to get to and from the grocery store. 

Families in urban areas often have access to food banks or pantries, but these resources are often hours away in rural communities.

Rural and agricultural areas often face a hunger paradox. While these communities face larger numbers of unemployment and underemployment, these areas are responsible for growing the food that feeds consumers. And yet, they often don’t have enough for themselves. Three quarters of the counties with the highest rates of food insecurity are found in rural areas.

“People who live in rural areas often face hunger at higher rates, in part because of the unique challenges living remotely presents,” according to a report from Feeding America.  

Contact Us

2900 S. Quincy Street, Suite 700
Arlington, VA 22206

Tel (703) 824-3000
Fax (703) 824-3015

> For The Media
> Work With US

Sign Up for Our Newsletters

Read the latest news and developments facing the school nutrition industry, as well as stay on top of important trends and resources.


> Read the Latest Newsletters

SNA State Associations

The School Nutrition Association has a presence in every state across the country. View links to many of the state associations to find out more about what SNA is doing nationwide. 

> Learn More