Rural Communities in Poverty

Last month President and CEO of Goodwill of Greater Nebraska (Grand Island, NE) Tammy Slater testified before a Congressional subcommittee on the geography of poverty. Her testimony highlighted both the barriers faced by rural communities and the challenges of identifying solutions for rural poverty.
How do we define rural communities?
During her testimony, Slater noted that the cities she refers to in Nebraska aren’t like Chicago or Washington, D.C.; instead, almost 90 percent of the cities in Nebraska have fewer than 3,000 people. This difference is important because it informs the way we think about the challenges faced by rural communities.
The U.S. Census Bureau defines three categories of “rural”: mostly urban, where less than 50 percent of the county’s population lived in rural areas; mostly rural, where 50 to 99 percent of people lived in rural areas; and completely rural, where 100 percent of the people lived in rural areas. Using these categories, the census identified 704 U.S. counties out of 3,142 counties that are completely rural. That’s nearly 17 percent of all counties in the United States. Although rural areas entice families with low costs, in many cases distance, lack of transportation and fewer job opportunities keep people in poverty.
How do rural and urban poverty challenges overlap?
Both rural and urban communities face employment opportunities and education barriers, but at different rates. Only 15 percent of adults in completely rural counties had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 23.1 percent of adults living in mostly urban counties. Employment is lower in rural areas among individuals ages 18 to 64 years than in urban areas. In mostly urban areas, 69.6 percent of individuals are employed compared to 63.5 percent of adults in completely rural areas.
Like many rural states, Nebraska relies on one or two industries to employ those who complete a higher education degree. This coupled with a slowdown of major industries like agriculture emphasizes existing employment barriers. It may not be surprising than that the poverty rate for adults in completely rural counties is 15.8 percent, compared to 9.7 percent in mostly urban counties.
What can organizations do to improve education and employment opportunities?
Understanding and engaging with communities is important for developing customized solutions for any community. Slater pointed to three powerful Goodwill® programs that actively engage in rural communities to assist job seekers. These Goodwill programs go beyond a goal of employment to equip individuals with skills to get and keep a career. They also help individuals with health, financial and educational planning and training.
Solutions for rural and urban poverty may differ, but identifying and evaluating community needs is crucial for helping individuals overcome barriers to education and employment.
If you’d like to learn more about the Goodwill programs mentioned in Slater’s testimony, please visit:
Goodwill Industries of Greater Nebraska (Grand Island)
Goodwill Industries of Central Illinois (Peoria)
Goodwill Industries of Southwest Florida (Fort Myers)