Poverty on the plains

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Journal Democrat
By: Center for Rural Affairs
April 30, 2012

Poverty on the plains

Lyons, Neb. -- April 27, the Center for Rural Affairs released a report that challenges many conventional assumptions about where poverty and food insecurity exists in the central United States. The report concludes that rural counties in the Midwest and Great Plains are experiencing higher incidence of poverty as well as greater rates of food insecurity, especially among children, than urban centers in the region. These findings challenge conventional thought and policy debates which often conclude, directly or implicitly, that poverty and food insecurity are primarily urban issues.

"Rural poverty continues to be a serious issue in many parts of the Great Plains region, affecting scores of rural households and families," said Jon Bailey, Director of Research and Analysis at the Center for Rural Affairs and co-author of the report. "The poverty rates among rural children are most alarming, both in the immediate term and for their long-term development."

The report, Poverty on the Great Plains, is the third in a series of briefs examining data from the 2010 Census. The analysis covers a 10 state region that includes North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa and selected counties in Colorado, Montana, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

A full copy of the report can be downloaded at: http://files.cfra.org/pdf/census-brief3-poverty.pdf

According to the report, 414,331 people in rural areas (or 13.3 percent of the regional rural population) were living in poverty in 2010. And that same year 145,065 or 16.4 percent of rural children in the region lived in poverty compared to 15.6 percent of children in micropolitan counties and 14.1 percent in metropolitan counties.

While portions of metropolitan areas of the region are likely to have among the highest poverty rates in the region, the data presented here is county level data that in many cases contains both high poverty and low poverty areas within a county or metropolitan area.

Additionally, Bailey points out that another sign of living in poverty is food insecurity. Food Insecurity is defined as USDA's measure of lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members or limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.

Bailey's report finds that rural people who were food insecure accounted for 12.7 percent of the population in 2010. And rural children who were food insecure accounted for 23.8 percent. It is critical for the future of rural residents that the issue of food insecurity be addressed. Solving childhood poverty and food insecurity is particularly important as the physical and intellectual development of children is affected by poverty and a lack of access to healthy food.

"A food insecure household may not experience insecurity throughout the entire year," continued Bailey. "Any time one has to make a choice between adequate food and other expenses, such as medical bills, a household is considered to be food insecure."

A previous report also authored by Bailey found that although rural grocery stores play a crucial role in our rural communities, providing vital sources of nutrition, jobs and tax revenue that support the community, they are slowly disappearing across the nation. In Iowa, for example, the number of grocery stores with employees dropped by almost half from 1995 to 2005, from about 1,400 stores in 1995 to slightly over 700 just 10 years later. Meanwhile, "supercenter" grocery stores (Wal-Mart and Target, for example) increased by 175 percent in the 10-year period.

"The growing phenomena of rural 'food deserts' - the lack of outlets for purchasing food - is impacting residents in many rural areas of the nation, no matter their age or income," Bailey said. "And combined with increased rural poverty rates, especially among rural children, food insecurity among rural families is on the rise."

"In order to reverse these trends in rural America, it is crucial for rural communities and public policy to find new, innovative ways to create rural economic opportunities and revitalize rural economies," Bailey said.

A 2007 Center for Rural Affairs analysis demonstrated that USDA and Congress have severely over-subsidized the biggest and most powerful farms while consistently under-investing in rural economic development, spending twice as much on subsidizing the 20 largest farms in each of 13 leading farm states as it invested in rural development programs to create economic opportunity for millions of people in thousands of towns in the 20 rural counties with the most out-migration in each respective state - (the full report - An Analysis of USDA Farm Program Payments and Rural Development Funding In Low Population Growth Rural Counties, a.k.a. Oversubsidizing and Underinvesting... can be viewed or downloaded at: http://www.cfra.org/node/603).

According to Bailey, federal contributions to rural development have been plummeting for years - almost one-third of the USDA Rural Development budget has been cut since 2003. And Congress is currently considering making even further cuts to already bare-boned rural development programs. For example, funds for the popular Value Added Producer Grant are in jeopardy and all the money for the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program is currently on the chopping block. The USDA only uses about 1.7 percent of its budget for rural development.

"Addressing poverty and food insecurity, especially among rural children, requires setting profoundly different priorities than are evidenced in the iteration of the Farm Bill currently being debated in Congress," Bailey said.

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