Blog for Rural America

The Center for Rural Affairs, a private, non-profit organization, is working to strengthen small businesses, family farms and ranches, and rural communities. Permission to reprint items from this web log is hereby granted, on the condition that clear credit is given to the original source of the material. If the blog provides information for a story, please let us know by sending an email to

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Latest Rural Poverty Data

- from the desk of Jon Bailey, Center for Rural Affairs,

Latest Data on Rural Poverty

Pervasive poverty still reigns in rural America, but things are looking up in the Plains

In an annual, summertime ritual, we bring you the latest data from the United States Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis on county income levels.

Based on 2003 data (the latest data available), the new figures again show how pervasive rural poverty is in the United States. Of the 250 lowest income counties in the nation, 228 are non-metropolitan counties.

However, there is some good news, especially for the Great Plains region. The lowest income region in the nation from 1997 to 2002, the Great Plains still has several of the lowest income counties in the nation in 2003. However, things are looking up for several counties and states.

Loup County, Nebraska, was the first, second, or third lowest income county from 1997 to 2002; in 2003, Loup County is the fourth lowest income county, but its per capita income increased nearly $3,600 from 2002 to 2003. And 2002’s lowest income county, Slope County, North Dakota, is not even among the 250 lowest income counties in 2003.

For six consecutive years, rural Nebraska was also home to several of the lowest income counties in the nation. In 2003, only two rural Nebraska counties were among the 50 lowest income counties in the country.

The per capita income of the nation’s lowest income county – Starr County, Texas – is about 34 percent of the nation’s per capita personal income, and about 800 percent less than the nation’s highest income county (New York, New York – Manhattan). The table below shows the 20 lowest-income counties in 2003.

20 Lowest Per Capita Income Counties in America

County 2003 Per Capita Income
1. Starr, TX $10,805
2. Ziebach, SD $11,264
3. Maverick, TX $12,774
4. Loup, NE $12,819
5. Zavala, TX $13,304
6. Todd, SD $13,505
7. Jefferson, MS $13,608
8. Grant, NE $13,705
9. Zapata, TX $13,847
10. Hamilton, FL $13,932
11. Union, FL $14,021
12. Shannon, SD $14,106
13. San Juan, UT $14,363
14. Guadalupe, NM $14,455
15. Presidio, TX $14,465
16. DeKalb, MO* $14,577
17. Hancock, TN $14,610
18. Elliot, KY $14,633
19. Buffalo, SD $14,649
20. Jackson, KY $14,760

* Represents a metropolitan county

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Post a comment here or, for more information, contact John Crabtree,

Center for Rural Affairs
Values. Worth. Action.


  • At 9:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    19 of 20 of the lowest income counties are rural (or at least not urban) - Dekalb County, Missouri being the exception. Does that ratio continue for the lowest income 100 or 250?

    In other words, are there only a handful of metro counties in the lowest income 100? If the ratio from the lowest 20 holds, there would be 5 in the lowest 100 and 12 or 13 in the lowest 250.

  • At 9:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Maybe if so-called "economic development" in rural communties was not so focused on recruiting out of state corporations that only want to create low-wage jobs and exploit rural people, these numbers would turn around more.

    I know that the Center focuses on a different kind of economic development that create more opportunities for rural people. You should be commended for that. But we need to get after these federal, state and local economic development programs that only worry about the number of jobs they create and do not worry about how much the people make, nor who owns the business and who benefits in the end.

  • At 6:26 PM, Blogger Center for Rural Affairs said…

    In response to the question in the first post on this topic ---

    Of the 250 lowest income counties in the nation, 228 of are non-metro counties ---

    Or, looking at it another way, only 22 of the 250 lowest income counties in the U.S. are metropolitan counties

    For more information on rural poverty data check out our August newsletter at -

    While you are there, sign up for the Center for Rural Affairs free newsletter.

    And of course, I encourage you to keep posting your questions and comments here. thanks, John Crabtree,

    Center for Rural Affairs
    Values. Worth. Action

  • At 8:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I would take issue with the comment relating to economic development in the rural areas. Rural locations realize that it takes a diverse mixture of employers to build the economic base of a community. One of the key components is entrepreneurship but because rural areas offer a lower cost of living and typically a lower cost to do business, the term low wage jobs is a bit misleading. It all depends on your perspective.
    I would also relate that while Dekalb County is included within an MSA (just added in January), they are very much a rural county and the location of two state prisons within their county certainly impacts their average wage levels.

  • At 9:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    First, I want to avoid being overly confrontational. I think this discussion is a good one

    And, I will be back later today with some evidence. But I just thought I would mention that I take issue with YOUR comment that "because rural areas offer a lower cost of living and typically a lower cost to do business, the term low wage jobs is a bit misleading." - a quote from your post, not my thinking.

    Actually, your comment seems to reflect exactly the attitude that I have concerns about.

    Your claim that the cost of living is lower in rural areas is a "conventional wisdom" that does not stand up to scrutiny very well. There are some differences in cost of living - housing is most worthy of note.

    However, most elements of the "cost of living" are not lower.
    food - is not lower (often higher)
    health care - is not lower (often higher because there is an added transportation cost)
    transportation - more because of distance, also, gasoline is oten higher in rural communities

    Also, the two primary reasons the cost of doing business is cheaper in rural communities are chearper real estate and lower labor costs. But one cannot use low wages as and argument for low wages.

  • At 12:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    an article about a study on "cost of doing business" in various states - says that South Dakota and North Dakota are "top of the list" for cost of doing business

    I live in rural North Dakota, and let me tell you, it is not cheap to live here. But it is cheap to do business because we have too many low-wage jobs. Not sure what the person meant earlier by saying that the term low-wage job in misleading. You would consider yourself lucky to find a job for more than $8 bucks an hour in my town, try raising kids on that. I have no idea how I am ever going to pay for my kid to go to college. And I will pay the same tuition that someone from Fargo pays.

  • At 9:11 PM, Blogger beboppn said…

    Another common denominator is perhaps; most of these counties are in "right to work"....for less states. "This law was written for the love of money, not for the love of thy fellow man." quote North Dakota NPL 1947.

  • At 9:19 PM, Blogger Center for Rural Affairs said…

    If you need a good quote, ask a barber!


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