The (un)changing map of rural poverty since The People Left Behind (1967)

Authors: Tracey Farrigan*, Economic Research Service - USDA, Gloria Gagin, Economic Research Service - USDA, Bruce Weber, Oregon State University, Amy Glasmeier, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Topics: Rural Geography, United States, Economic Geography
Keywords: poverty, rural
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 2:00 PM / 3:40 PM
Room: Palladian, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


As part of the War on Poverty, President Johnson created a National Advisory Commission on Rural Poverty to make a comprehensive study and appraisal of the economic situations and trends in rural areas as well as to evaluate current policy. In its September 1967 report The People Left Behind, the Commission documented the high risk of poverty for rural people. Using a five-factor index of economic status to identify poor rural areas, they noted wide geographic disparities in poverty rates and regional pockets of concentrated poverty. In this paper, we provide a retrospective look at how poverty in rural America has changed since The People Left Behind report. We focus on the spatial aspects of change and how current rural/urban area designations obscure evaluations of the progress made against rural poverty over the past half-century. Holding 1960s rural geography constant, we explore temporal differences in poverty outcomes using the report’s original index as well as a single-factor indicator of poverty status based on the official U.S. poverty measure. In brief, we find that while much progress has been made in ameliorating rural poverty in absolute terms, the relative geography of poverty has seen little change. Further, that there are consistently poor areas where people continue to be left behind, some of which are ‘hidden’ by more widespread prosperity and contemporary measures of who is poor and what is rural. We provide historical context as a means to foster discussion of outstanding research and policy needs.

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