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An Interview with William O'Hare, Ph.D, on Rural Child Poverty

August 8, 2007

William O’Hare is currently a senior fellow with the KIDS COUNT project at the Annie E. Casey Foundation and a rural fellow with the Carsey Institute. He is author of several Carsey Institute publications, including “Rural Workers Would Benefit More Than Urban Workers from an Increase in the Federal Minimum Wage,” “U.S. Rural Soldiers Account for a Disproportionately High Share of Casualties in Iraq” and “Afghanistan, and Child Poverty in Rural America.”

O’Hare has nearly 30 years of experience as an applied demographer specializing in making socio-demographic data available to the public and to policymakers.

Interviewed by Amy Seif on 3/20/07.

Seif: How many rural children live in poverty, and how does this number compare to the rate among urban children?

O’Hare: There are about 2.5 million poor children in rural America and the rate of child poverty is higher for children in rural America than for those in urban America – defined as inside and outside metropolitan areas—and it has been higher ever since we started measuring poverty on a systematic basis in the 1960s. The most recent data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey shows that 22.5 percent of rural children live in poverty compared to 19.2 percent for children in metropolitan areas. However, the rural child poverty rate varied from a low of 6.3 percent in rural Connecticut to a high of 36.7 percent in rural Mississippi.

AS: Are rates of rural children living in poverty rising and, if so, why?

WO: Since the economic recession of 2000-2001 child poverty rates in rural American have increased significantly...by roughly 3 percentage points. Most analysts point to the changing economic structure in rural America and the loss of good-paying jobs as the reason for increasing child poverty. Compared to parents in metro areas, a much higher share of rural parents are underemployed.

AS: What do these poverty statistics mean for children’s quality of life and life chances?

WO: The poverty rate is probably the single most widely used indicator of well-being. For children it is particularly important because child poverty is related to a host of negative outcomes such as dropping out of high school, becoming a teen parent, or having health problems..

AS: How many rural children go without health insurance, and why do these children lack coverage?

WO: Overall, about 11 percent of rural children lack health insurance which is the same as the rate in urban America. One indication of the loss of good jobs in rural America is that fact that employer-based health insurance has declined more rapidly in rural areas than in urban America. Data show that most children who lack health insurance are actually eligible for the State Child Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) or Medicaid. But many parents don’t realize their children are eligible for health care coverage or procedural barriers discourage them from applying for SCHIP or Medicaid. Reliance on public assistance (even for public health insurance) often carries more of a stigma for people in small towns than for people in larger metropolitan areas. It is also noteworthy that the most remote rural counties have the highest rate of uninsured kids.

AS: What programs do low-income rural children rely on most for affordable medical care?

WO: Today, more than half (53 percent) of all rural children in low-income families rely on SCHIP or Medicaid for health insurance. In 1998, the first year after the SCHIP legislation was passed, only 36 percent of rural children in low-income families were enrolled in SCHIP or Medicaid.

AS: What are some other areas which policymakers should pay attention to in order to reduce the numbers of rural children affected by poverty?

WO: The transition from youth to adulthood seems to be particularly problematic for young folks in rural America. If policymakers could enhance economic and educational opportunities in small towns and rural areas, more young folks would be able to make a smoother transition. Things as simple as making sure rural areas have access to broadband communication services and access to community colleges would be helpful.

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