Poorest Rural Districts Poorer Than Most Cities

Last Updated: September 01, 2007

The poorest rural school districts enroll nearly a million students and have poverty rates higher than many of the nation's poorest cities: higher than Philadelphia; higher than Chicago; higher than Los Angeles; higher than Detroit.

We are talking about the 800 poorest rural districts that make up a little over 10% of all rural districts and serve some 942,000 students. We call these highest-poverty rural districts the "Rural 800."

The overall poverty rate of the Rural 800 is 33%. That means that 33% of the students in these 800 districts qualify for Title I funding, the federal program that provides funds for very low-income children.

But don't confuse this figure with the eligibility rate for federally subsidized school lunches. School lunches are available to kids whose families make up to 185% of the official poverty income level. Title I funding is based on those kids whose family incomes fall at or below the poverty line.

So, if you are thinking that an overall poverty rate of 33% is not that high, think again. The rate in Detroit is 32%; in Los Angeles it is 31.4%. It is 29.3% in Chicago and 28.2% in Philadelphia.

Rural 800 districts account for 11% of rural students, but 23% of rural Title I students. Their Title I rates range from a low of about 25% to a high of about 75%. More than 700 of the Rural 800 districts have poverty rates higher than Philadelphia.

Rural 800 districts are spread among 39 states. But they are concentrated in just 16 contiguous states in Central Appalachia, the Southeast, along the Southwest Border, and California. In fact, three-fourths of the Rural 800 districts are located in these 16 states and they serve an astounding 90% of Rural 800 Title I students.

Despite their extremely high rates of poverty, these schools and students are largely invisible to policymakers because they are geographically dispersed, often isolated, demographically and culturally diverse, and without political power.

Chart: Poorest Rural Districts Poorer Than Most Cities
The poorest 800 rural school districts are concentrated in just 16 states.

State #/Districts #/Title I Students School Age Population Poverty Rate (Title I)
Texas 130 41,034 118,723 34.6%
Kentucky 38 30,309 91,515 33.1%
Mississippi 44 28,873 85,162 33.9%
Louisiana 15 24,135 78,513 30.7%
Arizona 53 23,468 58,585 40.1%
Georgia 32 20,498 68,547 29.9%
New Mexico 27 19,095 49,779 38.4%
California 70 18,293 54,319 33.7%
West Virginia 13 12,772 38,275 33.4%
Arkansas 45 12,029 37,888 31.7%
South Carolina 11 11,255 37,195 30.3%
North Carolina 5 10,602 36,893 28.7%
Alabama 12 10,039 28,981 34.6%
Oklahoma 81 8,672 27,542 31.5%
Missouri 44 7,119 22,684 31.4%
Tennessee 7 6,219 21,770 28.6%

In order to identify the poorest rural districts, we identified statistically the 7,604 districts nationwide in which more than half of the students attend a school that is physically located in a rural community (locale codes 41, 42, or 43). Then we identified the 800 districts-about 10% of the total-that have the highest rate of eligibility for the federal Title I program. On average, each Rural 800 district serves about 1,175 students, but they range in size from fewer than 10 students to over 26,000.