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In rural areas, population gains from net migration have exceeded losses from natural decrease

Thursday, November 16, 2023

The rural (nonmetro) population growth that began with the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in 2020 continued into 2022, according to census population estimates. A sharp increase in net migration (the number of people moving in minus the number of people moving out) was the source of the growth. Migration to rural areas was 0.47 percent and 0.45 percent in 2020–21 and 2021–22, respectively, compared with 0.01 percent in the period before the pandemic. Overall, the rural population grew at 0.12 percent from mid-2021 through mid-2022 after accounting for the 0.33-percent decline caused by natural decrease (more deaths than births) in the same period. For rural areas, this recent growth is a reversal of population loss and near-zero migration in 2019–20 and comes after annual rural growth rates declined or were near zero in the previous 10 years. The population in metro areas followed a different trend in 2019–20 and 2020–21, dropping from 0.42 to 0.16 percent growth before returning to 0.42 percent in 2021–22. Roughly 46 million U.S. residents lived in rural areas in July 2022, making up 13.8 percent of the population. This chart is drawn from the ERS report Rural America at a Glance, published in November 2023.

West Virginia has highest share of people living in rugged terrain

Monday, November 6, 2023

USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) researchers analyzed the share of each State’s population living in rugged terrain using the Road Ruggedness Scale, a five-category measure created by ERS that classifies census tracts based on elevation changes along roads. They found that in 2010, West Virginia led the Nation with 80.7 percent of its population living in areas classified as either slightly, moderately, or highly rugged. It was followed by Vermont (51.6 percent), Hawaii (43.3 percent), Pennsylvania (39.3 percent), and Washington State (38.0 percent). In 19 States and the District of Columbia, a greater share of residents lived in slightly to highly rugged census tracts than for the Nation as a whole (11.6 percent). For most States near the top of the list, a large share of residents lived in highly rugged census tracts (the highest ruggedness category), notably West Virginia, Hawaii, Oregon, and Montana. However, despite having no highly rugged census tracts, Vermont and Connecticut still have enough residents in slightly and moderately rugged census tracts to be among the top 10 States with the highest population shares in rugged areas. While topographic variation, or “ruggedness,” is visually appealing and may spur economic growth, it can also make it more difficult to navigate land and waterways and limits space for residential and commercial expansion. Residents living in areas with rugged terrain may also require more time to travel to hospitals, schools, social services, grocery stores, and other critical destinations compared with those living in less rugged locations. This chart is drawn from data in the ERS report Characterizing Rugged Terrain in the United States, published in August 2023.

Uphill climb: The share of rural residents living in low-income areas increases with road ruggedness

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

In 2010, a higher share of rural residents lived in low-income census tracts, especially in places characterized by rugged terrain. Researchers with USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) classified census tracts (the small geographic areas used to collect population data) by the change in elevation along their roads to create the new Road Ruggedness Scale. Using this scale in conjunction with data on income and how rural a place is, they found that as ruggedness increased, the share of rural residents living in low-income census tracts increased. In contrast, the share of residents in low-income census tracts in urbanized areas decreased as ruggedness increased. Nearly 60 percent of residents in highly rugged rural locations lived in low-income census tracts in 2010, compared with 42 to 48 percent of rural residents in less rugged census tracts. However, fewer than 20 percent of residents in highly rugged, urbanized areas lived in low-income census tracts, compared with nearly 42 percent of urbanized area residents in level census tracts. In urban commuting locations, the share of the population living in low-income census tracts generally increased with ruggedness, but with more variation in the trend. This chart appears in the ERS report Characterizing Rugged Terrain in the United States published in August 2023 and uses data available in ERS’s Ruggedness Scale data product.

Country roads, take me home: Rugged areas have a higher share of rural residents

Monday, October 16, 2023

Researchers with USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) developed the Road Ruggedness Scale—a five-category measure of topographic variability along roads—and used it to study the interplay of population, rurality, and ruggedness in the United States. They found that in 2010, as land became more rugged (had greater changes in elevation), generally more of the population lived in rural census tracts (the small geographic areas used to collect population data). For example, in level census tracts, the rural portion of residents was 16.1 percent, while the rural portion living in highly rugged census tracts was nearly double that amount (29.7 percent). The reverse was true for urbanized area census tracts, with the share of residents decreasing from 73.5 percent in level locations to 57.0 percent in highly rugged ones. However, even in the top ruggedness categories, most people lived in urbanized area census tracts, indicating that ruggedness and rurality are not synonymous. The relationship between ruggedness and rurality also varies by region. The rural population share in highly rugged census tracts of the Intermountain West (57.7 percent) and Appalachian Mountains (45.7 percent) was much higher than the national share of 29.7 percent, while the share in the Pacific Coast was much lower (18.6 percent). This chart appears in the ERS report Characterizing Rugged Terrain in the United States published on August 1, 2023.

ERS develops scale to help explore effects of rugged roads on U.S. residents

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) has developed the Road Ruggedness Scale (RRS) to aid in understanding the unique role of rugged terrain as both a benefit and hindrance to the well-being of communities and their residents. The RRS has five categories based on changes in elevation along roads within census tracts (the small geographic areas used to collect population data). The census tracts are classified as: 1–level, 2–nearly level, 3–slightly rugged, 4–moderately rugged, or 5–highly rugged. Most census tracts have very little topographic variation, with 65.6 percent classified as level in the RRS. The next largest category is nearly level, with 22.4 percent of census tracts. The remaining 12.0 percent of census tracts are classified as slightly to highly rugged, and only 4.4 percent are classified as moderately or highly rugged. The RRS helps to identify landscape characteristics that may present an impediment to settlement and travel, such as the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Mountain System, the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains, and the Black Hills. These geologic features can make it difficult for people living in rugged areas to access services. They can also attract tourists and prospective residents who prefer rugged terrain or are interested in outdoor activities. To our knowledge, the RRS is the first roads-only, detailed ruggedness measure with full nationwide coverage for the United States. It has the potential to contribute to research on links between the geography and well-being of individuals, especially those living in rural areas, as well as to other research and policy applications. This chart appears in the ERS report Characterizing Rugged Terrain in the United States, published in August 2023. The Road Ruggedness Scale data product published in September 2023.

Race and ethnicity of rural labor force vary by industry

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Among racial and ethnic groups (not including non-Hispanic White) in rural areas, Hispanic workers often lead employment in the six largest rural industries. In 2019, Hispanic workers performed 14.4 percent of rural jobs in agriculture and 12.8 percent in accommodation and food services. In rural manufacturing jobs, 8.7 percent of workers were Hispanic; in government, 7.8 percent; in retail, 7.5 percent; and in health care and social assistance, 6.2 percent. Rural Black workers were more evenly distributed with 9.7 percent of the workforce in manufacturing, 9.4 percent in health care and social assistance, 9.5 percent in hotels and restaurants, and 8.8 percent in government. Black workers were less represented in retail (7.0 percent) and in agriculture (2.4 percent). Asian workers constituted less than 2 percent of the rural workforce in most industries, except for accommodation and food services (3.3 percent). Similarly, American Indian or Alaska Native workers represented less than 2 percent of rural employment in most industries except government (3.4 percent). This chart appears in the USDA, Economic Research Service report Rural America at a Glance: 2022 edition.

Domestic migration patterns foster strong ties between many nonmetro and metro areas

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Human movements between places vary considerably across space, so their contribution to the spread of COVID-19 also varied spatially. For instance, some rural communities have long histories as recreation or tourist destinations and more established migration connections to larger cities. In examining county-to-county migration patterns, researchers organized nonmetropolitan (nonmetro) counties into four equal groups, or quartiles, based on the rate at which people moved to or from metropolitan (metro) counties. The counties in the lowest quartile (lightest blue on the map) have the weakest migration connections with metro regions, meaning few people move back and forth proportionately. Remote counties far from any metro region, such as in the central and northern Great Plains, fall in the lowest quartile. Those counties in the fourth quartile (darkest blue) have the strongest migration connectivity and are typically adjacent to metro centers, such as southern New Hampshire, along the Front Range in Colorado, and in parts of Texas adjacent to Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, and San Antonio. However, some very remote areas have high migration ties to metro counties, such as areas of Wyoming, Idaho, and North Dakota. These are places that have unique economic conditions that tie them to urban areas. Western North Dakota had a burgeoning energy sector from 2012 to 2016 (when these migration flows were measured), and there are established amenity destinations in the Colorado Rockies; Sun Valley, Idaho; Jackson, Wyoming; and along the Washington and Oregon coasts. Nonmetro counties with higher migration connectivity to metro areas were more likely to experience outbreaks of COVID-19 during the first few weeks and months of the pandemic compared with less-connected nonmetro counties. This chart appears in the USDA, Economic Research Service report COVID-19 Working Paper: Migration, Local Mobility, and the Spread of COVID-19 in Rural America, published in November 2022.

Local work-related commuting in farming-dependent counties remained high during initial days of COVID-19 pandemic

Thursday, December 15, 2022

In the early weeks of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, when local and State authorities were issuing stay-at-home orders, employees in farming-dependent counties maintained a relatively high level of onsite work and commuting. Researchers at USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) and Middlebury College divided all rural (nonmetro) counties into four equal groups based on how much work-related local travel was reduced. The four groups were: greatest reduction, second-greatest, second-least, and least reduction. Those in the “least reduction” group had mobility levels similar to pre-pandemic levels. In mid-April 2020, 7 weeks after the virus first arrived in a rural county and a month after stay-at-home orders were issued, there were three times as many farming-dependent counties in the “least reduction” group as in the “greatest reduction” group. Counties dependent on government and recreation jobs showed the greatest mobility reductions during the early months of the pandemic. These differences in mobility reduction help explain differences in the initial spread of COVID-19 within counties. By the third week of April 2020, “least reduction” counties were experiencing infection rates nearly double those in counties with greater reductions in work-related mobility. This chart appears in the ERS report Migration, Local Mobility, and the Spread of COVID-19 in Rural America, published in November 2022.

Many American Indians and Alaska Natives are concentrated in high poverty rural areas

Friday, November 25, 2022

According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates for 2015-19, there were 469 nonmetropolitan (nonmetro) counties with a poverty rate of 20 percent or more, which USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) designates as high poverty. The high poverty classification in more than half of the counties (236) is characterized by a concentration of poverty within racial and ethnic minority groups, including Black or African American (153 counties), Hispanic (49 counties) and American Indian and Alaska Natives (34 counties). Many of the American Indian and Alaska Native high poverty counties are areas of historic tribal presence or were designated as reservation settlements in the 19th century. The average poverty rate for those 34 counties is 31.5 percent for the total population and 40.5 percent for the American Indian and Alaska Native population alone, a level considered to be extreme poverty. The average poverty rates for the other racial-ethnic high poverty county types are below 30 percent for the total population and below 40 percent for the Black or African American and Hispanic population groups. This chart uses information from the ERS Atlas of Rural and Small-Town America to update information on the Rural Poverty and Well-being topic page and the Amber Waves feature Anatomy of Nonmetro High-Poverty Areas: Common in Plight, Distinctive in Nature, published in February 2004.

Share of working-age population in nonmetro areas declined from 2010 to 2020

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

In nonmetro areas from 2010 to 2020, the working-age population (ages 18 to 64) declined by 4.9 percent, and the population under age 18 declined by 5.7 percent. At the same time, the population of those 65 years and older grew by 22 percent. In metro areas, the working-age population increased by 6 percent during the 2010s; however, this growth was overshadowed by the 37 percent growth in the 65 and older population. Nationwide, the overall U.S. population has aged as the baby boomer generation entered their 60s and 70s. Nonmetro areas, in addition to having an aging population, also face population decline. Between 2010 and 2020, U.S. Census data show the population in nonmetro counties declined by 0.6 percent, the first decade of overall nonmetro population decline in U.S. census history. Nonmetro population subsequently increased in the first year and a half of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic from 2020 to 2021 which saw people move out of metro areas into rural places. However, population gains due to COVID-19 were not enough to offset a decade-long slide in the share of the population that is of working-age nor to reduce the share of the rural population that was 65 or older during this period. Overall, population decline and an increase in average age in rural areas will affect the makeup and availability of the rural labor force. This chart appears in the USDA, Economic Research Service report Rural America at a Glance: 2022 edition, published on November 15, 2022.

Nearly half of U.S. States lost population in rural areas in 2010-20, according to U.S. census data

Monday, November 15, 2021

During the decade from 2010-20, 24 States lost population in nonmetropolitan, or rural areas, according to the 2020 U.S. census. Sixteen of those States lost population overall or showed slow population growth (less than 5 percent) during the period. Data from the 2020 census show the U.S. population grew 7.4 percent from 2010 to 2020, slower than the 9.7 percent growth in the previous decade. West Virginia, Mississippi, and Illinois lost population in the most recent decade, with the population declining the most in West Virginia at 3.2 percent. West Virginia also was the only State to lose population in metropolitan areas as well as in nonmetro areas. The highest-population growing State from 2010 to 2020 was Utah at 18.4 percent, and Idaho, Texas, North Dakota, and Nevada also showed population growth of 15 percent or more. This map uses data from the USDA, Economic Research Service’s State Fact Sheets data product, updated in November 2021.

Data show U.S. poverty rates in 2019 higher in rural areas than in urban for racial/ethnic groups

Monday, August 23, 2021

Across all races and ethnicities, U.S. poverty rates in 2019 were higher at 15.4 percent in nonmetro (rural) areas than in metro (urban) areas at 11.9 percent. Rural Black or African American residents had the highest incidence of poverty in 2019 at 30.7 percent, compared with 20.4 percent for that demographic group in urban areas. Rural American Indians or Alaska Natives had the second highest rate at 29.6 percent, compared with 19.4 percent in urban areas. The poverty rate for White residents was about half the rate for either Blacks or American Indians at 13.3 percent in rural areas and 9.7 percent in urban settings. Rural Hispanic residents of any race had the third highest poverty rate at 21.7 percent, compared with 16.9 percent in urban areas. Non-Hispanic White residents had the lowest poverty rates in both rural (12.7 percent) and urban (8.2 percent) areas in 2019. This chart appears in the Economic Research Service topic page for Rural Poverty & Well-Being, updated June 2021.

Rural counties with high and persistent poverty in 2019 were mostly located across the South

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

A recent USDA, Economic Research Service study of U.S. poverty identified 310 counties—10 percent of all counties—with high and persistent levels of poverty in 2019. High and persistent poverty counties had poverty rates of 20 percent or more in 1980, 1990, 2000, and on average for 2007-2011 and 2015-2019. Of those 310 counties, 86 percent, or 267 counties, were rural (nonmetro). These rural counties were concentrated in historically poor areas of the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, the Black Belt, and the southern border regions, as well as on Federal Indian reservations. More than 5 million rural residents, or about 12 percent of the U.S. rural population, lived in counties that had high and persistent poverty rates in 2019. Of those, 1.5 million individuals had incomes below the Federal poverty threshold, accounting for 20 percent of the total rural poor population. Rural residents who identify as Black or African American and American Indian or Alaska Native were particularly vulnerable. Nearly half the rural poor within these groups lived in high and persistent poverty counties in 2019. By comparison, 20 percent of rural poor Hispanics and 12 percent of rural non-Hispanic Whites lived in those counties. This chart appears in the August 2021 Amber Waves finding, Rural Poverty Has Distinct Regional and Racial Patterns.

Nonmetro areas faring better than metro areas in recovery from pandemic’s lowest employment levels

Friday, May 28, 2021

Early during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, U.S. employment fell at rates not seen since the Great Depression, with the greatest declines occurring in metro areas. Before the pandemic, employment growth in metro areas had averaged 1.4 percent per year for the 12 months prior to March 2020, more than twice the rate in nonmetro areas (0.6 percent per year). After March 2020, the situation reversed. In April 2020, metro employment was 15.0 percent below 12 months earlier, while nonmetro employment was 12.2 percent lower. Employment has since largely recovered in both metro and nonmetro areas but remained lower in February 2021 than levels 12 months earlier. The extent to which employment was still depressed in February 2021 is greater in metro areas: Metro employment was 5.7 percent lower in February 2021 than in February 2020, while nonmetro employment was 3.4 percent lower. This chart appears in the Economic Research Service topic page, The COVID-19 Pandemic and Rural America, updated May 2021.

Fentanyl and other illicit opioids replaced prescription drugs as drivers of the opioid epidemic in 2011

Friday, April 2, 2021

Since the late 1990s, an opioid epidemic has afflicted the U.S. population, particularly those in the prime working ages of 25-54. As a result, the National age-adjusted mortality rate from drug overdoses rose from 6.1 per 100,000 people in 1999 to 21.7 per 100,000 in 2017, then dipped to 20.7 per 100,000 in 2018 and rose back to 21.6 in 2019. Among the prime working age population, the drug overdose mortality rate was 37.8 deaths per 100,000 people in 2019. This rate was exceeded only by cancer (39.2 deaths per 100,000) in 2019 as a major cause of death in this population. ERS researchers, examining the opioid epidemic from 1999 to 2018, observed two distinct phases: a “prescription opioid phase” (1999-2011) and a succeeding “illicit opioid phase” (2011-2018), marked especially by the spread of fentanyl and its analogs. Updated data show the second phase has extended into 2019. Mortality data indicate that in the prescription opioid phase, drug overdose deaths were most prevalent in areas with high rates of physical disability, such as central Appalachia. Rural residents, middle-age men and women in their 40s and early 50s were most affected, as were Whites and American Indian/Alaskan Natives. Opioid prescriptions ceased driving the epidemic in 2011 as increased regulation and greater awareness of prescription addiction problems took hold. The illicit opioid phase that followed involved primarily heroin and synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl. Fentanyl and its analogs are often used to spike other addictive drugs, including prescription opioids, creating powerful combinations that make existing drug addictions more lethal. During the study period, this second phase was concentrated in the northeastern United States, particularly in areas of employment loss. This phase most often involved urban young adult males, ages 25 to 39. All the racial/ethnic groups studied—Hispanics, Blacks, American Indian/Alaskan Natives, and Whites—were affected. This chart updates data found in the Economic Research Service report The Opioid Epidemic: A Geography in Two Phases, released April 2021.

Rural death rates from COVID-19 surpassed urban death rates in early September 2020

Friday, March 19, 2021

During the initial COVID-19 surge between March and June 2020, large urban areas had the highest weekly death rates from the virus in the United States. Those numbers declined as medical professionals learned more about the virus, how to treat it, and how to prevent its spread. As the virus spread from major urban areas to rural areas, the second COVID-19 surge, from July to August 2020, brought more deaths to rural areas. The peak in deaths associated with this surge was smaller because testing was more widespread, the infected population was younger and less vulnerable, and treatments were more effective. However, in early September 2020, COVID-19 death rates in rural areas surpassed those in urban areas. This trend continued into a third, still ongoing, surge that spiked in rural areas during the holiday season and again shortly thereafter. Rural areas have shown higher death rates per 100,000 adults since September in part because they had higher rates of new infections than urban areas, but that is not the whole story. Rural COVID-19 deaths per 100 new infections 2 weeks prior (to account for the lag between infection and death) were 2.2 in the first 3 weeks of February—35 percent higher than the corresponding urban mortality rate of 1.6 deaths per 100 new infections 2 weeks earlier. The rural population appears to be more vulnerable to serious infection because of the older age of its population, higher rates of underlying medical conditions, lack of health insurance, and greater distance to an intensive care hospital. As of early February, death rates have started decreasing, possibly because of more widespread vaccinations among the most vulnerable populations. This chart updates data found in the February 2021 Amber Waves data feature, “Rural Residents Appear to be More Vulnerable to Serious Infection or Death from COVID-19.”

Nonmetro population change has remained near zero in recent years

Friday, October 30, 2020

The U.S. population in nonmetro (rural) counties stood at 46.1 million in July 2019, accounting for 14 percent of U.S. residents spread across 72 percent of the Nation's land area. Nonmetro population growth has remained close to zero in recent years and was just 0.02 percent from July 2018 to July 2019, according to the latest county population estimates from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. As in previous periods of economic difficulties, such as in the mid-1980s and early 2000s, nonmetro America experienced a steep decline in population growth rates during the Great Recession. Unlike those previous periods of difficulty, the post-recession population recovery during the 2010s has been quite slow. Nonmetro population growth fell from a peak of 0.7 percent in 2006-07 to -0.14 percent in 2011-12. The nonmetro growth rate has been lower than in metropolitan (metro) counties since the mid-1990s, and the gap widened considerably in recent years. This chart appears in the July 2020 Amber Waves data feature, “Modest Improvement in Nonmetro Population Change During the Decade Masks Larger Geographic Shifts.”

Racial and ethnic minorities made up about 22 percent of the rural population in 2018, compared to 43 percent in urban areas

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Rural America is less racially and ethnically diverse than the Nation’s urban areas. In 2018, Whites accounted for 78.2 percent of the rural population compared to 57.3 percent of urban areas. While Hispanics were the fastest-growing segment of the rural population, they accounted for only 8.6 percent of rural areas, but 19.8 percent of urban areas. Blacks made up 7.8 percent of the rural and 13.1 percent of the urban population. American Indians were the only minority group with a higher concentration in rural areas (2.1 percent) than urban (0.4 percent). Relatively few Asians and Pacific Islanders (included in the “Other” category) were rural residents, with these groups accounting for 0.9 and 0.05 percent of the rural population, respectively. The rest of the “Other” category reported multiple races and accounted for 2.2 percent of the rural population. This chart updates data found in the November 2018 ERS report, Rural America at a Glance, 2018 Edition.

More COVID-19 cases per capita in U.S. metro than nonmetro areas, but the share of cases in nonmetro areas is increasing

Friday, October 2, 2020

COVID-19 has spread to nearly every nation in the world, and to every State and nearly every county in the United States. The virus initially spread most rapidly to large metropolitan areas, and most confirmed cases are still in metro areas with populations of at least 1 million, according to the Economic Research Service’s (ERS) analysis of data from the Johns Hopkins University Center for System Science and Engineering. This is consistent with most of the U.S. population living in large metro areas. Even in per capita terms, the prevalence of COVID-19 cases has been greater in metro than in nonmetro areas since the initial appearance of the pandemic in the United States (the first confirmed case was reported on January 20, 2020). As of September 1, cumulative confirmed cases per 100,000 residents reached 1,877 in metro areas, compared with 1,437 cases in nonmetro areas. Although the prevalence of COVID-19 cases remains lower in nonmetro areas, the share of cases in nonmetro areas has grown since late March. The nonmetro share of all confirmed U.S. COVID-19 cases grew from 3.6 percent on April 1 to 11.1 percent on September 1. ERS regularly produces research on rural America, including demographic changes in rural communities and drivers of rural economic performance. This chart appears in the ERS topic page, The COVID-19 Pandemic and Rural America, updated September 2020.

Rural poverty rates dropped across all race/ethnicity groups between 2013 and 2018

Monday, August 17, 2020

In 2013, rural poverty reached a 30-year peak at 18.4 percent of the rural population. Between 2013 and 2018, the rural poverty rate fell 2.3 percentage points, a decline of about 1 million rural residents in poverty. Rural poverty rates declined for all race/ethnicity groups. The rural Black population showed the largest decline in poverty rates, from 37.3 percent in 2013 to 31.6 percent in 2018. Despite this decrease, Blacks continued to have the highest poverty rate among all rural race/ethnicity groups. While Blacks made up 7.6 percent of the rural population, they accounted for 14.9 percent of the rural poor in 2018. American Indians had the second-highest poverty rate (30.9 percent) among all rural race/ethnicity groups in 2018, 3.5 percentage points lower than in 2013. Hispanics had the lowest poverty rate among rural minority groups (23.8 percent) in 2018, an improvement of 4.4 percentage points from 2013. Whites have historically had a much lower rural poverty rate (14.0 percent in 2018), and their rate fell 1.9 percentage points from 2013 to 2018. However, the majority of the rural poor are White. Whites account for 84.8 percent of the overall rural population and 73.4 percent of the rural population in poverty in 2018. This chart updates data that appeared in the November 2018 ERS report, Rural America at a Glance, 2018 Edition.