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US rural poverty rate unchanged despite farm boom

WASHINGTON, Aug 28 (Reuters) - Despite the robust farm economy, the rural poverty rate is “statistically unchanged” at 15.2 percent, 3 points above the national average, the U.S. government said on Tuesday.

Nearly 7.2 million rural Americans were in poverty in 2006, said the Census Bureau. Nationwide, 36.5 million people, or 12.3 percent of the U.S. population, earned less than the poverty threshold of $20,794 a year for a family of four.

In its annual report, the Census Bureau said the poverty rate and the number of people in poverty in rural areas were “statistically unchanged” although slightly higher than in 2005.

“Rural America has been struggling throughout the decade,” said Jim Weill, president of the anti-poverty group Food Research and Action Center. While farm income is climbing, “the income for rural Americans are not connected.”

There are 2 million U.S. farms, so farm households are a small part of the population living outside cities. One-fifth of Americans live outside urban areas.

Rather than produce a rural poverty rate, Census provides poverty figures for people in regions with less than 50,000 residents.

For years, poverty rates in rural areas have exceeded the national average. Some economists say income rates are lower outside the city and rural residents tend to be older, a lower-earning age group, than the national average.

According to the Agriculture Department, net farm income, a gauge of the financial health, was a strong $60 billion in 2006, buoyed by rising grain and soybean prices and the boom in fuel ethanol production.

Rural and Urban Poverty Rates

in percentages

Urban Rural

2006 11.8 15.2

2005 12.2 14.5

2004 N/A N/A

2003 12.1 14.2

2002 11.6 14.2

2001 11.1 14.2

2000 10.8 13.4

Source: Census Bureau. In 2005 and 2006, Census measured poverty inside and outside of metropolitan statistical areas; replacing its previous rates for metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas. In 2004, Census did not calculate separately a rural poverty rate because it revised its definition of metropolitan areas.