Abstract Instrustrial restructuring in the 1980s ushered in a new pattern of growing economic diversity over geographic space. The objective of this study is to examine the extent and etiology of changing spatial inequality between and within metropolitan (metro) and nonmetropolitan (nonmetro) areas, as measured by increasing or decreasing county poverty rates. Results based on data from the 1980 and 1990 census summary tape files suggest several conclusions. First, poverty rates increased more rapidly in nonmetro than metro counties during the 1980s; historical patterns of metro-nonmetro economic convergence slowed over the past decade. Second, poverty rates tended to decline in nonmetro counties with traditionally high rates of poverty, thus providing counter-evidence to arguments suggesting that the gap between traditionally poor and nonpoor nonmetro counties has widened. Third, spatial differences in poverty rates and relative increases in county poverty rates over the 1980s were most strongly associated with women's employment and headship status. The results raise questions about the extent to which traditional rural economic development strategies address the potentially deleterious economic effects of rising percentages of poor female-headed families.