The nation's rural poor are less likely to receive public assistance than their urban counterparts, according to a new report on rural poverty.

Only one-fifth of the rural poor receive all or part of their income from public assistance programs, compared with one-third of the urban poor, according to the report by the Washington-based National Rural Center.

The discrepancy has more to do with ignorance of rural problems than it does with the fabled independence of rural inhabitants.

"The rural poor are less equal and more easily forgotten than their urban ban counterparts.... Their needs are similarly great, but their visibility is low. The result is that very little attention has been paid to how public assistance programs serve them," the report said.

The rural center, a private, nonprofit research group focusing on rural development, spent six months last year studying what it calls the "inequity in federal-state cash assistance" to poor rural populations. Some of the group's findings, presented in its 146-page report, are:

Fifty-seven percent of the rural poor live in two-parent households -- compared with 38 percent of the urban poor -- and thus do not qualify for one of the largest public assistance programs, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

Eighty-three percent of the rural poor are concentrated in 25 states. Eighteen of those states, including most of the South, are under the national average in cash aid for poor families with children.

About 10.5 million people, 41 percent of the nation's poor, live in rural America. They generally are older, more disabled and less-educated than their urban counterparts.

Most of the rual poor are white, as is most of rural America. But blacks living in rural areas "have a two-to-four times greater likelihood of being poor" than do whites.

Only 11 of the 25 states in which most of the rural poor are concentrated provide public assistance to two-parent households.

"The two-parent thing is really very important," said Barbara Kincaid, a rural center spokeswoman. "The Aid to Families with Dependent Children program is really the big granddaddy of all public assistance. But because most of our people come from two-parent families, they don't get it."

AFDC support is geared to families deprived of one parent, usually the father. The presence of two parents usually makes a family ineligible.

However, some states have an AFDC-UF (unemployed father) program that aids poor families with a father who has been unemployed for at least 30 days.

The report recommended that need, rather than personal or family characteristics, "be the criterion for any equitable and adequate reform of the public assistance system.

"The facts are that rural poverty remains substantial and disproportionate, both in degree and incidence... A national standard for eligibility should be based on measurements of income and assets, rather than on the (family) classifications now applied."