Health & Human Services

Where More People Are Living in High-Poverty Areas

A record number of Americans live in high-poverty areas -- but they aren't necessarily poor themselves. View a map and estimates for each state.
by | July 1, 2014
AP/Charles Rex Arbogast
 

Poverty rates slowly climbed throughout much of the last decade and accelerated during the Great Recession. Now, a report published Monday by the Census Bureau estimates that more than a quarter of Americans live in areas of concentrated poverty.

From 2000 to 2010, the number of people living in poverty areas increased by 56 percent to 77 million; the total population rose just 10 percent.

Although fewer Americans (45 million) actually live in poverty, the fact that much more reside in areas of concentrated poverty is significant. Consider education, for example, with high poverty areas typically served by lower-performing schools. Access to health care and healthy foods, too, is often inadequate in these communities.

Brian Smedley, director Health Policy Institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, expressed particular concern over the fewer economic opportunities available.

“It’s very disturbing for us that we have so many families with children growing up in high-poverty neighborhoods,” he said. “These neighborhoods can be toxic for health and human development.”

The Census Bureau defines “poverty areas” as census tracts with poverty rates of 20 percent or more. Census tracts vary in size, but are roughly similar to neighborhoods within jurisdictions.

Poverty is not evenly distributed throughout the country. Poverty areas are most prevalent in the South, where 31 percent of the population lives in these poorer neighborhoods. Over the last decade, the largest increase occurred in the Midwest, jumping from 11.7 percent to 21.5 percent of the population.

The following map published by the Census Bureau depicts counties where larger shares of the population live in poverty areas:

Nearly half – 49 percent – of Mississippi residents live in poverty areas, more than any other state. Others with higher percentages include New Mexico (43 percent), Kentucky (39 percent) and Arkansas (39 percent). (See a table with state-by-state data below).

The decade also saw a shift in poverty expanding outside of urban cores into suburbs and outlying regions. Census estimates suggest that the population living in poverty areas within central cities increased 37 percent over the decade, still accounting for the slight majority nationwide.But for communities within metro areas outside of central cities – predominately suburbs – the population living in poverty areas more than doubled.

The concentration of poverty also follows racial lines. Blacks, for example, account for 12 percent of the U.S. population, but 24 percent of the total living in poverty areas. Smedley points out that more minorities, including middle- and high-income families, live in these areas, even after controlling for income levels.

The Joint Center previously published a similar study examining extreme poverty, or census tracts with poverty rates exceeding 40 percent. An estimated 9.2 million Americans live in such areas, also a record tally that increased by 2.1 million over the decade.

Population Living in Poverty Areas by State

The following table lists totals and percentages of each state's population living in poverty areas, or census tracts with poverty rates of at least 20 percent.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000 sample survey; 2008-2012 5-year American Community Survey data

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