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.

 

         
State 2010 % of Population 2010 Count 2000-2010 Total Change 2000-2010 % Change
Alabama 36.0 1,678,249 567,893 10.4
Alaska 7.8 54,468 3,934 -0.4
Arizona 33.4 2,091,968 888,074 9.4
Arkansas 38.8 1,097,807 498,205 15.7
California 27.8 10,153,710 1,969,771 3
Colorado 21.3 1,050,584 651,627 11.8
Connecticut 14.1 487,048 160,564 4.2
Delaware 12.5 109,473 64,695 6.6
District of Columbia 34.5 197,441 -25,946 -6.7
Florida 26.6 4,922,423 2,366,772 10.3
Georgia 34.5 3,256,489 1,677,656 14.6
Hawaii 11.9 157,958 5,644 -1
Idaho 18.6 285,808 207,705 12.4
Illinois 21.7 2,723,643 964,761 7.2
Indiana 23.1 1,450,017 900,507 13.7
Iowa 13.9 409,690 278,257 9.2
Kansas 19.8 546,758 308,089 10.6
Kentucky 39.3 1,654,829 481,776 9.4
Louisiana 37.5 1,649,147 -131,446 -3.6
Maine 17.5 226,101 138,074 10.4
Maryland 10.9 613,974 186,770 2.6
Massachusetts 16.1 1,019,696 263,976 3.8
Michigan 27.3 2,639,122 1,291,449 13.4
Minnesota 13.2 683,074 380,442 6.8
Mississippi 48.5 1,393,238 263,011 7.4
Missouri 24.9 1,442,324 630,629 9.9
Montana 24.0 232,047 51,817 3.5
Nebraska 16.9 299,390 173,596 9.3
Nevada 23.8 635,378 421,492 12.9
New Hampshire 6.8 86,341 67,206 5.2
New Jersey 14.1 1,212,293 366,262 3.8
New Mexico 43.0 865,750 207,625 6.1
New York 26.6 5,025,049 294,727 1
North Carolina 31.8 2,957,058 1,868,020 17.9
North Dakota 11.5 74,882 12,468 1.4
Ohio 24.7 2,767,943 1,281,174 11.2
Oklahoma 31.4 1,140,311 331,528 7.1
Oregon 26.2 984,484 642,778 16
Pennsylvania 19.2 2,353,571 738,951 5.6
Rhode Island 21.2 214,242 6,851 0.7
South Carolina 35.2 1,579,936 773,141 14.4
South Dakota 16.9 132,754 33,299 3.2
Tennessee 33.3 2,064,568 1,106,394 16
Texas 34.2 8,413,919 2,736,953 6.2
Utah 16.5 449,428 217,948 6
Vermont 9.9 59,728 36,057 5.9
Virginia 14.7 1,141,612 499,519 5.3
Washington 19.0 1,254,743 646,591 8.4
West Virginia 31.3 562,954 -30,446 -2.3
Wisconsin 15.6 862,085 436,214 7.4
Wyoming 9.0 49,597 13,532 1.5

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