Geography of Poverty

In the United States, people living in poverty tend to be clustered in certain regions, counties, and neighborhoods rather than being spread evenly across the Nation. Research has shown that the poor living in areas where poverty is prevalent face impediments beyond those of their individual circumstances. Concentrated poverty contributes to poor housing and health conditions, higher crime and school dropout rates, as well as employment dislocations. As a result, economic conditions in very poor areas can create limited opportunities for poor residents that become self-perpetuating.

A Note About the Data Source

The American Community Survey (ACS) was developed by the Census Bureau to replace the long form of the decennial census. The ACS uses a rolling sample of U.S. housing units (250,000 monthly) to provide basic population characteristics annually for areas with populations of at least 65,000 people. ACS accumulates samples over 3- and 5-year intervals to produce estimates for areas with smaller populations; only the 5-year average ACS provides coverage for all counties in the United States. The 2011-15 ACS is used here to examine poverty at the regional and county level.

Regional Patterns

While the overall rate of poverty is higher in nonmetro counties than in metro, the difference between nonmetro/metro poverty rates varies significantly across regions. The nonmetro/metro poverty rate gap for the South has historically been the largest. In 2011-15, the South had a nonmetro poverty rate of 21.7 percent—nearly 6 percentage points higher than in the region’s metro areas. The difference in poverty rates in the South is particularly important for the overall nonmetro poverty rate because an estimated 43.9 percent of the nonmetro population and 51.2 percent of the nonmetro poor lived in this region in 2011-15. Regional poverty rates for nonmetro and metro areas were most alike in the Midwest and the Northeast in 2011-15.

County-Level Poverty

Nonmetro counties with a high incidence of poverty are mainly concentrated in the South. Those with the most severe poverty are found in historically poor areas of the Southeast, including the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia, as well as on Native American lands. Pockets of high poverty are increasingly found in other regions, such as nonmetro areas of the Southwest and the North Central Midwest. The incidence of poverty is relatively low elsewhere, but in general higher rates of poverty are found in the Midwest, Southwest, Pacific, and Northeast than in the past. Deindustrialization since the 1980s contributed to the spread of poverty in the Midwest and the Northeast. Another factor was rapid growth in Hispanic populations over the 1990s and 2000s, particularly in California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, and Georgia. This group tends to be poorer than non-Hispanic whites. Finally, the poverty impact of the 2007-09 recession was fairly widespread.

Persistence of Poverty

An important dimension of poverty is time. An area that has a high level of poverty this year, but not next year, is likely better off than an area that has a high level of poverty in both years. To shed light on this aspect of poverty, ERS has defined counties as being persistently poor if 20 percent or more of their populations were living in poverty over the last 30 years (measured by the 1980, 1990, and 2000 decennial censuses and 2007-11 ACS 5-year estimates). Using this definition, there are currently 353 persistently poor counties in the United States (comprising 11.2 percent of all U.S. counties). The large majority (301 or 85.3 percent) of the persistent-poverty counties are nonmetro, accounting for 15.2 percent of all nonmetro counties. Persistent poverty also demonstrates a strong regional pattern, with nearly 84 percent of persistent-poverty counties in the South, comprising of more than 20 percent of all counties in the region.

ERS provides a file listing the current persistent poverty counties as part of the County Typology Codes data product. This list has historically been updated each decade with the release of prior year (e.g. 1979, 1989, and 1999) income and poverty data collected through the decennial Census long form. These data are now collected through the ACS, necessitating the use of the ACS 5-year estimates for county analysis (see a note about the data source). ACS income data are based on the last 12 months rather than the prior year and five-year estimates reflect annual averages. The current persistent poverty list uses the 2007-11 ACS poverty estimates because the midpoint is the 2009 income year, which is most consistent with the 10-year increments used in the past. Future updates will take place with the release of non-overlapping 5-year ACS estimates, making the next update (using 2012-16 estimates) no earlier than December 2017.

ERS has also defined persistent child poverty counties using a similar methodology, see the chapter on Child Poverty.