Poverty Demographics

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 2016 ACS is used here to examine poverty by various demographic characteristics for all metro and nonmetro areas.

Poverty by Race/Ethnicity

Areas with a high incidence of poverty often reflect the low income of their racial/ethnic minorities. Nonmetro blacks and African Americans had the highest incidence of poverty in 2016 (33.0 percent), while nonmetro American Indians and Alaskan natives had the second highest rate (31.8 percent). The poverty rate for nonmetro whites in 2016 was less than half as much (14.6 percent) of both groups. Nonmetro Hispanics had the third highest poverty rate of any individual race or ethnicity, which was 25.9 percent. The high rate of poverty for Hispanics is noteworthy as their share of the nonmetro population increased faster than other racial/ethnic groups over the last several decades.

Poverty by Family Composition

Family type has a significant bearing on poverty. Families headed by two adults are likely to have more sources of income than single-adult families with children and are therefore less likely to be poor. In 2016, more than one-third of nonmetro families headed by a female with no spouse present were poor (34.7 percent) and nearly half of those with related children were poor (46.0 percent). In contrast, less than one tenth of nonmetro married couple families were poor in 2016. Poverty rates by family type also reveal large metro-nonmetro differences for single-adult families. In 2016, the poverty rate was more than eight percentage points higher for nonmetro families headed by females (no spouse present) in general and more than ten percentage points higher for those with related children than for the same types of metro families.

Poverty by Age

Poverty rates also differ by age group and nonmetro/metro residence. In 2016, the nonmetro/metro difference was greatest for children under five years old (26.8 percent nonmetro and 20.5 percent metro). Overall child poverty rates (under 18 years) were 23.5 percent in nonmetro areas and 18.8 percent in metro areas. In contrast, the poverty rate for senior adults (65 years and older) was 10.0 percent in nonmetro areas and 9.1 percent in metro areas. Similarly, working age adults (age 18-64) had much lower poverty rates than children in nonmetro areas (16.5 percent), but higher rates than poverty rates of working age adults in metro areas (12.7 percent) in 2016.

These rates do not indicate how long people live in poverty. Some families cycle into and out of poverty over time, while others are persistently poor. Persistent poverty among children is of particular concern, as the cumulative effect of being poor may lead to poor health, limited education, and other negative outcomes. Also, research suggests that the more time a child spends in poverty or living in a high poverty area, particularly those with concentrations of racial and ethnic minorities, the greater the chance of being poor as an adult. The following ERS publications have more on this topic: