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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.

Regional Patterns

While the overall rate of nonmetro poverty is higher than metro poverty, the difference in nonmetro and metro poverty rates varies significantly across regions. The nonmetro and metro poverty rate gap for the South has historically been the largest, averaging 5.1 percentage points over the last two decades. In 2012, the South had a nonmetro poverty rate of 22.1 percent—nearly 7 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 43.1 percent of the nonmetro population lived in this region in 2012. Regional poverty rates for nonmetro and metro areas were most alike in the Midwest and the Northeast in 2012.  

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County-Level Poverty

The American Community Survey (ACS) was developed by the Census Bureau to replace the long form of the decennial census. It uses a rolling sample of housing units (250,000 monthly) to provide basic population characteristics annually for areas with populations of 65,000 or more. 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 nation. The 2008-12 ACS is used here to examine poverty at the county level.

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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, which tend to be poorer, particularly in California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, and Georgia over the 1990s and 2000s. 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 American Community Survey 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. Download a file listing the current persistent poverty counties.

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Download a file listing the current persistent poverty counties.

Degree of Rurality and Proximity to Urban Cores

Metro counties are commonly characterized as densely populated central cities and suburbs, and nonmetro counties as sparsely populated small towns and open countryside. This distinction oversimplifies the many differences across metro and nonmetro areas. Some metro counties have relatively small populations and are adjacent to rural areas, and some nonmetro counties contain urban areas but still qualify as nonmetro. A more comprehensive classification—separating metro areas into highly and less-urbanized counties (using metro area population as cutoffs) and categorizing nonmetro areas by degree of urbanization and adjacency to metro areas—reveals important differences in poverty. For instance, this classification indicates that degree of poverty and degree of rurality are linked. More than 35 percent of the people living in completely rural counties live in high-poverty counties and more than 26 percent live in persistent-poverty counties. In contrast, about 6 percent of the people living in the most urban nonmetro areas live in high-poverty counties and 4 percent live in persistent-poverty counties. For more details on the county classification, see 2003 Rural-Urban Continuum Codes.

Last updated: Monday, July 07, 2014

For more information contact: Tracey Farrigan

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