June 10, 2013

Where do Poor People Live?

SternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

If someone asked you this question, how might you answer? For many of us living in cities, we might name specific neighborhoods that we associate with high levels of poverty. But that would only give us part of the answer.

The U.S. Census collects data each year as part of their Current Population Survey (CPS), and it provides useful information on a number of issues, including poverty rates and where people in poverty are most likely to live. (As I blogged about last year, some in Congress want to end funding for CPS and related surveys).

The largest number of people living below the federal poverty threshold in 2011 lived in cities, 38.2 million according to the most recent Census data, or 14.6 percent of the metropolitan population. By contrast, 8 million people outside of metropolitan areas lived in poverty, but they comprise 17 percent of the non-metropolitan population.

In other words, although fewer people live in rural areas, those that do are slightly more likely to live below the poverty threshold than those in cities. While metropolitan poverty declined slightly from 2010-2011 (the year for which most recent data are available), rural poverty increased slightly during that time.

As you can see on the graph above, rural (or “nonmetro”) poverty has consistently been higher than metropolitan rates, although the gap has decreased significantly in the last forty years. Of the ten poorest counties in the U.S., the majority of them are primarily rural. The graph below details how southern and western states have higher poverty rates than the Northeast and Midwest, and shows that nonmetro poverty is particularly high in southern states.


When we think about poverty, many people think about it as an individual problem. Understanding these geographic patterns helps us to understand that there are more than just individual factors at work causing poverty. Understanding state policies and local industries and regional histories can help us understand the disparities in poverty rates.

Six of the ten poorest U.S. counties are in South or North Dakota, which have significantly higher Native American populations than many other states. A recent American Community Survey (ACS) report noted that in Rapid City, South Dakota, Native American poverty rates are at nearly 51 percent. ACS also found that Native Americans have the highest poverty rate of any racial/ethnic group in the U.S, at 27 percent of the entire Native American population.

Understanding the history of Native American displacement and the creation of reservations—and the realities of reservations today—is essential to understand a large part of rural poverty, particularly in the plains states. The causes and realities of living in poverty in Appalachian states, for instance, are quite different and require unique solutions.

Policies to address rural poverty need to take into account that many of these areas lack basic infrastructure: dependable roads, reliable sources of clean running water, internet service, or transportation options. These kinds of concerns are distinct from those that might be part of the problems of urban poverty, where roads and transportation might exist, but city services might be lacking and neighborhood violence may be a significant problem. From this example you can see that rural poverty and urban poverty are very distinct issues.

Suburban poverty might seem like an oxymoron: if people can afford to live in a suburb, haven’t they made it out of poverty? Not necessarily. According to the CPS, 18.2 million people living within a metropolitan area, but not in the central city lived in poverty in 2011. Although this represents just 11.3 percent of the suburban population, the number itself is similar to those living in poverty in central cities, at 20 million. Twenty percent of those in central cities lived below the poverty line in 2011.

Recent research from the Brookings Institution suggests that suburban poverty is overtaking urban poverty in the U.S. It is not simply that poor people are moving into suburbs in larger numbers, but as the effects of the Great Recession linger, many people are finding themselves newly poor. As a Los Angeles Times story reports, those who were hit hardest by the housing crisis might have purchased their homes at the height of the market and as a result are now struggling to get by. The Brookings report points out that those living in suburban areas might be scattered and harder to reach with social services.

Poverty is not a singular experience; where one lives affects the kinds of challenges people will face, the resources people can access, and the possible solutions. Place is a powerful reminder that poverty is a sociological issue, not just a personal problem.

How else does place matter when understanding poverty? Any other social issue?


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Place also tells you the kind of lifestyle you like to lead. For example in poorer neighbhorhoods television is a relatively inexpensive form of escapism and entertainment. Also those TV who watch excessive TV or certain fare tend to have less than satisfying lives and shorter life spans.

Thanks for the article!

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