About 10.9% of the nation’s 3,142 counties experienced high poverty rates for an extended period, according to a new U.S. Census Bureau report on persistent poverty.
In this report, an area is considered in persistent poverty if it had a poverty rate of 20.0% or higher during the three decades period from 1989 to 2015-2019.
Persistent and chronic poverty are different; the former focuses on places with a long history of high poverty while chronic poverty is used to identify people consistently in poverty.
Research suggests people living in high poverty areas experience significant barriers to well-being whether or not they’re poor themselves. The longer poverty exists in an area, the more likely the community lacks adequate infrastructure and support services.
Counties identified as being in persistent poverty were typically less populous; they made up 10.9% of counties but only 6.1% of the U. S. population.
For that reason, government agencies want to identify areas with high rates of poverty over time to determine if they need support.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) - The 10-20-30 Provision was previously used to define persistent poverty and to identify counties that experienced it. But federal agencies use a variety of definitions (with different years and data sources) that identify a different number of counties that need support.
This Census Bureau project provides several possible options to identify persistent poverty (About This Research below). It also expands on existing research by examining subcounty geographies down to census tracts. Drilling down to that level provides a more complete count of people living in areas of persistent poverty.
The 341 counties identified in persistent poverty were not evenly distributed throughout the United States (Figure 1).
Over 80% were in the South and nearly 20% of all counties in the South were in persistent poverty. Many were clustered in informal subregions such as the Southwest border, the Mississippi Delta, the Southeast, Appalachia, and in some counties with higher amounts of American Indian and Alaska Native tribal lands.
Counties identified as being in persistent poverty were typically less populous; they made up 10.9% of counties but only 6.1% of the U. S. population. In total, 19.4 million people lived in a persistent poverty county during the 30-year period.
Fifteen states and the District of Columbia had no persistent poverty counties and, as a result, no population living in persistent poverty.
But 10 states had 10% or more of their population living in persistent poverty counties and four had 20% or more (Figure 2).
More than half (54.9%) of people who lived in persistent poverty were in the South region, outsizing the South’s 38% share of U.S. population.
This was also true in the Northeast, where over 28.4% of the population lived in persistent poverty even though the region accounted for a 17% slice of the nation’s population. The Northeast’s entire persistent poverty population lived in three heavily populated counties (Bronx and Kings counties in New York and Philadelphia County in Pennsylvania).
About 11.3% or 8,238 of the more than 73,000 census tracts in the United States had poverty rates of 20% or more in 1989, 1999, 2005-2009 and 2015-2019.
Census tracts are small, relatively permanent statistical subdivisions of a county or statistically equivalent entity that can be updated prior to each decennial census. Census tracts generally average a population of 4,000 but can have between 1,200 and 8,000 people.
More than 28 million people, or 9% of the U.S. population, lived in a persistent poverty census tract. Like counties, there were large variations, ranging from less than 1% to over 24% of state population living in persistent poverty (Figure 3).
Maps showing the location of persistent poverty census tracts can be found in the appendix section of the full report. Additionally, a list of all persistent poverty census tracts is available.
By looking at census tracts, we were able to identify populations in persistent poverty that were not in counties identified as persistent poverty areas.
In fact, nearly three-quarters of all persistent poverty census tracts were not in persistent poverty counties. There were 9 million more people living in those tracts than in persistent poverty counties.
One example is Detroit in Wayne County, Michigan. The county was not identified as being in persistent poverty but more than 200 of its tracts with a combined population of about 420,000 were (Figure 4). Another example is Los Angeles County, which was not in persistent poverty yet 374 tracts within it (pop. 1.6 million) were (Figure 5).
In counties that were in persistent poverty, identifying high poverty census tracts allows for targeted support to areas most in need of extra resources.
For this project, we used data years that would reflect economic-well-being over an extended period by using four time periods equal in length to survey a 30-year period from 1989 to 2015-2019. We expanded on existing research by examining subcounty geographies over the same time periods.
For both counties and census tracts, we used the 1990 and 2000 Censuses and the 2005-2009 and 2015-2019 American Community Survey 5-year estimates.
Poverty is determined by comparing annual income to a set of dollar thresholds. For a county or census tract to be identified in persistent poverty, it had to have a poverty rate of 20% or higher at all four datapoints, 1989, 1999, 2005-2009, and 2015-2019. More information about how this research was conducted is available in the full report.
The definition of persistent poverty developed for this project is one of several viable options and the Census Bureau takes no official position at this time on how to define persistent poverty.
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