But that geographic segregation tends to compound the problems of poverty, making it more of a trap that's difficult to get out of. The impoverished are more likely to be located away from the assets that make it easier to get out of poverty: nearby access to jobs or even the public transportation corridors that get you to jobs, and local quality schools. They're also likelier to be surrounded by problems that create more immediate obstacles—substandard housing, food deserts, high crime—that get in the way of goals higher up the hierarchy of needs, like career or educational advancement.
With that in mind, the Census Bureau is out with a fascinating new study on the concentration of poverty. The bureau goes beyond just looking at the percentage of people living in poverty to look at the numbers of people living in "poverty areas"—census tracts where more than 20 percent of the population lives in poverty. The percentage of Americans living in poverty grew significantly in the decade between 2000 and 2010 … but the percentage of people (both in poverty and not in poverty) living in "poverty areas" went up at an even greater rate.
Poverty in general went up nationwide from 33.9 million people in 2000, or 12.4 percent of the population, to 49.5 million people in 2010, or 14.9 percent of the population, an increase of 2.5 percent. That's still way too much, of course, but in a way, it's a surprisingly small increase, considering that in 2000 we were at the peak of one of the nation's longest periods of prosperity, and in 2010 we were barely emerging from one of our worst-ever financial crises.
Compare that, though, to the increase in numbers of people living in "poverty areas." In 2000, 49.5 million people, or 18.1 percent of the population, lived in "poverty areas." In 2010, though, 77.4 million people, or 25.7 percent of the population, lived in "poverty areas." That's an increase of 7.6 percent, much larger than the 2.5 percent increase in poverty.
Over the fold, we’ll look at what's driving these numbers ...
It's an interesting math problem. At first glance, you might think, "Well, at least poverty's becoming more diffuse and spread out," with people moving out of highly impoverished areas but carrying poverty with them. (And there are definitely places where you can see that happening, maybe most notably with people moving from Detroit across 8 Mile to Oakland County.)
However, that's not what the data shows, because the percentage of people in poverty who live in "poverty areas" also surged. In 2000, 15 million people in poverty, or 44.4 percent of all people in poverty, lived in "poverty areas," but in 2010, 24 million people in poverty, or 53.5 percent of all people in poverty, lived in "poverty areas," an increase of 9.1 percent.
Instead, the trend seems to be more poverty in places where it didn't used to be as prevalent. In other words, there were a lot of places around the country where, in 2000, less than 20 percent of the population lived in poverty, but in the intervening years, enough residents then fell into poverty to push the poverty percentage over 20 percent. If those areas were already running above average—say 15 or 18 percent in poverty—before the Great Recession, you can see that it wouldn't take that many more people in poverty to push the whole census tract into "poverty area" status. You can see a sort of multiplier effect at work in the startling increase in the number of "poverty areas."
By 2010, though, you can see a lot of the in-between areas also filling in, especially the non-Appalachian upland parts of the South, but also rural parts of the Midwest (in Michigan and Ohio in particular). You can see that pattern more closely if you look at the data broken down by region. The percentage of all people living in "poverty areas" went from 21.8 to 30.8 in the South (an increase of 9.0) and from 11.7 to 21.5 in the Midwest (an increase of 9.8), while it went from 20.0 to 25.9 in the West (an increase of 5.9) and from 16.5 to 19.9 in the Northeast (an increase of only 3.3).
If you drill down to specific states, Mississippi fares the worst, with 48.5 percent of its residents living in "poverty areas" in 2010—but its increase from 2000 was only average. Instead, North Carolina had the biggest increase (14.0 to 31.8, an increase of 17.9), followed by Tennessee (17.3 to 33.3, an increase of 16.0) and, perhaps surprisingly, Oregon (10.2 to 26.2, an increase of 16.0). (Oregon's timber industry was particularly hard-hit in 2010, a downstream result of the collapse of new house construction the previous years.)
A handful of states actually had a smaller percentage of people living in "poverty areas" in 2010. Most notable is the District of Columbia, which fell from 41.2 to 34.5 percent, thanks to rapid re-gentrification of many neighborhoods. It's followed by Louisiana, which is at odds with most of the South, falling from 41.2 to 34.5. However, there's a likely explanation for that, too: the relocation under duress of many of its most impoverished residents to other states in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
When you drill down to look at different demographics, you can see poverty increasing more rapidly in areas that previously weren't significantly impoverished. As you might expect, a much higher percentage of African-Americans and Hispanics live in "poverty areas" than do non-Hispanic whites. However, a noticeably bigger increase came among whites. The percentage of African-Americans living in "poverty areas" went from 46.3 to 50.4 (an increase of 4.1), and among Hispanics it rose from 40.4 to 44.1 (an increase of 3.7). But among whites, it went from 9.0 to 16.6 (an increase of 7.6 percent).
The same pattern shows up when you compare urban cores (which is what you probably first visualize when you think stereotypically about poverty) with other areas. The percentage of people in the central cities of metropolitan areas who lived in "poverty areas" went from 35.0 to 45.3 (an increase of 5.2). However, the percentage of people in the remainder of metropolitan areas (the suburbs and exurbs, in other words) in "poverty areas" went from 7.2 to 14.3 (an increase of 7.1), and outside of metropolitan areas (in rural areas, basically), it shot up from 20.0 to 32.5 (an increase of 12.6). That jibes with the broader trend of the last few post-Recession years, where economic growth and population growth are disproportionately found in the major cities.
Any growth in the number of people living in places where poverty is prevalent is too much. But if there's some hope to be found here, the growth in poverty in these unexpected places makes poverty less invisible. It might help make it more tangible for the policymakers who actually have the tools to do something about it.