Last year, the U.S. Census reported that record numbers of people were living in poverty. In fact, the 46.5 million Americans living in poverty as of 2012 was the largest count since the Census began measuring poverty more than 50 years ago. But along with overall poverty numbers, the Census recently reported that concentrated poverty is up, too — and that’s worrisome because it means that more people may face even greater barriers and fewer opportunities to moving out of poverty.
The Census Bureau designates any census tract with of a poverty rate of 20 percent or more as a “poverty area.” In a new report based on data collected during the American Community Survey, researchers found that concentrated poverty is returning to peak levels of the past. While the percentage of people living in poverty areas fell by nearly two percentage points between 1990 and 2000, from 20 percent to 18.1 percent, it grew by more than seven points between 2000 and 2010, from 18.1 percent to 25.7 percent. In all, the number of people living in poverty areas grew by about 56 percent, the Census reported in “Changes in Areas with Concentrated Poverty: 2000 to 2010,” which was released June 30. The sheer number of people living in poverty areas grew from 49.5 million people in 2000 to 77.4 million in 2010.
So, why does it matter that more people are not only living in poverty, but also in communities of concentrated poverty? Because it presents additional burdens to low-income families. As the Census report notes, poverty areas tend to struggle with poor housing conditions, few employment opportunities and higher crime rates. In other words, studying the spatial dimension of poverty “underscores the difficulty that people have in escaping poverty,” said Dan Lesser, director of economic justice at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.
“It’s important to look beyond the overall poverty rate,” Lesser told me. “(Concentrated poverty) can exacerbate long-term trends in poverty and income inequality. The more you’re surrounded by poverty — well, it just makes everything harder.”
Looking beyond the overall concentrated poverty numbers, the Census Bureau found a number of demographic trends:
• Residents of high poverty neighborhoods are more demographically diverse than they’ve been in the past.
• The number and percentage of people living in poverty areas increased within all three age groups, among children, adults between the ages of 18 and 64, and people ages 65 and older.
• The number of people living in poverty areas increased among all ethnic and racial groups, with the largest increase among whites and the smallest among Asians. A considerably larger share of blacks lived in poverty areas when compared to other population groups.
• Nearly 6 million more children were living in poverty areas in 2010 than in 2000.
• The proportion of people living in poverty areas increased across all educational levels, with the number of people with an associate’s degree or higher more than doubling. However, the largest increase was experienced among people with a high school education or less.
• Between 2000 and 2010, the proportion of poor employed people living in poverty areas went up by 12 percentage points.
• Among all types of family households, the largest proportion of those living in poverty areas were those headed by women, with no husband present.
• The Northeast was home to the smallest increase in the number of people living in poverty areas, while the Midwest experienced the largest increase.
Not surprisingly, concentrated poverty often results in a variety of negative impacts, especially for children, said Rolf Pendall, director of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute. For example, local schools ultimately suffer from less tax support, fewer resources and higher staffing turnover, he told me. It’s an important point, as education is not only connected to better employment opportunities later in life, it’s consistently tapped as a key determinant in greater life expectancy, better health outcomes and less disability.
Besides the impact on education, areas of concentrated poverty also tend to attract less investment from the private sector, goods and services tend to be more expensive (for instance, a corner store typically charges more for food than a grocery store that buys in larger bulk), and there’s a mismatch between those who need jobs and available employment opportunities.
“You can expect concentrated poverty to go up when overall poverty goes up,” Pendall told me. “When more and more people become poor, more neighborhoods become poor and so more people are tipped into living in poor areas. It’s like this rising tide of poverty…and soon it becomes more likely that you’ll be living below the water line.”
Pendall said that conditions may be especially burdensome for residents living in rural areas of concentrated poverty. As opposed to metropolitan areas with mass transit and high density, the characteristics of rural communities — low density, limited transportation options, less access to health care and fewer housing options — can make it “exceptionally difficult” to pull together the resources needed to overcome poverty, Pendall said.
“It’s really rural areas that are getting left behind a lot of the time,” he said.
Jennifer Clary, a senior research associate with Economic Security Projects at the Heartland Alliance’s Social IMPACT Research Center, noted that concentrated poverty data underscores the “idea of compounded disadvantage.” Like Pendall, Clary pointed to school support that’s largely tied to local property taxes and is negatively impacted when poverty rates rise.
“For those living in areas of concentrated poverty, they’re dealing with issues of double burden,” she told me. “There’s a variety of factors that are associated with being in communities of high poverty that limit the opportunity to move out of poverty.”
Both Clary and Pendall pointed to housing policy, which has been a historical driver of concentrated poverty, as one way to drive down the Census numbers and alleviate some of the negative impacts of poverty. For example, Pendall said policies that encourage mixed-income housing communities could be especially useful in helping single mothers find affordable rentals in neighborhoods without high concentrations of poverty.
Of course, another way to address rising poverty is through better wages and specifically by raising the federal minimum wage, which right now sits at just $7.25 an hour.
“Low-wage workers and those living on the minimum wage are consumers, too,” Clary said. “When you put more money into their pockets, they’re going to spend those dollars in their local communities. Not only would we be helping low-wage families meet more of their basic needs and weather tough times, we’d be making a contribution to the community. …We certainly know that there are other job quality issues (we need to address) and while wages aren’t everything, they’re an important piece of the puzzle.”
For a full copy of the new concentrated poverty data, visit the U.S. Census Bureau.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.