More than a quarter of the United States population now lives in areas defined by concentrated poverty, according to a new Census Bureau report that finds previous progress at reducing the share of the country that resides in “poverty areas” has been reversed since the turn of the century.
Monday’s Census Bureau report estimates that 25.7 percent of the country lived amid concentrated poverty in 2010. The figure looks even worse in context: the previous decade had shown a nearly 2 percentage point drop in the share of Americans living in impoverished neighborhoods. The 2000 Census reported that 18.1 percent of Americans lived in poverty areas, a drop from 20 percent in the 1990 survey. (Monday’s report relies on survey data collected from 2008–2012, but labels the resulting figures as 2010 data for simplicity’s sake.)
Over 77 million Americans live in poverty areas, where at least one in five people is impoverished. Such neighborhoods are substantially poorer than the national poverty rate, which is 14.9 percent.
The share of the population living in poverty areas has risen in each region of the country, with the largest increases coming in the Midwest (9.8 percentage points) and South (9 percentage points). The share of Midwesterners living in poverty areas has almost doubled since 2000.
Some individual states show far larger jumps. The share of North Carolinians who live in poverty areas is up nearly 18 percentage points, and North Carolina is one of 16 states where the jump was larger than 10 percentage points. Only four states and the District of Columbia saw their proportion drop. (D.C.’s neighbors in Maryland and Virginia each saw their share of people living in poverty areas rise significantly.)
The report notes that the population of poverty areas is “more demographically diverse than in the past.” The share of the white population living in poverty areas jumped substantially, from 11.3 percent to 20.3 percent. But non-white Americans are still overrepresented: Black people made up 12.3 percent of the population in 2010, but are 24.2 percent of those living in poverty areas.
There is plenty of evidence that living in neighborhoods like these erects additional obstacles for people in them: Growing up in poverty shortens a child’s life, worsens her health, and undermines her educational prospects, and life in poverty has the same effect on the adult brain as pulling an all-nighter every night. Even for those residents who are above the poverty line, these neighborhoods “isolate their residents from the resources and networks they need to reach their potential,” the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) notes.
But the negative effects aren’t limited to those living in poverty areas. The concentration of poverty hurts the other three-quarters of the country too, in subtler ways. Because people in poverty areas are less able to reach their potential, the country as a whole is less able to reap the economic and cultural rewards that would come from those people’s success. By stymieing their residents’ aspirations, poverty areas “deprive the larger community of the neighborhood’s human capital,” as that HUD report puts it.