Not Just a Southern Thing: The Changing Geography of American Poverty

Not Just a Southern Thing: The Changing Geography of American Poverty


Pop quiz: Which state had the highest poverty rate in 2012—Alabama, South Carolina, or New York?

If you picked the Empire State, congratulations. You're a) right and b) apparently better than I am at looking past regional stereotypes. The Deep South has long been synonymous with deep poverty. But over the past 30 years, the rest of the country has been playing catch-up.

In 1980, the states with the worst poverty were mostly clustered in the Southeast U.S.—with Mississippi, Arkansas, and Alabama leading the race to the bottom.* (On the map below, light yellow states have the lowest poverty rates, dark red states have the highest).  

State Poverty Rates 1980

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Three decades later, Dixie is still home to the nation's most severe poverty rates. But Alabama and Virginia have both improved. Meanwhile, impoverishment has grown across much of the Midwest, Northeast, Southwest, and Pacific. New York now has more poverty, officially, than South Carolina. Ohio has more than Florida. California and Nevada are now neck and neck with Alabama.

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Here's another way to look at it. At about 15 percent, the national poverty rate is 2 points higher than in 1980. Of the 16 states where poverty grew more than that, only two were in the Southeast.

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So how did poverty stop being a Southern specialty? You've had, deindustrialization in the Midwest and Northeast. And you've had fast growing Hispanic populations, which tend to be poorer, in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado (as well as North Carolina and Georgia, which could explain their presence on the list above).  Meanwhile, the Southeast has made some economic progress by attracting foreign manufacturing, among other efforts. 

Here, I'd like to add an important caveat. These numbers tell us about the prevalence of low-income households across the country. But, because the official poverty rate doesn't take into account some important government benefits, like housing assistance or medical care, they don't tell us much about quality of life. It may well be that New York has slightly more poor families than South Carolina, but they may well live a bit more comfortably. 


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