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The New Economy

South bears the brunt of America's rising poverty rate

Poverty rate rose faster in the South than anywhere else. Behind the raise in poverty rate: inmigration of minorities and reliance on jobs in industries hit hard by the recession.

By Contributor / September 13, 2011

Claribel Ferrer, third from left, is helped through a line as the Latin American Chamber of Commerce hosts its annual holiday food bag distribution in Miami last December. The poverty rate in the South climbed faster than the national average, widening a poverty gap that had almost disappeared over the last four decades.

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Poverty rose everywhere in the United States in 2010, but the region to see the biggest increase was the South.

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Already tagged with the highest poverty rate in the nation, the South was the only region last year to record statistically significant increases in both the number of poor people (from 17.6 million in 2009 to 19.1 million people in 2010) and poverty rates (15.7 percent to 16.9 percent), according to data released Tuesday by the US Census Bureau. The US poverty rate was 15.1 percent, up from 14.3 percent in 2009.

That means that the gap between its poverty rate and the national average now stands at its highest level since 2001. This marks a sharp reversal for the South after four decades of progress in closing the poverty gap with the rest of the US.

The 1.8 percentage-point gap between the South’s and the nation’s poverty rates is certainly much better than in 1959, when the gap yawned a wide 13 percentage points. Since then, the South had made great strides in reducing its disadvantage, reaching a record low of 1.1 percent in 2008, just as the recession was taking hold. For two years now, the gap has been expanding again.

One factor behind the increase is demographic.

“Black poverty went up; the Hispanic poverty went up; and the South has been much more of a draw for those people,” says William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

Another factor is economic. “It’s a fast-growing part of the country, but it’s one that has been growing in many places in industries that took big hits” during the recession, Mr. Frey adds. Among the hard-hit economic sectors: the construction industry and service jobs.

Nationally, 2010 represent the third year in a row that the poverty rate has gone up. 46.2 million people were living below the poverty line last year – approximately one out of every 6.5 Americans, and the largest number since 1959, when the Census Bureau first started tracking poverty statistics.

Poverty rates went up for all races and origins except for Asians, who experienced a 0.4 percent drop. An estimated 9.9 percent of non-Hispanic whites were living in poverty in 2010; 27.4 percent of blacks; 12.1 percent of Asians; and 26.6 percent of Hispanics.

Some 46.2 million people were living below the poverty line last year – approximately one out of every 6.5 Americans, and the largest number since 1959, the year that the Census Bureau first started tracking poverty statistics.

In 2010, the poverty threshold for family of four was an annual income of $22,314. The number of families in poverty was up to 9.2 million in 2010

In one of the most alarming stats, the number of children under 18 living in poverty increased from 15.5 million in 2009 to 16.4 million in 2010 – an uptick from 20.7 percent to 22 percent of children under 18.

– The Monitor's new digital edition debuted Sept. 13. Now readers can view our weekly print magazine on their computers or iPads.

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