Census outlines 'poverty areas': Which states hit hardest?

One in 4 people have lived in poverty areas in recent years. Experts point to the Great Recession, in particular housing and job challenges, as factors behind the census numbers.

The number of US residents living in “poverty areas” has jumped significantly since 2000, according to a Census Bureau report released Monday.

According the 2000 Census, less than 1 in 5 people lived in poverty areas. But more recently, 1 in 4 residents have lived in these areas, according to census data collected from 2008 to 2012.

The Census Bureau defines a poverty area as any census tract with a poverty rate of 20 percent of more.

Sociologists and other analysts point to the Great Recession, in particular housing and job challenges, as well as slow and uneven growth since the recession.

“With the advent of the financial crisis and the bursting of the housing bubble, many people lost their homes and thus needed to rent or move in with relatives,” says Cheryl Carleton, an economics professor at Villanova University near Philadelphia. “[I]ndividuals need to move where they can afford to live ... which is going to be in areas where public housing is available or housing prices and rental rates are low, which is more likely to be in a ‘poverty area.’ ” Professor Carleton made her comments via e-mail.

The states where the percentage of people living in poverty areas increased the most between 2000 and 2008-12 included: North Carolina (17.9 percentage points), Arkansas (15.7), Oregon (16.0) and Tennessee (16.0). But other places moved in the opposite direction: the District of Columbia (-6.7 percentage points), Louisiana (-3.6), West Virginia (-2.3), Hawaii (-1.0), and Alaska (-0.4).

According to the report, blacks; American Indians and Alaska Natives; and those of “some other race” were the groups most likely to live in poverty areas. However, whites experienced the largest increase in terms of those living in poverty areas. In 2000, 11.3 percent of whites lived in poverty areas. By 2008-12, 20.3 percent did.

One sociologist sees a “propinquity effect” taking place.

“Poor neighborhoods lack decent housing, schools, health care and food (hence, the term food deserts). Most important, they lack jobs,” says Ben Agger, director of the Center for Theory at the University of Texas at Arlington. “This effect makes it difficult for the unemployed person and/or single-parent householder to subsist, let alone strive,” says Dr. Agger, who e-mailed his comments.

According to the report, about 38 percent of families headed by a woman with no husband present lived in a poverty area. That percentage was the highest among all family types.

"Research from Harvard tells us that children from communities with high concentrations of single parenthood are significantly less likely to enjoy upward mobility,” notes Bradford Wilcox, director of graduate studies in the sociology department at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “This new report also suggests the converse: Neighborhoods characterized by high levels of poverty are also less likely to supply the economic resources that lead to stable, two-parent homes."

He concludes his e-mailed remarks by saying, “Ours is an increasingly 'separate and unequal' nation where affluent Americans are more likely to enjoy the benefits of marriage and a stable family life, and poor Americans are increasingly consigned to unmarried and unstable families."

Law professor David Reiss suggests that changes to homeownership policies could help.

“Federal and state housing programs could do more to support a market for well-maintained rental units for low-income households,” e-mails Professor Reiss, who teaches at Brooklyn Law School. “Many low-income households have difficulty maintaining homeownership because of irregular incomes and low wealth.”

Some hope that a bigger picture is not lost in the details of the report.

“[T]he fact remains that poverty in this country is much higher than in other affluent democracies,” says Prof. Christopher Howard in an e-mail. He specializes in government and public policy at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. “[P]overty of this magnitude raises important questions about opportunity and compassion."

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