Persistent Poverty Dynamics: Understanding Poverty Trends Over 50 Years

High and persistent poverty is an enduring characteristic of many U.S. counties. More than one in five (23 percent) U.S. counties had poverty rates of 20 percent or more in 2009. Half (49.6 percent) of these counties were persistent high poverty counties, having had poverty rates of 20 percent or more in each of the decennial censuses since 1970. Persistent high poverty counties are very concentrated geographically and disproportionally non-metropolitan. With the Great Recession, many previously high poverty counties returned to high poverty status. What is new, however, in the geography of poverty in the first decade of the twenty-first century is (1) the emergence of a relatively large number of counties that are experiencing high poverty rates of 20 percent or more for the first time in this 50 years period, and (2) the high share of micropolitan and metropolitan counties among the new entrants. 

This paper provides an update of 2003 RUPRI analysis of persistent poverty dynamics across U.S. counties (Miller and Weber 2003).In this analysis, we drop 1959 from the time period used to determine persistent poverty status, and consider only counties whose poverty rate was 20 percent or more in the 1970, 1980, 1990 and 2000 Censuses and the 2007-2011 American Community Survey.

Persistent poverty is still concentrated in nonmetropolitan (and particularly noncore nonmetro) America: only 14 percent of persistent poverty counties are metropolitan (22 percent are micropolitan and 64 percent are noncore).

Counties with high poverty rates in 2009 that have intermittently been high poverty counties are also overwhelmingly rural: only 22 percent are metro (27 percent are micro and 51 percent are noncore.)

During the past decade, however, a new set of high poverty counties has emerged. Fully one-third (34 percent) of the new entrant counties are metropolitan, 34 percent are micropolitan, and only 32 percent are noncore counties.

An important question is whether the policies that have been developed for the historically persistent poverty counties and inner cities need to be modified to address the conditions in the new high poverty counties. As high poverty migrates from the most densely and the most sparsely settled places to the suburban and micropolitan “middle spaces”, it may be time to revisit the “place-based” policies designed for the persistent poverty regions. Many of the elements of these traditional “place-based” policies are still relevant: investments in locality-based economic development, local work supports, local educational systems and collaborative institutions. What is being learned about successful innovations for addressing the new suburban poverty (see Kneebone and Berube, 2013) may provide guidance for micropolitan counties facing high poverty for the first time.