Census: 1 in 15 Americans Among the Poorest of the Poor

November 3, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
New Census data out Thursday show that one in 15 Americans now lives in extreme poverty and earns less than half of the official poverty line. Jeffrey Brown discusses the spread of poverty and the implications for families and communities with Elizabeth Kneebone of the Brookings Institution.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a stark portrait of America, its haves and especially its have-nots. New census data out today showed one in 15 Americans now lives in extreme poverty, the poorest of the poor, defined as earning less than 50 percent of the official poverty line. In 2010, that meant an income of around $5,500 for an individual and just over $11,000 for a family of four.

There was also a new analysis of poverty in the last decade today from the Brookings Institution, among its findings, a rise in the concentration of poverty, particularly in the Midwest and Sunbelt, and increasingly in the suburbs, and a jump in the population living in extremely poor neighborhoods, where at least 40 percent of individuals live below the poverty line.

Elizabeth Kneebone of the Brookings Institution joins us now.

Welcome to you.

ELIZABETH KNEEBONE, Brookings Institution: Thank you for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: First, start by explaining this idea of concentration of poverty in neighborhoods. What does that mean and what did you find?

ELIZABETH KNEEBONE: So, in this study, we first start by looking at the number of neighborhoods where 40 percent or more of the residents live below the federal poverty line. And those neighborhoods, we consider in extreme poverty.

From there, we look at, within a region, how many of the poor population live within these very poor neighborhoods? That’s the concentration of poverty we’re talking about.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you’re seeing that rise?


After we saw some gains in these numbers in the 90s, targeted policies and a booming economy that helped bring down the number of these neighborhoods and helped people move out of these types of neighborhoods, the rough economy of the 2000 has seen these numbers on the rise again.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you are seeing the rise of these neighborhoods, and then you’re also seeing concentration in particular. Where is it happening around the country?

ELIZABETH KNEEBONE: Well, we have seen it in all kinds of communities, in cities and suburbs, even in rural areas and smaller metropolitan areas.

But, in particular, the largest increases have been in a lot of Midwestern regions and Rust Belt areas in the Northeast and Midwest that had a real focus on auto manufacturing and had been hurting since the first downturn of the decade and didn’t necessarily recover from those job losses and that downturn before we were hit with the great recession.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, focus a little bit on the increase in the suburbs, something you came out with in the last — that was a couple weeks ago with looking at census data. But bring us up to date there. There’s — a lot of the poverty is now moving into the suburbs.


Generally, what we have seen with poverty trends overall is that the poor population grew twice as fast in the suburbs over the 2000s than in the cities, 53 percent in suburban areas. And as we have seen that growth of poverty in the suburbs, we have also seen increased concentrations of the poor.

These neighborhoods aren’t just isolated in urban communities anymore. We are now seeing them increasingly in suburban areas.

JEFFREY BROWN: So this other data that came out today about the poorest of the poor, how does that fit into what you’re looking at?

ELIZABETH KNEEBONE: Well, I think it’s in keeping with these trends more generally.

This last decade, bookended by two recessions, typical household incomes fell. So, we are seeing more people touched by poverty, more people in extreme poverty, these really deep levels of poverty, and more people in very poor areas.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, when you look at the causes here, you were talking about what’s happened in recent years. But if I am understanding right, you are saying a lot of these trends were already taking place earlier in the decade.


This was already unfolding in the early 2000s. Again, we ended the ’90s in this booming economy, but almost immediately and starting in the next decade, the economy turned down. And places that had been listed with that strong economy were now on the front lines of some of these increased concentrations of poverty.

And so that’s where we see places in the Midwest who have been struggling all decade, but then more recently joined by what we project are increases in Sunbelt places that were more recently hit with the collapse of the housing market and onset of the great recession.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, things like housing, clearly, things that we cover all the time on the program, are having that kind of impact.


These regions that are still hurting from the fallout of the great recession with the collapse of the housing market and also the construction jobs and the related industries around that, they are still struggling now with rising poverty and growing concentrations.

JEFFREY BROWN: So give us — just to make it more concrete, when you look around the country, is there an example or two that fleshes this out a bit of a particular city?


If you take, for instance, someplace like Chicago or Detroit, areas that really benefited in the ’90s with a decline in concentrated poverty, these places also saw a proliferation of these higher-poverty neighborhoods once we saw the economy turn down over the decade and more recently.

And so they are seeing increased pockets of poverty, not just in the city centers, but also increasingly in suburban communities that may not necessarily have the resources to deal with these kinds of challenges.

JEFFREY BROWN: And one of the most important issues, clearly, is that when you have concentrated poverty, it locks people in, in a sense, right? You reach a point where they are so concentrated that they — in a sense, they are surrounded by it and can’t find any way out.

ELIZABETH KNEEBONE: That’s right. I mean, there is a reason why we want to track not just the poverty trends overall, but where this poverty trend might be clustering or concentrating.

And that’s because very poor neighborhoods often have a whole host of challenges that come along with them, like poorer performing schools, poorer health outcomes for their residents. There’s often higher crime rates and fewer job opportunities or economic opportunities. And those things taken together can make it that much harder for a poor person to connect to the sort of opportunities that can help them work their way out of poverty.

JEFFREY BROWN: So — but is that how the thesis works, that there is sort of — normally, we think that there is a way out, that people can grow out. But there is a sort of tipping point, you say, of concentration that makes that all the much harder.

ELIZABETH KNEEBONE: Right, where in these neighborhoods, it’s really a double burden. It’s not just an individual or a family struggling with their own poverty and making those tough day-to-day decisions on how to get by, but they’re also struggling with all these challenges that come with being in a very poor neighborhood.

JEFFREY BROWN: And all of this clearly has deep implications for local governments.


I mean, there is something that local governments and regional governments can do to help ameliorate these trends in terms of thinking about, rather than concentrating and clustering these difficulties, dealing with the additional costs that come with those, they can do things like zone for affordable housing in mixed-income areas, not just reinvesting in these neighborhoods to create opportunities, but opening up opportunities elsewhere in the region where there might be better jobs and better schools.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, but just to pile on, all this happens as they have less money coming in, right? And as there is more poverty, they have less tax resources coming in.


And that makes it all the more important not to cluster these issues together in an isolated, economically segregated neighborhood, where you are going to see higher crime rates, worse health outcomes, lower performing schools.

The more we can integrate these neighborhoods through things like zoning, by making sure transportation policy is connecting people to areas of opportunity and where the jobs are, the better that is for the region and also for the families that are dealing with these challenges.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Elizabeth Kneebone of the Brookings Institution, thank you very much.