Poverty’s Changing Profile in the U.S.

BY Dante Chinni  November 7, 2011 at 4:41 PM EDT

Fresh produce is viewed at the Central Park United Methodist Church weekly food pantry on Oct.19, 2011 in Reading, Pennsylvania. The church feeds thousands of needy Reading residents monthly and relies on donations and volunteers to keep its increasingly popular programs operating. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

The hard economic times of the last few years have been felt widely, but not uniformly. As we have often noted on Patchwork Nation, American communities that relied heavily on specific slices of the economy — housing, manufacturing — were particularly hard hit.

A new report from The Brookings Institution, The Re-Emergence of Concentrated Poverty: Metropolitan Trends in the 2000s, sheds light on what those differences mean in America’s largest metro areas. And when you examine the numbers from that report using Patchwork Nation’s 12 county types, some common themes emerge in how life is changing in urbanized and rural America.

First, while the cores of the nation’s big city areas still have many troubles, they are lessening somewhat in relative terms. Poverty grew more in suburban counties than in the dense heart of those urban centers.

Second, it appears that more distant suburbs and many rural areas saw much steeper jumps in poverty. As Patchwork Nation has often noted, those farther-flung exurban locales have been particularly hard hit in the housing crunch.

Should these trends continue, they would change our understanding of what poverty looks like in the United States and how it plays out at the community level. It might also lead Washington to reconsider how aid is divvied up and passed out.

‘Better’ is a Relative Word

To be clear, the nation’s most densely populated counties, the places Patchwork Nation calls the Industrial Metropolis, still hold most of the nation’s poor. More than 8.3 million people who live in those places fall into that income range, according to the Brookings numbers. But even over the hard times of the last decade, those numbers did not rise dramatically. In 2000, about 7.9 million lived in poverty in the Metros — that’s equals an increase of about 400,000 since then.

Now look at what’s happened elsewhere. The number living in poverty increased by some one million in the wealthy Monied Burbs. It increased by a startling 1.7 million in the largely exurban Boom Town counties that grew so dramatically in the last decade before the housing troubles began.

Some of Patchwork Nation’s 12 county types hold more people than others, so raw numbers don’t tell the whole story. The chart below shows the poverty rate for each for the types as well as the increase in the number of people living in poverty from 2000 and for the five-year average of 2005-2009.

Community TypePercentage Poverty Rate 2000 Percentage Poverty Rate ’05-’09Change in Number in Poverty
Monied ‘Burbs8%9.01%1,050,167
Minority Central20.24%20.79%49,051
Evangelical Epicenters14.6%16.77%380,015
Tractor Country12.71%12.66%-10,399
Campus and Careers10.39%12.14%276,091
Immigration Nation16.79%17.14%455,688
Industrial Metropolis15.48%15.85%377,563
Boom Towns11.03%12.45%1,777,658
Service Center12.08%13.99%586,886
Empty Nests9.38%11.49%331,036
Military Bastions11.98%13.38%175,242
Mormon Outposts9.58%10.15%35,946

The map below shows those what the poverty increase by percentage looks like on a national scale. Look closely and you can see those trends play out in big metro areas. For instance, look at places like Philadelphia, Chicago and St. Louis and you’ll note those counties saw smaller increases in poverty than their neighboring suburban counties. Out east, Washington, Baltimore and the middle of the New York City’s densest boroughs saw some of the biggest drops in poverty.


Temporary or Something Bigger?

The real question is what do these numbers represent? Remember the latest data comes form a five-year average that includes the collapse of the housing market. That helps explain the high numbers in the Boom Town counties are here. It could be that one or two or five years from now these numbers look different. Statistics, like any other measure, offer only a snapshot of a moment.

But as we have noted in other posts, any turnaround in the housing market is likely still some time off. These poverty rates are not just “blips” for these communities, they are at least medium-term problems tied into the collapse of construction.

And what of the other spikes here. The aging Emptying Nests saw a jump of 330,000 in poverty over this period — a two percentage-point increase in the poverty rate. The small town Service Worker Centers saw almost a two percentage-point jump, some 586,000 more people in poverty.

Those places rely heavily on small manufacturing and/or spending from visitors coming from the bigger metro areas to keep them afloat. And neither of those things looks to pick up anytime soon.

These numbers may just represent a picture of a moment in time, but if the next snapshot looks similar, it will raise serious questions. For decades the dominant image of poverty in America has been one of gritty urban landscapes — of Detroits and Clevelands and Philadelphias. That image may be growing more complicated.

If poverty continues to grow in these non-urban locations the programs needed to serve the poor in them may have to change. Issues like transportation, education and housing for the needy may have to re-imagined. Some problems that we think of as problems of poverty are actually problems of urban poverty. The racial and economic breakdowns of suburban, exurban and rural America are necessarily different.

The great recession was clearly the main driver of the current economic sluggishness. Poverty spiked with the downturn than began at the end of 2007. But the pattern shown here combined with what we now about how different communities are hurting suggests there is much more than a recession at work.

The changing jobs environment combined with growing exurban and rural poverty may be redefining not just who winners and losers are in the new economy, but where they live and what they need.

Dante Chinni is the director of the Patchwork Nation project.