September 10, 2015

How the geography of U.S. poverty has shifted since 1960

Since President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty 50 years ago, the characteristics of the nation’s poor have changed: A larger share of poor Americans today are in their prime working years and fewer are elderly. In addition, those in poverty are disproportionately children and people of any age who are black, Hispanic or both.

Nation's Poor Population Is Less Southern, More Urban Than in 1960But perhaps just as striking is that the geographic distribution of the poor has changed dramatically, too. A new Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data finds that the South continues to be home to many of America’s poor, though to a lesser degree than a half-century ago. In 1960, half (49%) of impoverished Americans lived in the South. By 2010, that share had dropped to 41%.

Much of the geographic shift of poverty reflects general trends in population shifts across the country over that same period. As rural areas, such as in the Midwest, have become less impoverished since the 1960s, those areas make up a smaller share of the U.S. population overall. At the same time, urban centers have gained in total population and hold a greater share of the U.S. population overall.

For example, in 1960, places like Maine and North Dakota had higher poverty rates than many of the nation’s biggest metro areas. But by 2010, the reverse was true: High-poverty areas were in counties that are a part of the nation’s largest metro areas such as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, but not in places like Nebraska and South Dakota. At the same time, the share of the population in the nation’s urban areas increased from 70% to 81% over that 50-year period.

Since 1960, the Largest Declines in the Poverty Rate Have Been in the SouthAnd much of the South still struggles with poverty. Of the 16 Southern states, only Maryland and Delaware had a poverty rate below the national average in 1960. Among the 14 Southern states with poverty rates higher than the U.S. average that year, only Virginia’s had dropped below the national mark by 2010.

Over the past 50 years, the poor have increasingly lived in the 20 most populous counties. In 2010, about one-in-five poor Americans (21%) lived in these high-density counties such as Los Angeles in California, Queens in New York and Clark in Nevada, up from 14% in 1960.

As a result, many of the nation’s biggest counties by population had high poverty rates in 2010, though that was not the case in 1960. Twelve of today’s most populous counties had poverty rates above the national average in 2010, including Los Angeles, Cook (Chicago) in Illinois, Maricopa (Phoenix) in Arizona, Kings (Brooklyn) in New York, and Dallas. In 1960, eight of these 12 counties had poverty rates below the national average. Another three had poverty rates above the national average in both 1960 and 2010: Bexar (San Antonio) in Texas, Miami-Dade in Florida, and New York (Manhattan). And one county, Broward (Ft. Lauderdale) in Florida, had a poverty rate that was above the national average in 1960 but dipped below the average by 2010.

It’s worth noting that as the geography of poverty-stricken areas has shifted, the nation’s official poverty rate has declined over the past half-century, from 22.1% in 1960 to 14.5% in 2013, according to Census Bureau data.

Even in some of the nation’s poorest regions, the poverty rate has declined. In Appalachia, the poverty rate remains above the national average, but has been cut nearly in half (from 30.9% in 1960 to 16.6% in 2010). Poverty is also entrenched in Texas counties that share a border with Mexico. In 12 border counties home to coloniasresidential areas that lack basic infrastructure like clean water, septic or sewer systems, or electricity – the poverty rate has dropped from 49% to 31% over the same time period.

Topics: Demographics, Economics and Personal Finances, Poverty, Population Geography, Socioeconomic Class

  1. Photo of Jens Manuel Krogstad

    is a writer/editor focusing on Hispanics, immigration and demographics at Pew Research Center.


  1. Ben Leet2 years ago

    The Department of Commerce web site shows annual “personal income” per capita “disposable” (after tax) income over $37,000. That comes to annual average household income of $96,000 (after taxes). And the Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds report shows $685,000 average household “net worth” or savings. We are a very wealthy and high income nation. The data from National Jobs for All Coalition shows that 23.6% of the work force are either unemployed, under-employed, or work full-time and year-round for wages below the $24,008 poverty level for a family of four. The combined total income for the lower paid half of U.S. workers (77 million workers) totals less than 8% of the total national income. About 1 in 4 workers are either idle, involuntarily semi-idle, or paid very little. The average worker wage income for the lower-paid half is below $13,000 a year (this includes the 19% who work part-time). The CBO showed average household income of $93,900 in its report on income distribution for 2011, and today the average is almost $100,000 per household due to inflation and growth. 44% of the nation’s children live in either “low income” or “poor” households, according to the National Center for Child Poverty, which draws the line for low income at $47,348 per year. The Basic Family Budget puts the median expense for a 4 person family at over $67,000 per year. The United Kingdom initiated a plan in 1999 to reduce or eliminate child poverty. Since 1999 its rate has fallen from 24% to 12%. Of all the advanced nations, the U.S. has the highest child poverty rate. — We have poverty by design. When the national average household savings is $685,000, and half the households own less than $10,000 in non-home savings, according to professor Edward Wolff, then inequality is obscenely high. We should do better. My blog:

  2. Lyle Hughart2 years ago

    Note that the highest poverty areas tend to vote Democratic, thus the more they give away the more they control the votes.

    1. Echo Delta2 years ago

      This does not appear to be true and you have certainly provided no evidence of such. From a quick eyeball view you are egregiously wrong. This is a knowable thing, however.
      One striking recent study…
      seems to indicate that the War on Poverty was not a political enslavement as conservatives frequently posit; rather, that it was not as successful as Roosevelt’s policies because it did not involve political patronage at the local level. Johnson’s program did a great deal more, however, to alleviate patterns of racial subjugation in areas where it was a traditional practice unhampered by the Rooseveltian New Deal programs.
      Maybe it is time to rethink your unexamined priors?

      1. Anonymous1 year ago

        Truth does not matter to communists as long as they can get their agenda out.

    2. Walter Kamphoefner2 years ago

      When you compare the 2012 county level electoral map and the county-level entitlement map you do see a certain correlation between Obama support and government benefits in places like the Mississippi Delta, the Rio Grande valley, and the Indian country of the mountain west, but you also see a huge spine of dependency (and ingratitude) in GOP territory running up the Appalachian chain and a smaller one in the Ozarks. If all the 47 percent had voted against Romney, they would have called the 2012 election before dark. Exhibit A: Owsley County, KY: 99.22% white, a national record 49% of the population on food stamps, 72.5% for McCain. And after Romney dissed them and the rest of the 47%? 81% Romney!……

    3. E.C. Britton2 years ago

      This map does not show the highest poverty areas. It shows areas of most and least change.

  3. Martin Screeton2 years ago

    I would say this is way off base since the “official poverty line” for a given household is way out of whack in relation to what it costs to live today. The Government needs to adjust what it considers “poverty Income levels” to get a more accurate picture. I would add at least 8-10% across the board on the 2010 figures… the food stamp rate is about 18% and we know that is a low figure because of one word, “Pride”.

  4. Joan94942 years ago

    No surprise here, the only question is why bother to ‘ponder’ this change. You let 5 million people with no money, no education and no work skills enter the USA illegally from central america. Consequently, they are ‘poor’ by USA standards. But if they lived in a concrete block hut with a dirt floor before entering the USA, and washed clothes in the river, they would consider themselves well off now. Why don’t you ‘ponder’ that factoid for a change?

    1. KJ Matthews2 years ago

      “Ponder that factoid”? There weren’t any factoids in what you wrote, heck there weren’t even any facts.

  5. Len Gostkowski2 years ago

    I could not help but notice that my beloved county, which a hundred and few years ago was the wealthiest city in America, hasn’t been on a good roll for a while now.

    The size of government eventually goes beyond diminishing marginal returns and goes negative steeply and often catastrophically.

    1. Walter Kamphoefner2 years ago

      Don’t worry; look at the OEDC figures. Government revenues (at all levels) relative to GNP puts us down there in the neighborhood of Mexico and Turkey.

  6. Howard Blackwell2 years ago

    The “poverty line” is too artificial. It is an income figure based on household size, that has nothing to do with what it actually costs for that household wherever it is in the contiguous states.

    A person making minimum wage of $7.25/hr in Wichita Falls, Texas can afford a bigger, newer house, with more land than a person making $100,000/yr in Sunnyvale, California. Yet, the former household may be “poor”, while the latter not.

    For about a month’s rent in many cities, a poor person can buy enough land in many rural parts of the country to provide for most of their own food needs.

    When adjusted for cost of living, the blue state bastion of California has over a third of America’s poor. NYC alone has more adjusted poor than any state in the South.

    1. John Malson2 years ago

      Actually California has less than a fifth, around 17-18 percent, of America’s poor when using the SPM, which takes into account all of the income factors associated with households such as benefit programs and includes the cost of living by region. With the Supplemental Poverty Measure, about 50 million Americans are considered being in poverty, with around 9 million living in California.

      The SPM uses a broader definition of family that includes all related individuals who live at the the same address, plus cohabitating partners and their children as well as any foster children. The SPM also uses the poverty threshold based on national estimates of out-of-pocket spending on food, clothing, shelter, and utilities. Family resources include gross income before taxes but are adjusted by adding in-kind benefits and subtracting non-discretionary expenses. Then the thresholds are subsequently adjusted to reflect housing costs across geographic areas.

      So, while California’s official poverty rate is a pedestrian 16 percent, placing it 16th in the nation in poverty and just above the national rate, the SPM for California is 23.4 percent (pushed that high almost solely by the high cost of living in the state), which is 7.5 points higher than its official poverty rate and puts the state at the highest level of poverty in the country.

  7. Larry Berardi2 years ago

    You did not provide the figure for poverty between 1980-1990.

    My understanding is that because of “The War On Poverty” the rate at that time was 10%, and from that time has grown to 15% as you indicate due to government policies favoring the wealthy.

  8. Erik Kengaard2 years ago

    “The days of the dole in our country are numbered. Our American answer to poverty is not to make the poor more secure in their poverty but to reach down and to help them lift themselves out of the ruts of poverty and move with the large majority along the high road of hope and prosperity. ” Lyndon Baines Johnson, p 528 – Remarks Upon Signing the Economic Opportunity Act, August 20, 1964

    1. Lawrence Berardi2 years ago


      It is unfortunate that today we feel it is the wealthy and business that require welfare.

    2. Howard Blackwell2 years ago

      Rather ironic that the poverty rate was dropping quickly before Johnson said that, then after he implemented his “help”, it stopped dropping and is today higher than then.

      1. Ashley2 years ago

        That’s nonsense!

      2. Lawrence Berardi2 years ago

        The statistics do not support your statement!