Evan Soltas
Jul 3, 2012

On Concentrated Poverty

Recently, I've been spending a great deal of my "air time" looking at extreme poverty; now I want to adjust the focus slightly to examine a close relative, concentrated poverty.

What is "concentrated poverty"? For the purposes of our analysis, a community of concentrated poverty is one in which at least 20.0 percent of residents fall under the federal poverty threshold. For this post, I use extensively the Census data presented here, which refers to these communities as "poverty areas."

So where is concentrated poverty worst? A swath of the United States which cuts from southwestern states like New Mexico up to West Virginia -- the "poverty belt," as Richard Florida calls it. In such states, at least 30 percent of residents live in poverty areas.Let's add an additional definition of "very concentrated poverty." where 40.0 percent of residents of a community fall under the federal poverty threshold.

First, both concentrated poverty and very concentrated poverty are on the rise in the United States. In a 2010 report, 3.5 percent of Americans lived in very concentrated poverty, and 22.6 percent live in at least concentrated poverty. The respective numbers for 1999 are 2.8 percent and 18.4 percent -- 28 percent increase in very concentrated poverty, and a 23 percent increase in concentrated poverty.

Communities of concentrated poverty provide less opportunity and result in worse outcomes for their residents. They tend to be, in a profoundly dispiriting sense, broken as mechanisms for socioeconomic advancement.

Consider the data.

The chance that an individual living in very concentrated poverty does not graduate high school -- to say nothing about the quality of high school -- is 34.0 percent, as compared to 14.6 percent nationwide. 12.8 percent of individuals living in very concentrated poverty hold bachelor's degrees, less than half of the national rate of 28.3 percent.

Such poverty afflicts minority communities disproportionately: 57 percent of individuals living in very concentrated poverty are minorities, as compared to the national average of 25.8 percent.

Work tends to be scarce. 7.4 percent of individuals living in very concentrated poverty did not work, full-time or part-time, at any point over a year, versus 3.1 percent nationwide. 46.7 percent worked full-time all year amid very concentrated poverty, as compared to 62.8 percent nationwide. 3.1 percent of families had no source of income; the national figure is 0.8 percent.

The family structure is ruptured. 46.2 percent of families lack a father in the household in communities of very concentrated poverty, versus 18.9 percent nationwide. And yet, there tend to be far more children: 9.2 percent of all households nationwide had more than three children. That number is 16.6 percent in areas of very concentrated poverty.

In 2006, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and the Brookings Institute collaborated on a study of concentrated poverty which has case studies and more detailed data here.