Poverty up Sharply in Rust Belt

Michigan and Ohio saw severe increases in poverty levels.

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Earlier this year, many were stunned to learn that the United States is experiencing the highest levels of poverty in over four decades, with 1 in 7 Americans below the poverty line. But new data shows that more Americans in the southern United States and the Rust Belt have felt the recession's severest impacts than those in the rest of the country. The U.S. Census Bureau recently released 2009 poverty estimates, and they show the numbers and percentages of Americans in poverty to have increased most markedly since before the 2007 economic meltdown in the Southwest and the South, with severe increases also in Michigan and Ohio.

High-population areas across the southern United States saw the greatest increases in residents in poverty following the economic meltdown. Maricopa County, home to over half of Arizona's population, had 135,000 more residents in poverty in 2009 than in 2006. It is followed by Wayne County, Michigan, home to Dearborn and Detroit, cities hit hard when the economic downturn took its toll on the auto manufacturing industry. The list of other counties experiencing sharp increases in poverty suggests that Dallas (in Dallas County, Texas), Miami (Miami-Dade County, Florida), Las Vegas (Clark County, Nevada), and Los Angeles and its outlying areas (Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, California) are also among the cities hardest hit by poverty this recession.

Poverty thresholds are updated on an annual basis according to the Consumer Price index for All Urban Consumers. The 2009 poverty threshold for one person was $10,956 in annual income, and the threshold for a two-adult, two-child household was $21,756. These figures have increased slightly from 2006, when the corresponding numbers were $10,294 and $20,444, respectively.

Though southern cities have experienced some of the greatest increases in population below those poverty lines, poverty rates have skyrocketed in parts of Appalachian states like Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, as well as Colorado, South Dakota, and Georgia. As some of these areas have small populations and low costs of living, they are more apt to show larger changes in the poverty rate. But these figures nevertheless suggest populations faring much worse now than before the recession. All of the 10 counties experiencing the greatest increase in the poverty rate saw a 9 percent or greater jump over three years, compared to a national increase of 1 percent. These increases cannot be attributed to out-migration; the numbers of people in poverty in all of these counties also increased significantly over the three-year period.

Claudia Coulton, Director of the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at Case Western Reserve University says that increasing poverty is a sign of a country coming down from the "good times" of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when poverty rates were lower in many ares of the country. "I think what you have is people were just getting above the poverty line when times were good, and now they're falling back below it," says Coulton.

Altogether, says Coulton, areas reliant on industries that employ low-wage workers, like the mining and manufacturing regions in Appalachia and the Rust Belt, tend to be hit harder in a recession and see greater poverty increases. "When we're talking about poverty, [we're talking about] the way the recession interacts with what we call the low-skill part of the economy, because that's where people bouncing above and below the poverty line tend to be," she says. Likewise, metropolitan areas of the Southwest may be seeing their many workers in low-wage service jobs falling below the poverty line.

Altogether, 2,129 of the 3,143 counties and other substate divisions from around the country counted in 2006 and 2009--more than two-thirds--have seen a rise in their poverty rates since 2006. Meanwhile, nowhere near the top of either list are counties in New England and the Pacific Northwest, regions that have for the most part experienced lower jumps in poverty than the rest of the nation.

Below are the 10 counties that experienced the greatest change in population below the poverty line from 2006 into 2009, as well as the 10 counties with the greatest poverty rate increase over that same period.

County 2009 Poverty Estimate 2006 Poverty Estimate Change
Maricopa County, AZ 599,393 464,168 135,225
Wayne County, MI 458,811 383,185 75,626
Dallas County, TX 450,082 380,261 69,821
San Bernardino County, CA 335,321 269,049 66,272
Harris County, TX 686,928 628,902 58,026
Clark County, NV 233,890 183,695 50,195
Los Angeles County, CA 1,552,196 1,502,651 49,545
Palm Beach County, FL 180,884 133,364 47,520
Miami-Dade County, FL 433,363 385,962 47,401
Sacramento County, CA 210,786 163,587 47,199
County 2009 Poverty Estimate 2006 Poverty Estimate Percentage Pt. Change
Crowley County, CO  53.0 35.6 17.4
Ziebach County, SD 62.0 48.5 13.5
Bent County, CO 37.2 24.3 12.9
Martin County, KY 45.0 32.2 12.8
Wheeler County, GA 40.8 29.3 11.5
Lake County, TN 42.5 31.7 10.8
Early County, GA 35.9 25.6 10.3
Vance County, NC 32.3 22.7 9.6
Whitfield County, GA 23.1 13.9 9.2
Clay County, KY 43.3 34.3 9.0

Source: Census Bureau Small-Area Income and Poverty Estimates, 2006 and 2009.