The Census Bureau reported last month that the nation's poverty rate continues to grow, and that the number of people in poverty in the United States is the highest on record. As this population swells—disproportionately so in some places—and jobs remain scarce, tight state and local budgets limit what can be done to help America's poorest.
Census data show that metro areas in Texas and California have some of the highest poverty rates in the nation, with four metropolitan areas in the Lone Star State and three in California represented among the top 10, as well as cities in Florida, Alabama, and Michigan. Meanwhile, cities with low poverty rates are also far-flung. Six of these metro areas are in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, and the rest are scattered, representing the West, Midwest, and both Alaska and Hawaii.
Indeed, factors other than region appear to account for metro areas' low or high poverty rates. Unemployment is one obvious contributor. Nine of the 10 major metropolitan areas with the lowest poverty rates also currently have unemployment rates below the national average, with Manchester, N.H. leading the way with 5.2 percent unemployment as of August. Likewise, 8 of the 10 cities with the highest poverty rates have unemployment rates above the national average and into the double digits.
[See a slide show of the metropolitan areas with the lowest and highest poverty rates.]
Three state capitals and Washington, D.C. are represented among the 10 cities with the lowest poverty rates. Though revenue levels can wax and wane, a state government cannot simply disappear in the same way that a city's residential building market can dry up. Furthermore, government jobs often pay competitive wages. "Especially for the metropolitan areas where employment rates increased [in 2010] or especially government employment increased—they have lower poverty rates," says Yiyoon Chung, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin's Institute for Research on Poverty. "I think government employment is an important factor.
However this also points to the danger of even further growth in poverty, as government from the local to the federal level continues to experience belt-tightening. If the public sector continues to shed these once-secure jobs, poverty rates may rise even more in coming months and years.
The data also reflect the harsh realities of racial and ethnic correlations with poverty rates. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty rates for blacks (27.4 percent) and Hispanics (26.6 percent) are particularly high, especially in comparison to non-Hispanic whites (9.9 percent) and Asians (12.1 percent).
"If you look at the overall census poverty data, certainly there are disparities in terms of racial impact of poverty," says Maria Foscarinis, executive director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. "So African-Americans [and] Hispanics tend to be over-represented in the poverty numbers, compared to Caucasian people." This means that "racial makeup of places would be one of the factors that probably accounts for [high poverty rates]," she says. Indeed, the Brownsville, Texas; McAllen, Texas; El Paso, Texas; Fresno, Calif.; Visalia, Calif.; and Bakersfield, Calif., metropolitan areas all have high concentrations of Hispanics, while the metro areas surrounding Manchester, N.H.; Des Moines, Iowa; and York, Penn., all have high concentrations of whites, and Honolulu has the highest concentration of people who identify as Asian out of all of the metropolitan areas studied.
This of course does not imply a causal relationship, or that cities with large Hispanic or black populations necessarily have high poverty rates; Washington, D.C., for example, which has a large African-American population, has a relatively low poverty rates. But on the whole, this trend does underscore the stark divides in national racial and ethnic trends in poverty rates.