More Americans in Poverty Than Ever Before

New census data shows wide divide between have and have-nots.

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As a whole, the number of poor in the suburbs who lived in high-poverty neighborhoods rose by 41 percent since 2000, more than double the growth of such city neighborhoods.

Elizabeth Kneebone, a senior research associate at Brookings, described a demographic shift in people living in high-poverty neighborhoods, which have less access to good schools, hospitals and government services. As concentrated poverty spreads to new areas, including suburbs, the residents are now more likely to be white, native-born and high school or college graduates — not the conventional image of high-school dropouts or single mothers in inner-city ghettos.

The more recent broader migration of the U.S. population, including working- and middle-class blacks, to the South and to suburbs helps explain some of the shifts in poverty.

A study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that the population of 133 historically black ghettos had dropped 36 percent since 1970, as the U.S. black population growth slowed and many blacks moved to new areas. The newest residents in these ghettos are now more likely to be Hispanic, who have more than tripled their share in the neighborhoods, to 21 percent.

Just over 7 percent of all African-Americans nationwide now live in traditional ghettos, down from 33 percent in 1970.

"As extreme-poverty neighborhoods emerge in more places, that is shifting the general makeup of those populations," said Kneebone, the lead author of the Brookings analysis.

New 2010 poverty data to be released next week by the Census Bureau will show additional demographic changes.

The new supplemental poverty measure for the first time will take into account non-cash aid such as tax credits and food stamps, but also additional everyday costs such as commuting and medical care. Official poverty figures released in September only take into account income before tax deductions.

Based on newly released estimates for 2009, the new measure will show a significant jump in overall poverty. Poverty for Americans 65 and older is on track to nearly double after factoring in rising out-of-pocket medical expenses, from 9 percent to over 15 percent. Poverty increases are also anticipated for the working-age population because of commuting and child-care costs, while child poverty will dip partly due to the positive effect of food stamps. [See how renters could save the housing market.]

For the first time, the share of Hispanics living in poverty is expected to surpass that of African-Americans based on the new measure, reflecting in part the lower participation of immigrants and non-English speakers in government aid programs such as housing and food stamps. The 2009 census estimates show 27.6 percent of all Hispanics living in poverty, compared with 23.4 percent for blacks.

Alba Alvarez, 52, a nanny who chatted recently in Miami, said she is lucky because her employer rents an apartment to her and her husband at a low rate in a comfortable neighborhood on the bay. But her adult children, who followed her to the U.S. from Honduras, are having a tougher time.

They initially found work in a regional wholesale fruit and vegetable market that supplies many local supermarkets. But her youngest son recently lost his job, and since he has no legal status, he cannot get any help from the government.

"As a mother, I feel so horrible. There's this sense of powerlessness. I wanted things to be better for them in this country," Alvarez said. "I (recently) suggested my youngest go back to Honduras. It's easier for me to help him there than here, where rent and everything is so expensive."

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