Putting Poverty in its Places

November 8, 2010

by Bill Barnes

In his famous 1958 book, John Kenneth Galbraith observed that, in "The Affluent Society" of the United States, "the survival of poverty is remarkable" and "a disgrace." Michael Harrington, in "The Other America" - an even more famous book - called it an "an outrage and a scandal."

Strong language.

Newly published Census data for 2009 report that 14.3 percent of Americans live below the official poverty line. That amounts to one in seven of us, 43.6 million people - the largest number of poor people in America in the 51 years for which official estimates have been published. The 14.3 percent is the highest poverty rate since 1994.

In 1960, the rate was 22.2 percent. It dropped rapidly and significantly to 12.1 percent 10 years later. Since 1970, the rate has not shown another large decrease; it has ranged between about 11 percent and 15 percent.

U.S. poverty is defined in income terms, and those terms remain debatable. A four-person household is "poor" in 2009 if it has an income of less than about $22,000. Most people think that "poor" starts at a higher level.

However you define poverty, it is the extreme low end of a larger spectrum of inequality, the end where necessities like food and shelter are in question. From the 1970s to the present, the distributions of income, wealth and standard of living among Americans have become increasingly unequal. The already well-off got even more well-off much faster than the not-so-well-off. Over those 40 years, the top fifth of households took an additional seven percentage points of total national income; the other four-fifths lost that seven percentage points.

Even the effects of the current Great Recession have contributed to the inequality - although real income dropped from 2008 to 2009 for 80 percent of American households, the 20 percent that had the highest incomes experienced a small increase.

Galbraith observed that in the 1950s the poor had been "forgotten." Harrington said they had become "increasingly invisible," and that the United States in 1962 had become "Two Nations," one "affluent" and the other "underdeveloped." Members of the former noticed little of the latter.

Both authors commented on the negative effects on poor people that resulted from their political, economic and social isolation in locations that were spatially concentrated and removed from the "mainstream" - small farms, inner city areas and rural communities.

Spatial segregation by economic status and class remains very much with us. It is frequently congruent with racial and ethnic segregation.

Place matters. The likelihood of being poor and what it's like to be poor may be different in different types of places, and which policies might work to reduce poverty probably also varies by type of place.

The 2009 national poverty rate of 14.3 percent varies by type of place. Those place categories can be tricky; Census uses some new labels. The highest rates are in centrally located cities in both metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas.

Within all the 362 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), the poverty rate is 13.8 percent.

In the MSA central cities (now called "principal cities" in the Census reports) 18.7 percent of the population (18,261,000 people) is poor. This is often labeled "inner city poverty" and is burdened with far too many stereotypes.

Within those same metro areas, the suburban rate is 11.0 percent. That amounts to 17,394,000 people.

Considerable attention has been given to the increasing numbers of poor people in suburbs. Major 2010 articles in "Governing" and "Next American City" magazines announced the suburbanization of poverty. This increase has direct implications for suburban jurisdictions, service providers, political organizations, and others. The increase and thus the implications differ among the great variety of suburban areas.

In "non-metropolitan" America - that is, what you might think of as all the rural and smaller city areas that lie outside of the 362 metro areas - the poverty rate is 16.6 percent, amounting to 7,914,000 people.

The high poverty rate in bigger cities and the increase in suburban rates tend to get public, media and policy attention. But at least as startling and certainly as important is the 21.8 percent poverty rate that occurs in rural cities, the principal municipalities that lie outside metropolitan areas. This is the highest poverty rate of all these major categories of places.

A half century ago, Galbraith and Harrington used strong words to object to the persistence of poverty amidst plenty. The poverty rate has varied by only a few percentage points or so for forty years. The United States is now far more affluent than it was in 1960 or 1970. Even, and perhaps especially, amidst the gloom of the current Great Recession - when many have much and some have lost much and everyone lives in the shadow of heightened economic insecurity - don't the high poverty rate and the larger pattern of inequality remain remarkable, disgraceful, an outrage and a scandal?

Bill Barnes is the director for emerging issues at NLC. He appreciates the research assistance for this and earlier columns provided by Lisa Lowry, a doctoral student at George Washington University. Comments about his column, which appears regularly in Nation's Cities Weekly, and ideas about "emerging issues" topics can be sent to him at barnes@nlc.org. To view and read previous columns, visit the Emerging Issues webpage at www.nlc.org (in the menu for "About Cities").