(July 2002) U.S. poverty rates vary enormously among states — from a low of 6 percent in New Hampshire to a high of just above 20 percent in Louisiana, according to the Census 2000 Supplementary Survey.

In most large U.S. cities, the poor do not live near middle-class and affluent Americans. Rather, there tend to be particularly clear disparities in economic and social conditions between cities and suburbs. Although nearly as many poor people lived in the suburbs as in central cities (11 million compared with 13 million) in 2000, the rate of poverty was roughly half as high in suburbs (7.8 percent compared with 16.1 percent).

Historically, America’s poorest groups, such as immigrants, female-headed families, and racial and ethnic minorities, have been concentrated in cities rather than in suburbs. Whites and privileged groups have high rates of out-migration from cities to suburbs, often leaving areas with heavy concentrations of minorities. The suburbs, rather than inner cities, are more likely to attract people moving out of rural areas.1

Have America’s poor become increasingly segregated from the affluent in urban neighborhoods? This is an important question, because physical separation can foster cultural and economic separation from mainstream society. In his compelling analysis, Paul Jargowsky showed that both the percentage of neighborhoods with poverty rates above 40 percent and the percentage of poor people who lived in those neighborhoods increased during the 1970s and 1980s.2

Such increases reflect a number of factors, including the flight of middle-class blacks from central-city neighborhoods to the suburbs, housing discrimination against disadvantaged groups, and a growing mismatch between where low-income workers live and where good jobs are located. The question of whether poverty has become more or less concentrated in the 1990s will be answered when detailed results from the 2000 Census become available in 2003 or 2004.

The existing data indicate that welfare caseloads have declined more slowly in cities than in the rest of the nation since the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) and that welfare recipients are increasingly concentrated in 10 large urban counties: Los Angeles, New York City, Cook (Chicago), Philadelphia, San Bernadino, Wayne (Detroit), San Diego, Sacramento, Fresno, and Cuyahoga (Cleveland).3

The geographic isolation of poor people has raised new concerns about the emergence of an American underclass. Concentrated neighborhood poverty — marked by idleness, family disorganization, crime, and other social pathologies that may reflect a rejection of mainstream American values — has stimulated research on the adverse effects of growing up in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, according to the report. Children’s development suffers when they are exposed only to the values and behaviors of other impoverished peers, when they attend underfunded and understaffed neighborhood schools, when neighborhood adult supervision is limited, and when neighborhoods lack adequate police and other community resources that can safeguard residents, the authors note.4

Children growing up in poor neighborhoods tend to have lower educational achievement, poorer health, and more developmental problems than other children. Neighborhood effects on child development and well-being seem strongest in early childhood and in late adolescence, although family background and income have a greater effect in early childhood.5 The loss of family income caused by divorce, for example, may mean that children move into poor neighborhoods, reinforcing the negative effects of family instability.6 Poor children, on average, have higher school achievement if they live in middle-class neighborhoods than if they live in poor neighborhoods.

Historically, poverty has been more prevalent in rural communities than in urban or metropolitan areas; this is still the case today. In 2000, the official poverty rate in nonmetropolitan areas was 13.4 percent, compared with 10.8 percent in metropolitan areas. Rural residents have higher unemployment and earn lower wages than urban residents, on average. Part of the problem is that residents in rural areas tend to have below-average educational levels and limited job skills. But many rural areas also lack jobs that pay a living wage or that pay enough to cover the child-care or transportation costs of working. The rural poor are less likely than the urban poor to receive welfare income or food stamps, however, and the rural poor who do receive welfare get less cash assistance than they would in urban areas.7

Much of rural poverty is invisible, occurring in isolated rural pockets. Poverty rates are exceptionally high in rural counties in Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, American Indian reservations in the Southwest and Great Plains, the lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas, and the central valley of California. Rural poverty is distinctive: It is often extreme (in excess of 40 percent) and has often persisted for decades, especially in the rural South. Except for rural Appalachia, which is predominately white, rural pockets of poverty also are disproportionately comprised of minorities: mostly communities of African Americans, Mexican Americans, and American Indians.8 Many Americans assume that disadvantaged minorities are concentrated exclusively in urban ghettos, but some of the most impoverished minorities live in isolated, economically depressed rural areas.

In many rural places, the problem of low family income is compounded by physical isolation, inadequate infrastructure, and limited institutional resources and social support services, note the authors. Many impoverished rural areas lack safe drinking water, public transportation, good schools with qualified teachers, and quality child care. Residents in such areas may be exposed to environmental toxins or face longstanding traditions of race discrimination and economic oppression. In the mid-1960s, Michael Harrington’s influential book, The Other America, portrayed the economic circumstances of the rural Appalachian poor. The book caught the attention of President John F. Kennedy, and helped launch President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. While these government programs improved the lives of many rural families in the ensuing decades, circumstances have changed little for many impoverished residents living in isolated areas.


  1. Kyle Crowder, “The Racial Context of White Mobility: An Individual-Level Assessment of the White Flight Hypothesis,” Social Science Research 29, no. 2 (2000): 223-57.
  2. Paul A. Jargowsky, Poverty and Place: Ghettos, Barrios, and the American City (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1997); see also Mario Luis Small and Katherine Newman, “Urban Poverty After The Truly Disadvantaged: The Rediscovery of the Family, the Neighborhood, and Culture,” Annual Review of Sociology 27 (2001): 23-45
  3. Katherine Allen and Maria Kirby, “Unfinished Business: Why Cities Matter to Welfare Reform” (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2000). Between 1994 and 1999, the share of the nation’s caseloads in 10 counties increased from 24 percent to 33 percent (Los Angeles, New York City, Cook [Chicago], Philadelphia, San Bernadino, Wayne [Detroit], San Diego, Sacramento, Fresno, and Cuyahoga [Cleveland]).
  4. Jeanne Brooks-Gunn et al., eds., Neighborhood Poverty: Context and Consequences for Children (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1997).
  5. Brooks-Gunn et al., Neighborhood Poverty: Context and Consequences.
  6. Scott J. South et al., “Children’s Residential Mobility and Neighborhood Environment Following Parental Divorce and Remarriage,” Social Forces 77, no. 2 (1998): 667-93.
  7. Robert Gibbs, “Nonmetro Labor Markets in the Era of Welfare Reform,” Rural America 16, no. 3 (2001): 11-21; and Daniel T. Lichter and Leif Jensen, “Poverty and Welfare Among Rural Female-Headed Families: Before and After PRWORA,” Rural America 16, no. 3 (2001): 28-35.
  8. Daniel T. Lichter et al., “Rural Children and Youth at Risk,” in Challenges for Rural America in the Twenty-First Century, ed. D.L. Brown and L.E. Swanson (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002).

Daniel T. Lichter is professor of sociology and the Robert F. Lazarus Chair in Population at Ohio State University. Martha L. Crowley is a doctoral candidate in the sociology department at Ohio State University.

This article is excerpted from Poverty in America Beyond Welfare Reform