The Official Journal
The North Carolina
Sociological Association: A
Refereed Web-Based Publication
Volume 1, Number 2
U.S. Poverty in Space and Time:
Ronald C. Wimberley
Poverty in the United States is not randomly distributed
across the country in an even or fairly even pattern. Places with the worst
poverty levels tend to cluster together. In fact, U.S. poverty is concentrated
in certain regions and subregions and is located mainly in the South (Wimberley
and Morris 1997; Allen-Smith, Wimberley, and Morris 2000; Wimberley and
Locations of poverty also change very little
from one decade to the next. Rather, poverty tends to persist in the same
geographic places decade after decade. Poverty, like the conditions with
which it is associated, appears entrenched and enduring. Not only is
U.S. poverty located mainly in the South, it is also persistently located
there. Within the South, poverty is primarily in the Black Belt subregion,
a roughly contiguous set of counties that stretch through parts of the
11 Old South states where it has persisted for decades.
These findings underlie analyses contributed by
the authors to a 2002 study of persistent poverty sponsored through Senator
Zell Miller of Georgia with additional support from Georgia businessman
Benjy Griffith. This 2002 study of persistent poverty study was conducted
by scientists at the University of Georgia, Tuskegee University, and North
Carolina State University. The study came in response to a line of recommendations
by Wimberley, Morris, and Bachtel (1991) and Wimberley and Morris (1997)
that a federal regional commission be established to comprehensively
address the long-standing impoverishment of the Black Belt South in a
manner similar to that done by the Appalachian Regional Commission for
the Upper South and Northeast regions of the United States.
Some of the questions raised by the Miller Study
were whether poverty persists in the Black Belt and other areas
of the South and whether this region could or should be targeted by a federal
regional commission. The general findings of the Miller Study are reported
in Dismantling Persistent Poverty in the Southeastern United States
and at www.cviog.uga.edu (Carl Vinson
Institute of Government 2002).
To measure poverty, the authors used U.S. Census
data for the 1980, 1990, and 2000 decennial censuses. Cross-sectional
data were mapped for all U.S. counties at each census period. Counties
were shaded on the maps to show whether they were in the worst quartile
of poverty at each census, in the second worst quartile, or in the lower half
The first map shows poverty data from the 2000
U.S. Census. Counties falling into the worst quartile of poverty are
colored in red. The second worst quartile is colored yellow. As the map
reveals, census 2000 poverty concentrates in central Appalachia, various
counties in the Northwest, the Southeast, and the South. Relatively little
poverty is shown in the Northeast and North Central Regions.
Because the counties in the western half of the
United States are much larger than counties in the eastern half, the visual
effect of larger geographical counties in the West can be deceiving.
If shrunken to the size of eastern U.S. counties, they would all easily
fit into a couple of the southern states.
As it turns out, the South is the most populated
region of the country, and the South's poverty counties contain larger
populations of the poor. The South, defined as a region containing 16
states and Washington D.C. by the U.S. Census Bureau, contains 100 million
of the country's 281 million population in year 2000, and accounts for 36
percent of the U.S. population. That compares to 23 percent of the U.S.
population found in the in the Midwest, 22 percent in the West, and 19 percent
in the Northeast.
In terms of regional poverty, the South's 13.6
million poor represent a 40 percent share of all U.S. poverty. Not only
is this disproportionately higher than the South's 36 percent of the
nation's population, it is higher than the share of poverty contained
in the other major U.S. regions. Of these, the Northeast has 17 percent
poverty, the Midwest 19 percent, and the West 24 percent of the U.S. poverty.
Therefore, the largest region of U.S. poverty
is spread across the South and is observed from the map to be densely
concentrated in the Black Belt subregion that forms a crescent of the eastern
and lower South from Virginia to East Texas and up the Mississippi Delta.
Whether in the South or elsewhere, poverty is
concentrated in certain locations. The geographic pattern of U.S. poverty
is by no means random. The high-poverty counties tend to coincide with
disproportionate populations of various ethnic groups: Appalachian whites,
Northwest Indians, Southwest Hispanics and Indians, and Southern blacks.
Furthermore, most of these counties are nonmetropolitan. In brief, the
2000 map of U.S. poverty as would be observed in earlier decades as
well is regional, racial, and rural.
Still, 1,446 of the 3,141 U.S. counties and county-unit
equivalents are classified as persistently poor across the three most
recent census periods. Of these persistently poor counties, 2 out
of 3 are in the South where 8.021 million poor people live in persistently
Quite similar to the 2000 census' cross-sectional
poverty map described earlier, the persistent poverty map's multicounty
and multistate subregions of U.S. poverty are again observed in central
Appalachia, areas scattered across the Northwest, the Southwest, and in
the Black Belt South from Virginia to East Texas.
While poverty maps could be generated to show
where poverty has existed in censuses since 1960, inspection of earlier
maps shows essentially the same geographic patterns. Prior to the 1960s,
the official techniques for defining poverty were not in use, but other
mappings of socioeconomic conditions also suggest the basic patterns observed
in the 1980-1990-2000 map of persistent poverty.
An alternative approach to measuring persistent
poverty has been developed and used by researchers in the Economic Development
Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Bender et al.
1985; Cook and Mizer 1994; Ghelfi 2001; Economic Research Service 2003).
Their maps also show the same basic pattern, but with a more restrictive
definition of persistent poverty requiring that persistently poor counties
to be in the worst quintile of poverty in four consecutive censuses. The
lower percentage level and the additional census periods, of course, leave
fewer counties on the map.
Using the ERS criteria, Miller, Crandall, and
Weber (2002; 2003) take an even more stringent look at the persistently
poor counties by combining the 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, and 2000 census
poverty data. Still, the core of persistently poor counties is seen primarily
in the Black Belt South and in other subregions shown here in the 1980-1990-2000
persistent poverty map.
While the ERS approach shows patterns and shifts
among the worst of the poorest counties, the approach used to draw the
1980-1990-2000 map reported here is considered to include a more representative
picture of the places in need of special assistance from public and private
resources. In brief, the persistent poverty map shown here is more inclusive
of the places that should be targeted for help.
U.S. poverty is unequally distributed across geographic
space and over time. Of the several areas where poverty is concentrated over
time, the South is the largest. In the South, poverty is concentrated in
the Black Belt of the lower southern crescent, in the central Appalachian
subregion of the upper South, and in the Texas Border area of the Hispanic
Southwest. As in other U.S. poverty areas, much of these southern subregions
These findings have implications for any policies
and programs aimed at alleviating poor quality-of-life conditions in the
United States. Welfare reforms--whether they work or not--will affect
the South and the rural South more than other U.S. regions (Wimberley
and Morris 2002). Also, regional efforts to improve the socioeconomic well-being
of people and communities in multistate areas need to be targeted where
comprehensive help is missing but needed the most, e.g., the Black
U.S. poverty areas are clearly discernible and
geographically persistent. These counties and subregions are essentially
sitting targets for long overdue policies and programs to finally address
historic impoverishment and its related socioeconomic conditions in
a manner that will bring U.S. poverty areas up to the level of quality-of-life
enjoyed by other people and places of the United States.
Allen-Smith, Joyce E., Ronald C. Wimberley, and Libby V. Morris.
(2000). "America's Forgotten People and Places: Ending the Legacy
of Poverty in the Rural South." Journal of Agricultural and Applied
Economics 32 (No. 2, August): 319-329.
Bender, Lloyd D., Bernal L. Green, Thomas F. Hady, John A. Kuehn,
Marlys K. Nelson, Leon B. Perkinson, and Peggy J. Ross. (1985). The
Diverse Social and Economic Structure of Nonmetropolitan America.
Rural Development Research Report No. 49. Washington, D.C.: Economic Research
Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Carl Vinson Institute of Government. (2002). Dismantling
Persistent Poverty in the Southeastern United States. Athens: Carl
Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia. See also www.cviog.uga.edu .
Cook, Peggy J., and Karen L. Mizer. (1994). The Revised
ERS County Typology. Rural Development Research Report 89. Washington,
D.C.: Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Economic Research Service. (2003). "Nonmetro Persistent Poverty
Counties, 1990." www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/Rurality/Typoligy/Poverty.htm
. Accessed October 2, 2003. Washington, D.C.: Economic Research Service,
U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Ghelfi, Linda M. (2001). "Most Persistently Poor Rural Counties
in the South Remained Poor in 1995." Rural America 15 (No. 4,
February): 36-49. See also, www.ers.usda.gov/publications/ruralamerica/ra154e.pdf
Miller, Kathleen, Mindy Crandall, and Bruce Weber. (2002). "Persistent
Poverty and Place: How Do Persistent Poverty and Poverty Demographics
Vary Across the Rural-Urban Continuum." Paper prepared for the November
21-22 Conference in Washington, D.C., on Measuring Rural Diversity, and
sponsored by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
See also http://srdc.msstate.edu/measuring/miller.pdf
Miller, Kathleen, Mindy Crandall, and Bruce Weber. (2003). "Persistent
Poverty in America." Perspectives on Poverty, Policy, & Place:
The Newsletter of the RUPRI Rural Poverty Research Center 1(No. 1,
Wimberley, Ronald C., and Libby V. Morris. (1997). The
Southern Black Belt: A National Perspective. Lexington, KY: TVA
Wimberley, Ronald C., and Libby V. Morris (2002). "The Regionalization
of Poverty: Assistance for the Black Belt South?" Southern Rural
Sociology 18(1): 294-306.
Wimberley, Ronald C., Libby V. Morris, and Douglas C. Bachtel. (1991). "Agriculture
and Life Conditions in the Land-Grant Black Belt: Past, Present, and
Policy Questions." Pp. 33-48 in N. Baharanyi, R. Zabawa, A. Maretzki,
and W. Hill, eds., Public and Private Partnership for Rural Development.
Tuskegee, AL: Tuskegee University.
© 2003 North Carolina Sociological Association