Poverty in the U.S. is more rural than many imagine

Earlier this week one of the most emailed New York Times articles was 50 Years Into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back, a profile of Twin Branch, West Virginia. You probably know the genre: a longer article, weaving together a number of different stories. The whole thing is worth reading, but there was one passage that struck me as “I need to share this on the blog.” Incidentally, it’s interesting how reading or listening with such a purpose in the back of my mind changes the experience. I’ve had a similar observation about live tweeting the one time I did it. Instead of looking at a presentation as one coherent whole, part of me is looking for pieces that can fit into 140 characters and make sense on their own. That’s not necessarily bad, but it is different.

Anyhow, enough with form. Let’s return to content. Here is the passage:

Fifty years after the war on poverty began, its anniversary is being observed with academic conferences and ideological sparring — often focused, explicitly or implicitly, on the “culture” of poor urban residents. Almost forgotten is how many ways poverty plays out in America, and how much long-term poverty is a rural problem.

Of the 353 most persistently poor counties in the United States — defined by Washington as having had a poverty rate above 20 percent in each of the past three decades — 85 percent are rural. They are clustered in distinct regions: Indian reservations in the West; Hispanic communities in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas; a band across the Deep South and along the Mississippi Delta with a majority black population; and Appalachia, largely white, which has supplied some of America’s iconic imagery of rural poverty since the Depression-era photos of Walker Evans.

I didn’t realize this until deciding to share this, but of course those counties have lower populations, so things would look somewhat different if we look at poor people instead of poor counties (both are important, they just measure different things). The poverty rate in rural areas is higher (see report linked in block quotation), but about 80% of the U.S. population lives in urban areas, so the absolute number of poor people is going to be greater there.