How Close to Poverty Are You?

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Jennifer Donald -- whose family receives money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program also know as food stamps -- makes dinner with her daughter Jayla, 10, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Where can you find concentrated poverty in America? The New York Times put together an interactive map which reveals that almost all American cities have some neighborhoods with poverty rates over 40 percent. And 80 percent of Americans live in urban centers, which means that for those Americans who aren’t living below the poverty line themselves, the poor are right next door.

In many of our more prosperous cities, poverty is concentrated away from downtown. In New York, it’s clustered in pockets in northern Manhattan and throughout the outer boroughs — most notably the Bronx and Central Brooklyn. In San Francisco, another famously unequal city, the poor are scattered in pockets south of the city center and across the bay, in nearby Oakland.

But in less-prosperous cities, the poor aren’t similarly out-of-sight. One residential area near downtown Cleveland shows a poverty rate of 80 percent. Other cities across the country have similar tracts.

Outside of urban areas, we see pockets of deep poverty throughout the Appalachians and the South, and in Western counties that are home to American Indian reservations. Look, for instance, at Shannon County in southern South Dakota, home to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The poverty rate in the county is nearly 50 percent, and unemployment on the reservation is estimated at around 70 percent.

Take a look at the map at »

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson introduced the War on Poverty during his 1964 State of the Union address. The program was responsible for many of the Johnson-era social safety-net programs — perhaps most famously, Medicaid and Medicare — that still exist today. Both Democrats and Republicans are seizing on the anniversary to advance their policy agendas, with some Republicans declaring the war a failure and pushing for government programs to be overhauled, and with the president and some Democrats calling for more aggressive programs — like a minimum wage hike — to address the nation’s growing inequality.

As the rhetoric escalates, the Census data that informs the New York Times map shows that poverty remains a serious problem, and that there is hardly an American community which is untouched. Whether 2014 will see real efforts to solve the problem — or whether the issue of poverty, often ignored in America, will be part of the dialogue during the coming midterm elections — remains to be seen.

John Light is a writer and journalist sometimes based in New York. He writes a lot about climate policy, both inside and outside of the US. He was a former associate digital producer for Moyers & Company. His work has been supported by grants from The Nation Institute Investigative Fund and the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Awards, and has been included in ProPublica's #MuckReads collection. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.
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  • Anonymous

    Good article.

  • Pamela Jansen

    Can’t be all accurate–my house backs on a golf course and other than a few apartments in the area, I live in a good residential area and the map identifies us as in the 30% poverty range. The apartments are not section 8 either. Homes to the west of us are identified in the 10% category and are smaller and older.

  • DarqueSideOfTheMoon

    The area around UC Irvine has a high rate of poverty? WHAT?! Did the census count the students as being in poverty? I lived there for over 15 years and there’s no WAY that area has a poverty rate that high unless they counted students living there on the largess of their parents, etc.

  • William Smith

    as foodstamps and unemployment benefits are cut large corporations and wealthy americans still find a way to avoid paying taxes and paying living wages to employees who have to depend on government assistance

  • Kim Johnson

    It’s interesting(and I know, only anecdotal) that my more conservative friends/relatives live in areas that have a much higher poverty rate than I do; not all of them, but the ones that feel that a person is poor because of only their choices.

  • Oh_wait

    But wait – didn’t President Johnson stop caring about the War on Poverty after the Watts riots? I saw something on that on PBS. (I think)


    It isn’t coincidental that the larger slice of the pie is legislated toward the upper class leaving those remaining scrambling to pick through the left over garbage. This has become a symptom of special interests with the influence and money to divert the wealth and then whine because entitlements are to expensive. The money grabbers are directly responsible and will not stop until there is no garbage left to sift through for the remaining! Welcome to the new reality and the new American Dream……..

  • Suzanne Lander

    I would like to have seen a mention that things were improving until the last few decades when poverty rates started to skyrocket again.

  • Suzanne Lander

    It’s quite possible 30% of your neighbors are scraping to get by without letting on.

  • Anonymous

    Did you try the links?

  • Anonymous

    That has been covered in previous articles and the links might help you.

  • Anonymous

    Do you have research on that?

  • Anonymous

    Same thing in the University district of Seattle. I walk around that area frequently and besides the students (who definitely do skew the numbers) there are a disproportionate number of homeless people who use that district as a homebase for some very good reasons.

  • Anonymous

    What are the homelessness numbers like in your area?

  • lostinbago

    I hate to do this as I concur that inequitable wealth is a major problem, but I did notice an anomaly that skews the data. I looked at two smaller towns with large college populations and those student populated areas were the lowest income areas in the city. That is to be expected because they are not full time employees while attending classes.
    This does not invalidate the problem, but it does skew the map.

  • Vicki Pickerell Donovan

    don’t know how much I trust the mapping of poverty…….University Park in Dallas with a 17.8% poverty level? I think not.