What American Dream? One-Fourth of People Now Live in High-Poverty Neighborhoods

A U.S. Census Bureau report shows that the number of folks residing in impoverished communities is on the upswing.

(Photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

Jul 2, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

When I was a little girl spending the night at my grandma’s house, she always made me sleep in her bed—which made me really nervous. My granny slept with a pistol under her pillow, and not because she fancied herself some kind of Chicagoland Annie Oakley. No, the neighborhood she’d called home for nearly 40 years had changed around her. As its poverty increased, so did the crime rate. My grandma had that gun in case someone broke in and she needed to handle business. After all, as she often said, if you call the police, there’s no guarantee they’ll even come.

Those slower police response times, along with less green space, more pollution, struggling schools, and food deserts are just some of the consequences of living in a high-poverty neighborhood. Your individual household doesn’t even have to be poor to be on the receiving end of all those negative outcomes. If most other folks around you are struggling financially, you’ll be affected too. Now a just-released report from the U.S. Census Bureau reveals that that kind of touched-by-poverty existence is the experience of more than one-fourth of Americans.

According to the Census Bureau, in 2010, roughly 14.9 percent people were living under the poverty line. In America that's defined as a family of four (two adults, two kids) surviving on a meager $23,550. However, the report’s authors confirm what we already know: “Poverty is not distributed evenly across neighborhoods. There are neighborhoods in every state that have higher than average poverty rates.” As a result, the Census Bureau officially designates any census tract with a poverty rate of 20 percent or more as a "poverty area."

Since the turn of the century, the problem of high-poverty neighborhoods has gotten worse. The Census Bureau found that between 1990 and 2000, the percentage of people living in these concentrated low-income communities dropped from 20.0 percent to 18.1 percent. From 2000 to 2010, however, that percentage grew from 18.1 percent to 25.7 percent. “While the overall population grew by 10 percent over the decade, the number of people living in poverty areas grew by about 56 percent,” according to the Census Bureau. In raw numbers, more than 77 million people lived in these poor neighborhoods in 2010.

According to the data, the Northeast saw the smallest increase, with 16.5 percent of people living in a high-poverty area in 2000 and 21.5 percent living in one in 2010. The Midwest saw the biggest leap—from 11.7 percent in 2000 to 21.5 percent in 2010.

While that’s clearly not good those numbers seem tame compared to what’s going on in the South. In 2000, 21.8 percent of people in Southern states were already living in poverty areas. Now that has jumped to a whopping 30.8 percent of people living in poor communities.

That potential robber never came for my grandma, but the fear of it kept her housebound, which surely limited her health. Whether it’s the toll an undereducated population takes on the economy when youths aren’t able to be hired for jobs, or the inability of a family to afford nutritious food—which results in obesity and disease and boosts health care costs—we all feel it. No matter where we live, one way or another we're all affected by what happens to folks who grow up in an impoverished neighborhood. By allowing these extremes of wealth and poverty to continue, we're robbing America of the greatness that could be hers.