The Dramatically Uneven Spread of American Poverty

From one metropolitan area to the next.

Last week, the Census Bureau released updated statistics through 2012 showing that poverty and income rates in the United States have finally plateaued, a mixed assessment that means two things: Nationwide, poverty is no longer going up (and household income is no longer creeping down) as had been the case since the start of the recession. But both numbers remain as bad as they've been since the economy first began to tank, suggesting a particularly stingy recovery.

The national poverty rate is still sitting around 15 percent, representing some 48.8 million people (that's up from 33.3 million people back in 2000). And the median household income has bottomed out around $51,371, about 8 percent below what it was on the eve of the recession.

These national trends obscure the fact that this picture looks very different on the ground depending on where you live. The poverty rate in the Washington, D.C., metro area, for example, was just above 8 percent in 2012. In Riverside, California, it was 19 percent.

Below, we've plotted data recently released by the Census covering poverty rates in the 25 largest metropolitan areas (scroll over the chart for the full data):

Many of the metros with the highest poverty rates are Sun Belt cities where the housing boom was also once in full swing (with the exception of Detroit). This second chart shows related data from 2012 on median household income in those same 25 metros:

Unsurprisingly, many metros with high incomes have low poverty (Washington, D.C., Boston, Minneapolis), while the reverse is also true (Miami, Riverside, Orlando).

This data reinforces that the recovery has been (and will remain) uneven across the country. But it also underscores that the recession landed with dramatically different punch in the first place depending on the city. The below two charts from the Census Bureau show Riverside at left and Washington at right, with median income (top) and poverty rates (bottom) spanning the years from 2007-2012.

Census Bureau using data from the 2007-2012 American Community Survey

Riverside once had below-average poverty and above-average income. Now those numbers have reversed. Washington, on the other hand, doesn't look all that changed by the events of the last five years.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.