Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Rural-to-urban population moves have changed the landscape of the poor in the last 50 years.
The American South has become less poor than it was in the past, while the West has seen a rise in poverty, according to a new analysis of Census data by the Pew Research Center.
In 1960, almost half of America’s poor (49 percent) lived in the South. By 2010, that number was at 41 percent—still a substantial share, but considerably less than before. Meanwhile, the West’s share of the nation’s low-income population climbed from 11 percent in 1960 to 23 percent in 2010.
In the last 50 years or so, the poverty rate in the South decreased from 36 percent to 16 percent. The next highest regional reduction took place in the Midwest, at just 3.6 percent. Here’s a map of what the geographical shift in poverty rate looks like:
The decline in America’s overall poverty rate from 22 percent to 15 percent between 1960 and 2010 partly explains these regional trends. (By 2013 it had fallen further, to 14.5 percent.) Some experts attribute this general drop to President Lyndon Johnson’s post-1964 War on Poverty, though others disagree about the success of these policies.
The rural-to-urban movement of poor during this period is another likely reason for this regional shift in poverty. The share of the nation’s population that lives in cities increased from 70 percent in 1960 to 81 percent in 2010. During this period, bolstered by federal housing policy, wealthier whites moved to the suburbs while the poor clustered within the cities.
A lot of the country’s most crowded cities happen to be in the West, Northeast, and Midwest. Twenty of the most populous counties in these cities—Los Angeles County in L.A., Queens County in New York, and Clark County in Nevada, for example—have gained poor residents. In 2010, one in five low-income Americans lived in these counties; back in 1960, these regions only contained 14 percent of the nation’s poor.
Today, urban poverty continues to drive this regional shift. Here’s Pew’s Jens Manuel Krogstad with some context:
Twelve of today’s most populous counties had poverty rates above the national average in 2010, including Los Angeles, Cook (Chicago) in Illinois, Maricopa (Phoenix) in Arizona, Kings (Brooklyn) in New York, and Dallas. In 1960, eight of these 12 counties had poverty rates below the national average.