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Child Poverty Rates Are Especially High in Small Cities

The reasons have a lot to do with demographics.


If you were to spend a day in McAllen, Texas, every other child you saw would be living in poverty. The McAllen metropolitan area’s child poverty rate is an astounding 47 percent—and unfortunately, it is not alone in having a troublingly high rate of poverty.

Poverty during childhood, which increased considerably in the Great Recession, has dangerous consequences later in life. My colleagues Signe-Mary McKernan and Caroline Ratcliffe find that children who are poor for half their childhoods are 90 percent more likely to reach age 20 without completing high school and four times more likely to have a child as a teen, compared with children who are never poor. These negative consequences increase the longer a child is in poverty. Given this, and other similar findings, should we be worried about today’s children?

In short, yes, and especially if we consider our nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, where many poor children live. The largest of these—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas—have the largest populations of poor children because they have the most people in general. But many less-talked-about metro areas have markedly higher rates of child poverty. The areas with the 10 worst poverty rates are not even among the 50 largest metro areas. For overall child poverty, McAllen takes the top spot, followed by El Paso, Texas, where a third (35 percent) of children live in poverty. Two California metro areas—Fresno and Bakersfield—rank third and fourth. The remaining top 10 metro areas are in the south, with the exception of Youngstown, Ohio.

What makes these metro areas different from others?

First, in 9 out of 10 metros, the majority of the child population is minority. In McAllen and El Paso, which both border Mexico, 95 and 87 percent of children are Hispanic; in Fresno and Bakersfield, 61 percent. Only Youngstown’s child population is majority (78 percent) white.

Moreover, poverty rates for minority children in these 10 areas are much higher than those for white children, consistent with the national pattern, and usually more pronounced. In McAllen, 48 percent of Hispanic children are poor, as are 46 percent of black and 40 percent of Hispanic children in Fresno. In Memphis, only 9 percent of white children live in poverty, but over 40 percent of black and Hispanic children do. Granted, some of these areas also rank highly in terms of white child poverty: McAllen (#1); Youngstown (#2); Lakeland, Florida (#3); and Bakersfield (#5). But even in McAllen, no more than one in five white children is poor, which is less than half the rate for Hispanic children.

Are these minority child poverty rates the worst to be found in our country? Could there be other metropolitan areas where the overall child poverty rate is not notable, but poverty among black and Hispanic children is extremely prevalent? This will be the subject of my next post.

This post originally appeared on the Urban Institute's MetroTrends blog, an Atlantic partner site.

About the Author

  • Sara Edelstein is a Research Associate in the Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population at the Urban Institute. At UI, her research has focused on asset building among low-income households, alternative financial services, work support programs, and childhood poverty. She earned her M.P.P from Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute.