Despite recent economic growth, 39.7 million Americans (or 12.3 percent) lived in poverty in 2017, 12.8 million of whom were children under 18 years of age (Fontenot, Semega, & Kollar, 2018). However, this deprivation of resources is not spread evenly throughout the country's population. Personal characteristics--such as education level, family structure, race and ethnicity--may be related to how likely individuals are to be poor. Moreover, the built environment, social structures and economic prosperity of their community may further affect the probability of being poor. Impoverished individuals are often clustered within specific communities, resulting in an uneven distribution throughout the country.
This combination of factors--some stemming from individual choices and others from general economic trends and community composition--results in a complex problem that is difficult to fully address through a single approach. Researchers, policy analysts and community development practitioners usually choose to study poverty and its underlying mechanisms by focusing either on poor individuals or poor places. In this article, we explore poor places nationwide over time and at different geographic levels, giving special attention to conditions in the state of Indiana.
The poverty rate is the percentage of the population with money income below the poverty line. Because poor individuals are not evenly spread throughout the country, poverty rates change based on which spatial scale is used (Peters, 2012).
* Macro scale: These national and regional data present averages and general trends in the population.
* Meso scale: These data allow for some locational differences by describing "intermediate" places, such as states, metropolitan areas and counties.
* Micro scale: The smallest places, such as cities and census tracts, describe the communities in which people live.
Focusing on only one scale may obscure trends in poverty that would be apparent at a larger or smaller scale (Lichter, Parisi, Taquino, & Beaulieu, 2008). To account for differences due to spatial scale, we discuss regional, state, county and census tract trends for Indiana. This helps position Indiana within the bigger national and regional picture, while also addressing the variations that exist within the state.
Our analysis utilizes a spatially harmonized data set of poverty rates and a handful of other socio-economic variables from 1970 to 2016. We derive our measures of interest, persistent poverty and high individual and child poverty rates, based on the harmonized data. The data set keeps the borders of places, especially census tracts, constant over time, which allows us to track changes in poverty with some degree of accuracy. The harmonized data were created by the Purdue Center for Regional Development (PCRD) using data from five decennial censuses (1970 to 2010) and the 2012-2016 American Community Survey (Kumar & Kim, 2017).
High individual poverty patterns and trends
Places with 20 percent or more of their population living in poverty are designated as high-poverty places. Figure 1 shows the 2016 poverty rates in U.S. counties. Poverty rates are higher in the South, particularly in the Black Belt and along the Rio Grande, in counties with large Native American populations in the West and North Central regions, as well as in the Appalachians. Comparatively, Indiana had few high-poverty counties in 2016.
Next, we compare Indiana to other states within the North Central region of the United States. Figure 2 shows the number of high-poverty counties and census tracts in the North Central region by state from 1970 to 2016...