Poverty Facts and Myths


The Poor Often Live Outside Inner City Neighborhoods

An image of the poor often portrayed in the media and elsewhere is that of nonwhites living in high poverty inner city neighborhoods. It is a picture that reinforces the idea that the poor are somehow different than other Americans; that they reside in their own neighborhoods, far away from the rest of America.
As Paul Jargowsky writes,

When poverty is discussed, the mental image that often comes to mind is the inner-city, and particularly high-poverty ghettos and barrios in the largest cities. Many people implicitly assume, incorrectly, that most of the nation’s poor can be found in these often troubled neighborhoods.

It is certainly true that the United States remains highly segregated on the basis of race, and increasingly, class. Inner cities across the country have been plagued by ongoing economic and social problems. As scholars such as William Julius Wilson have researched and written about over the years, many of these areas are comprised of the “truly disadvantaged.”

It is therefore surprising to many people to discover that the vast majority of the poor do not live in high poverty, inner city neighborhoods. In fact, only approximately 10 percent of those in poverty do so. In this section we explore several of these unexpected findings.

Percent of the Poor Living in High Poverty Neighborhoods

Based upon data from the U.S. Census Bureau, researchers are able to determine what percent of the poor live in high poverty neighborhoods. The Census Bureau allows one to analyze this data at the level of what is known as a “census tract” region. A census tract can be thought of as roughly corresponding to a neighborhood, and generally averages around 4,000 people (or about 1,500 housing units). In a densely populated urban area, this might comprise a ten by ten square block area, while in a rural location, a census tract would spread out over a much larger geographical region. High poverty neighborhoods are frequently defined as census tracts in which 40 percent or more of the residents are living below the poverty line.

Using this definition, Paul Jargowsky has analyzed the percentage of the poor that are living in impoverished neighborhoods. We can see in Table 1 these percentages for 1990, 2000, 2010, and 2015. In 1990, 15.1 percent of the poor were residing in high poverty neighborhoods. That figure dropped to 10.3 percent by 2000, rose to 13.6 percent for 2010, and then fell to 11.9 percent for 2015.

Table 1. Percentage of Poor Living in High Poverty Census Tracts and the Percentage of Overall High Poverty Census Tracts.

Year% of Poor Living in High Poverty Census TractsOverall % of High Poverty Census Tracts

Note: High poverty census tracts are defined as census tracts in which 40 percent of more of residents are below the official poverty line. Source: Paul A. Jargowsky, 2019. 

The second column shows the percentage of all the census tracts in the United States that are considered high poverty. In 1990, 5.7 percent of all census tracts were counted as high poverty areas. In 2000, this percentage was 3.9 percent, by 2010, it had risen to 5.6 percent and then fell to 5.0 percent for 2015. Consequently, although there has been some fluctuation in the percentage of the poor living in high poverty neighborhoods, most individuals in poverty have not and do not live in such neighborhoods.

The overall finding of a minority of the poor living in high poverty neighborhoods is consistent with research indicating that only a small percentage of those experiencing poverty do so for a long, extended period of time. Certainly it is important to keep the deeply entrenched poor in mind when discussing poverty, but it is equally important to keep in mind that they constitute a relatively small proportion of the entire poverty population.

While no one should doubt that inner city poverty is quite real and debilitating, those in poverty live in a much wider range of areas than this image implies. In fact, the poor can be found in just about any location across America. Yet such poverty often seems invisible.

One reason for this is that poverty is not something that people wish to acknowledge or draw attention to. Rather, it is something that individuals and families would like to go away. As a result, many Americans attempt to conceal their economic difficulties as much as possible. This often involves keeping up appearances and trying to maintain a “normal” lifestyle. Such poverty down the block may at first appear invisible. Nevertheless, the reach of poverty is widespread, touching nearly all communities across America.

The myth that poverty is confined to a particular group of Americans, in very specific locations, is corrosive because it encourages the belief that poverty is an issue of “them” rather than “us.” As we have discussed in Fact 1, poverty strikes a wide swath of the population. In addition, it touches Americans in cities, suburbs, and rural communities. Given this, it is much more accurate to think of poverty as affecting us, rather than them.