Holistic Approach to Persistent Poverty

Fighting Poverty

Persistent Poverty Affects 19.4M People

The “Persistent Poverty in Counties and Census Tracts,” study released by U.S. Census in May 2023 showed that nearly 11% of the nation’s 3,142 counties experienced persistent poverty, defined as having poverty rates of 20% or higher for the past 30 years (1989 to 2015-2019). 19.4 million people live in counties with persistent poverty. These counties are primarily in the South. The South was home to 278 or 81.5% of the 341 counties in persistent poverty and 54.9 percent of the people identified nationally as living in persistent poverty counties. Nearly 1 in 5 counties within the Southern region were in persistent poverty. No other region (West, Northeast, Midwest) had more than 5.8% of its counties in persistent poverty.

Persistent poverty is different from chronic poverty. Chronic poverty identifies individuals and families that are consistently in poverty over time, whereas persistent poverty focuses on geographic locations that have had high poverty rates for an extended time. Poverty is determined by comparing annual income to poverty thresholds that vary by family size, the number of children in the household, and the age of the householder. 

U.S. Census Map on Persistent Poverty

Pockets of persistent poverty were clustered in informal subregions such as the Southwest border, the Mississippi Delta, the Southeast, Appalachia, and in some counties with higher amounts of American Indian and Alaska Native tribal lands. Mississippi had the highest percentage of its population living in persistent poverty at 34.8%.

Characteristics of Counties with Persistent Poverty

Understanding the characteristics of counties identified as being persistently in poverty gives context to this discussion. Both race and ethnicity and whether one lives in a rural community play a role in persistent poverty. 

According to the USDA Economic Research Service Report, persistent poverty is highest in rural communities or nonmetro areas with 14% of the nation’s nonmetro population living in persistent poverty. The poverty rate is the highest in completely rural areas not adjacent to a metropolitan area with 16.8% living in persistent poverty.  Persistent poverty and the degree of rurality are inextricably linked, and rural Southern counties make up the majority of persistent poverty counties. 

Overall poverty rates are higher for minorities than for non-Hispanic Whites. This racial disparity is even more marked when considering rural poverty rates. 

The Economy and Persistent Poverty

The report suggests people living in high-poverty areas experience significant barriers to well-being and systemic problems such as limited access to heath care, healthy, affordable food, quality education, and opportunities for civic engagement. The longer poverty exists in an area, the more likely the community lacks adequate infrastructure and support services. 

Persistent poverty can have a significant impact on economic development in the United States. Here are some key ways in which it can affect the economy:

Reduced human capital: Persistent poverty often limits access to quality education, healthcare, and other essential resources. This can lead to lower levels of human capital development within impoverished communities. A poorly educated and unhealthy workforce is less productive and less capable of participating in higher-skilled industries. This ultimately hampers economic growth and innovation.

Limited consumer spending: People living in persistent poverty have limited disposable income, which constrains their ability to engage in consumer spending. Consumer spending is a major driver of economic growth, and when a significant portion of the population cannot afford to spend on non-essential goods and services, it slows down overall economic activity.

Increased public spending: Persistent poverty often necessitates increased public spending on safety net programs, such as welfare, Medicaid, and food stamps. These programs are necessary to provide basic support to individuals and families living in poverty. However, the increased public spending can strain government budgets, diverting resources that could otherwise be allocated to investments in infrastructure, education, and other areas that promote economic development.

Concentration of poverty: Persistent poverty tends to concentrate in specific geographic areas, such as inner-city neighborhoods or rural regions. The concentration of poverty can create pockets of economic distress, leading to reduced investment, limited job opportunities, and decreased business development. This perpetuates a cycle of poverty and hinders economic revitalization efforts.

Intergenerational effects: Persistent poverty often has intergenerational effects, where children growing up in poverty face greater barriers to upward mobility and economic success. Limited access to quality education, healthcare, and other resources can perpetuate poverty across generations, further exacerbating the impact on economic development.

Holistic Approach to Persistent Poverty

Over my many years as an economic developer, I’ve come to the realization that no single economic development project or initiative can eliminate or reduce persistent poverty.  A holistic, multi-faceted approach that addresses social, economic, educational, health, and psychological factors to promote the upward mobility of an impoverished population and community is the most effective plan.  Additionally, the initiatives must be driven from the ground up. Many well-intended programs to eradicate poverty have met with limited success, resulting in skepticism and hopelessness for those who live in chronic poverty.  

To simply say we need to create more jobs and get people back to work ignores the difference between situational poverty and chronic poverty. According to the Chronic Poverty Research Centre, chronically poor people are those who have lived in poverty for years; maybe even an entire lifetime. Chronic poverty can persist through generations.  People who live in chronic poverty suffer from multidimensional deprivation,  lacking not only income but perhaps good health or educational achievement. It is this combination of capability deprivation, low levels of material assets, and social or political marginality that keeps people poor over a long period of time. A more effective approach toward combatting persistent poverty must focus both on the community and the individual.

The causes of chronic poverty are complex: lack of access to economic opportunities, barriers to getting and keeping employment, debilitating ill-health, weak social safety nets, or systemic racism. Social factors including a sense of hopelessness created by repeated failures, cultural attitudes, low risk tolerance, addictions, and weak emotional resilience all come into play when escaping poverty.

Because of the complex nature of persistent poverty in a community, no single solution is effective.  Creating inclusive economic development, providing workforce development with shorter completion times, boosting literacy and job skills, policy reforms, better nutrition, social intervention, and access to affordable housing, childcare, and health care all serve to lift a community and a population out of persistent poverty. 

Persistent Poverty Trending Downard

The good news is the number of counties with poverty rates of 20% or more has been trending down since 1989.  The levels of persistent poverty were the highest in 1989 with 858 counties experiencing 20% poverty rates or more, 429 counties with rates of 25% or more, and 199 counties with 30% or higher poverty rates. 

From 2015-2019, the most recent period studied in the U.S. Census Report, there were only 590 counties with 20% poverty rates or higher, 222 counties with 25% or higher, and 87 with 30% or higher poverty rates. 

Addressing persistent poverty requires a multi-faceted approach that focuses on improving access to quality education, healthcare, affordable housing, and job opportunities. By investing in human capital development, promoting inclusive economic policies, and implementing targeted interventions, it becomes possible to break the cycle of poverty and promote sustainable economic development in the United States.

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