The sheer number of poor people in the United States is striking: fully 45 million meet the official guidelines for poverty. And that doesn’t include millions more who are among the working poor – those who tip-toe just above the government’s official poverty line, which for a family of four means an annual income of less than $23,850 and for an individual means an annual income of $11,670. Recent reports suggest more than 50% of food stamp recipients are the working poor. For the first time in more than 50 years, the majority of America’s public school children are living in poverty. The notion of an escape, of climbing out of poverty, of pulling one’s self up from the trenches to something better, is as elusive as ever. Being poor bears a stigma often perpetuated by politicians who play on tired stereotypes and stubborn myths.
The poor are scattered across every region of the country. But much like America itself, many are segregated by race. Large pockets of poor African Americans remain concentrated in the old slaving states of the South. Others live along the path of the Great Migration from the South to industrial cities in the North and Midwest, like Chicago. There they found no true solace, trading violence and Jim Crow segregation for racist housing and other policies that left them vulnerable to social, economic and political predators.
Much of America’s prosperity was built on slave labor. For hundreds of years, through a vast network of slaveholders and plantations, enslaved Africans and their American-born progeny harvested great wealth out of Southern sugar, cotton and other cash crops. But when slavery was abolished after the defeat of the South in the Civil War, much of the region’s wealth went with it.
Today, the South remains largely poor, and ancestors of the slaves who literally and figuratively built this nation remain there in large numbers. While black poverty is spread across the country, it remains largely concentrated below the Mason-Dixon Line. While Jim Crow segregation may have ended half a century ago, it was followed by racist public policy and state sanctioned violence and subjugation, as well as a lack of access to quality education, employment and healthcare. Such challenges have made poverty virtually insurmountable for many communities in the so-called Black Belt.
Another hurdle is what many call environmental racism, where poor and minority communities are further degraded by close proximity to toxic land, water and air, or exposure to toxic materials unleashed by crumbling and dilapidated housing. Much of the hazardous material comes from byproducts churned out by big industry.
Louisiana has the highest concentration of oil, natural gas and petrochemical facilities in the Western hemisphere, and many of the poorest people in the state live close to these refineries.
An 85-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, winding along the Mississippi River, is home to more than 150 industrial facilities that produce a quarter of the country’s petrochemicals. The corridor has become known as “Cancer Alley,” after residents, activists and some scholars insisted the high cancer rates found in nearby communities were linked to the poisons released by the refineries. The communities most at risk are overwhelmingly poor and black. The environmental concerns found in these places add another burden to the already debilitating weight of poverty.
Huge swaths of poor whites (particularly white women) reside in Appalachia, which boasts some of the highest poverty rates in the country. Many in these communities are hamstrung by limited public transportation, entrenched and generational poverty and troubling environmental and health concerns. Still others are ensnared into the criminal justice system -- an unfortunate outcome for impoverished Americans of all races.
In recent years poverty has expanded into the suburbs founded by families fleeing urban blight. Today, more low-income people live outside of cities than ever. Some have called this phenomenon “the New America Poverty.” An example of this phenomenon is the Atlanta metropolitan area, where sojourners from all over the country flocked for the affordable housing and good schools. A recent report found 88% of Atlanta’s poor now live in the suburbs, and the area’s poor population grew by 159% between 2010 and 2011. By 2011, the same report found, the number of people living below the poverty rate in the suburbs across the country numbered a whopping 16.4 million, surpassing those living in cities.
The Rust Belt
The hulking old factories and abandoned industrial plants that dot cities across the North and Northeast offer a fitting illustration to the swath of the country known as the Rust Belt, anchored from the east in central New York and stretches through western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Indiana then carves into the Great Lakes region.
This area once served as the industrial heart of the United States. Rail lines connected cities that were home to manufacturers of heavy industrial material and large consumer products like cars and trucks.
Yet, today, the goliaths of industry that once loomed large in these areas are gone, leaving behind urban decay and blight. The decline of America’s steel and coal industries as well as a globalized market that has sent manufacturing jobs overseas and traded manpower for automation, has ripped the economic engines from this region.
Against this backdrop, once-great cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee have all struggled. While some cities have fared better than others, many are mere shells of what they were in the heyday of heavy industry. Where once workers could find steady employment on a factory floor or assembly line, poverty and crime have risen and populations have declined.
In Flint, Michigan, which was first a lumber town and later a hub for auto manufacturing, decades of deindustrialization and disinvestment have taken their toll. The city consistently ranks among the most dangerous in America with a poverty rate of 41.5%. In the 1970s General Motors employed 80,000 people in Flint. In recent years that number fell to just around 6,000. The lack of jobs and high crime sparked an exodus from the city. In 2013 the population was just below 100,000 people, compared to a population of 200,000 just 50 years ago. According to one recent report, 24.5% of families in Flint have an annual income of below $15,000 a year. Vacant school buildings and abandoned building litter the city. Flint is also more racially diverse than many large cities, with 56% of its population African American and 37% white, a sign of much less white flight than cities like Detroit.
Native American Poverty
From Native American reservations in the Dakotas to the old lumber towns of the Pacific Northwest, poverty in rural and isolated communities in the upper reaches of America is striking. The fates of many small cities and towns in that region have been tied to the extraction of natural resources like crude oil and lumber. In many places, the growl of lumber mills have long gone quiet. In other places, too many people -- particularly Native Americans -- have been largely left out of the more recent oil boom.
As natural resources are being exhausted, so are the hopes and dreams of countless Americans languishing in some of the country’s most picturesque areas. Oregon has seen its poverty spike in recent years – it’s one of just four states that saw a 15% increase in poverty from 2000-2010, largely in its rural counties. The other three states were in the South. Across the from the western edge of the Midwest across to the upper Pacific coast, county poverty rates range from as little as 3% to as much as 54%, with the highest rates found on Indian reservations in South Dakota. Nine of the 10 counties with the highest poverty rates -- above 50% -- were on reservations.
Native populations and reservations are most often geographically and economically isolated. Because of complicated bureaucracies and a slew of broken treaties between sovereign Native American tribes and the U.S. government, tribes have had to fight mostly losing battles to capitalize on the natural resources found on their land. In North Dakota, which has undergone an oil boom that has bolstered the state economy and driven the unemployment rate down to just 3.1%, second lowest in the nation, the unemployment rate of the Standing Rock Reservation in that state is 79%. Abject poverty on most of the reservations is gut wrenching and indicative of a host of social issues. The high poverty rate among Native populations also extends beyond the reservation.
But Native Americans aren’t the only people struggling in this region. Eugene, Oregon has a white population of nearly 86% and a poverty rate of 24%. In Reedsport, Oregon, about an hour and a half west of Eugene, nearly one out of four residents lives below the poverty line. That city is 88% white. Much of Reedsport’s economic struggles have come from the collapse of the timber industry.
The New Arrivals
Of the 353 counties in the United States deemed by the federal government to be persistently poor – meaning the poverty rate in these counties has been above 20% for three consecutive decades -- 85% are in rural areas in distinct regions, including Hispanic communities along the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.
Millions of migrant workers rise early each day to toil invisibly in warehouses, factories and farmlands across rural America. They are packing our vegetables, picking our fruit and carving up animals to give us burgers and bacon. This labor force is vital to agribusiness in the United States, yet these workers are among the most economically disadvantaged and vulnerable in this country. Many are undocumented and are unable to take advantage of most federal safety net programs. They are a relatively young group, men mostly, who often leave their families behind in their home countries to chase a better life. Instead, they find hard living and low wages. About half of all undocumented workers in this country are uninsured. Many cannot attend public colleges or universities, while others are victims of wage suppression and discrimination. Even as they labor in plain sight, they live mostly in the shadows -- in fear of being snared by authorities, deported and seeing their families torn apart. Along the nation’s southwest border, immigrants’ impact on their communities and evidence of their plight is visible everywhere.
Santa Maria is a city in Santa Barbara County, California. The population is 99,553 and 20.7% live below the poverty level. Approximately 10,000 people work in the city’s surrounding strawberry fields, earning $1.25 per box picked. Amador Angeles, field worker: “I wish for my kids to to study so they don’t have to carry on like us.”