Despite a strong economy, poverty grew in one-third of U.S. counties | Analysis
By Tim Henderson
Despite an economic recovery that lifted people out of poverty in most areas of the country, poverty increased in at least one county in every state between 2016 and 2018.
The poverty rate grew in 30 percent of counties between 2016 and 2018, according to a Stateline analysis of U.S. Census Bureau county estimates released this month. The poverty rate is the percentage of people in households earning less than the poverty threshold, currently $25,750 for a family of four.
While the overall poverty rate dropped between 2016 and 2018, from 13 percent to 12 percent, states varied widely. In New Jersey and Rhode Island, the poverty rate grew in only one county, compared with 83 in Texas.
The counties with the biggest jumps in poverty ranged across the political and demographic spectrum: from 97 percent white and solidly Republican-voting Carter County in Kentucky to black-majority, Democratic Bullock County in Alabama.
Most of the biggest increases were in areas both rural and Southern. Those areas generally had residents who lacked job training and skills and industries that suffered downturns.
For many counties, rising poverty rates underscore the importance of fully counting residents in next year’s census, since a count of low-income residents will help determine funding available to help them.
Alabama, where poverty grew in 27 of 67 counties, named a rural development manager in August to help create jobs in rural areas, a move that Bullock County welcomed, said David Padgett, the county’s economic developer.
Bullock County had the second-biggest increase in poverty in the country, up almost 10 points between 2016 and 2018 to 42.5 percent.
The county has job opportunities at its airport, poultry plant, hospital and state prison, and a low unemployment rate of about 3 percent. But that figure doesn’t count the discouraged workers who have given up on finding jobs and remain in poverty, many of whom are too old to look for work, Padgett said.
“We have a lot of disadvantaged people who are not in the workforce. This goes way beyond Bullock County,” Padgett said. “This is about rural areas across Alabama.”
Carter County, Kentucky, also saw one of the largest poverty rate increases, up 8.5 points to 31.1 percent.
“This is rural America. We’re rich in self-sustaining nature and neighbors helping neighbors but we don’t have resources,” said state Sen. Robin Webb, a Democrat who lives in Carter County. “I’ve got a car full of toys we’re taking to a school where 60 kids weren’t going to have Christmas.”
Like Bullock, Carter has an aging population, and a meat processing plant is its largest employer. It also has an AT&T customer service center, and many residents drive to coal-related jobs in other areas.
But the county has seen a long decline in business related to the coal industry and has been hit by drug addiction as opioids and meth come in on highways from urban areas, Webb said.
Most of the county’s 20,000 registered voters are Democrats but the county has voted Republican for president since 2008, including 73 percent for Donald Trump in 2016.
“Now they’re closing the coal-fired plants,” Webb said, “and those tradesmen and -women are being thrown out of those highly skilled jobs, and it’s having a terrible impact.”
While 14 of the 20 counties with the biggest poverty increases were Southern, some Native American-majority counties also saw big jumps.
Poverty in Oglala Lakota County in South Dakota grew 13.3 points to 54 percent. The Bethel Census Area in Alaska, which is treated as a county for census purposes but is unincorporated, had a jump of 7.2 points to 32.7 percent.
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