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A Metro Lens on the New National Poverty Data

The release of new Census Bureau poverty data yesterday confirmed suspicions about the state of the economy for the nation’s most vulnerable citizens: even as GDP growth resumed in 2009, things continued to deteriorate at the bottom of the ladder. The U.S. poverty rate rose from 14.3 percent in 2009 to 15.1 percent in 2010, reaching its highest point since 1993.

The news is a stark reminder that poverty is first and foremost a reflection of labor market conditions.  And as we’ve shown through reports like MetroMonitor (ALERT: new edition to be released tomorrow), there isn’t one American labor market, so much as a collection of distinct metropolitan labor markets. In July, unemployment rates in the 100 largest metro areas ranged from under 5 percent to over 17 percent. 

So what do the new data say about the variation in poverty across the country? For now, not much. We need to wait until the end of next week (when another Census dataset is released) to see what has happened to poverty rates and income in the nation’s large cities and metro areas, and we’ll have more to say then.

Yesterday’s report does provide a few indications, however, of what the regional poverty picture may look like in 2010. Here are some clues as to what we may see next week:

Poverty is more metropolitan. From 2009 to 2010, the poor population in metropolitan areas grew by 2.7 million. The share of metro residents below the poverty line rose a full percentage point, to 14.9 percent. Outside metro areas, however, neither the poor population nor the poverty rate changed at all. In 1967, there were equal numbers of metro and non-metro poor; today, the metro poor outnumber the non-metro poor by nearly five to one.

Poverty is more suburban. The Census Bureau doesn’t really define “suburbs” in its poverty report, but it does record poor population and poverty rates for metropolitan areas inside and outside of “principal cities.” These are defined more expansively than Brookings’ “primary cities”; nonetheless, yesterday’s data indicate that the non-city metro poor population rose by nearly 1.5 million from 2009 to 2010, versus 1.2 million for the city poor population. Next week’s data seem sure to herald a continued shift of low-income residents to the suburbs in the nation’s largest metro areas.

Poverty is more Southern. For much of the 1990s, the South’s historically high share of the nation’s poor declined as its economy grew and it attracted middle-class migrants from the North. In the 2000s, however, the share of U.S. poor living in the South once again pushed north of 40 percent. From 2009 to 2010 the share jumped once again, reflecting the deep hangover from the housing market crash affecting Sunbelt metro areas in the Southeast. The poverty rate in the South rose by about twice the amount as in other regions. A quick glance at yesterday’s state numbers suggest particularly big jumps in Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina.

Poverty is up in the Interior West. Beyond the South, other federal data released yesterday on GDP by metro area show that many metro economies in the Interior West—from inland California to Nevada and Arizona—continued to shrink in 2010. Tucson, Reno, Riverside, Fresno, Sacramento, and Las Vegas rank near the bottom of the 100 largest metro areas for GDP growth from 2009-10. We might expect these metro areas to show much higher poverty in next week’s data, another reflection of the collapse of housing-driven economies.

By virtue of covering so many places, next week’s data on city and metropolitan poverty are sure to reveal some bright spots on the map. But yesterday’s numbers, while they provide hints of possible geographic variation, still point to a pretty bleak 2010 for low-income people in metro areas nationwide.