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Changes in Areas With Concentrated Poverty: 2000 to 2010

Report Number ACS-27
Alemayehu Bishaw


This report largely compares Census 2000 poverty estimates with those based on the 2008–2012 5-year American Community Survey (ACS). As 2010 represents the midpoint of this period, for convenience the remainder of this report refers to these 2008–2012 ACS poverty statistics as 2010 estimates.

In 2010, approximately 14.9 percent of the total U.S. population lived in poverty. However, poverty is not distributed evenly across neighborhoods. There are neighborhoods in every state that have higher than average poverty rates. The U.S. Census Bureau designates any census tract with a poverty rate of 20.0 percent or more as a “poverty area.” In 2010, more than 77 million people lived in poverty areas.

Between 1990 and 2000, the percentage of people living in poverty areas fell from 20.0 percent to 18.1 percent. This trend was reversed in the past decade. Between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of people living in poverty areas grew from 18.1 percent to 25.7 percent. While the overall population grew by 10 percent over the decade, the number of people living in poverty areas grew by about 56 percent.

A recent report from The Century Foundation and the Rutgers Center for Urban Research and Education found that after substantial declines in the concentration of poverty in the 1990s, the concentration of poverty has surged once again since 2000. This report found that while concentrated poverty has returned to—and in some ways exceeded—the previous peak level of 1990, there are substantial differences in how concentrated poverty is manifested. In particular, the authors found that the residents of high poverty neighborhoods are more demographically diverse than in the past.2

Various researchers have found that living in communities with a large concentration of people in poverty adds burdens to low-income families. Problems associated with living in poverty areas, such as, higher crime rates, poor housing conditions, and fewer job opportunities are exacerbated when poor families live clustered in high-poverty neighborhoods.3 In recognition of these burdens, some government programs target resources to these high-poverty neighborhoods. Many of these programs use the Census Bureau’s definition of “poverty areas” (census tracts with poverty rates of 20 percent or more) to identify such areas.4

Census tracts are the basic geographic unit used to analyze the characteristics of the population and neighborhoods. Three previous Census Bureau reports have described the characteristics of people living in census tracts with different levels of poverty. Reports published in 1995 and 2005 analyzed data from 1990 and 2000 decennial censuses. A report published in 2011 used the 2006–2010 5-year ACS data.5 See text box for a description of census tracts.

This report uses data from Census 2000 and the 2008–2012 5-year ACS to analyze the changes in the spatial distribution and socioeconomic characteristics of the people living in poverty areas.6 The report uses two sets of distributions (of people, families, and households) to examine the changes between these years. The first set shows the distribution of everyone living in poverty areas, while the second set shows those in poverty living in poverty areas.7

1 The estimates for 2000 are from the Census 2000 sample survey collected from a sample of 19 million households using the long form. For more on Census 2000, see <>. The estimates for 2010 are from 2008–2012 American Community Survey (ACS) 5-year data. For more information on the ACS, see the text box “What Is the American Community Survey?” To avoid repetitive wording, the 2008–2012 ACS 5-year estimate is referred to as the 2010 estimate.
2 Paul A. Jargowsky, “Concentration of Poverty in the New Millennium.” Changes in Prevalence, Composition, and Location of High Poverty Neighborhoods. A report by The Century Foundation and Rutgers Center for Urban Research and Education. Jargowsky focuses on census tracts with poverty rates above 40 percent while this report primarily examines tracts with rates above 20 percent.
3 For example, see “The Enduring Challenge of Concentrated Poverty in America: Case Studies From Communities Across the U.S.A.,” a joint project of the Community Affairs Offices of the Federal Reserve System and the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. (Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, 2008).
4 For example see, the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act in Section 103(a) Allows Basic State Grant projects whose activities or products target poverty areas to receive as much as 90 percent in federal support, and the New Market Tax Credit program, enacted in December 2000 as part of the Community Renewal Tax Relief Act, defines eligibility as projects in census tracts with a poverty rate of at least 20 percent.
5 The ACS collects and releases data by calendar year for geographic areas that meet specific population thresholds. 1-year estimates are published for areas with populations of 65,000 or more, 3-year estimates for populations of 20,000 or more, and 5-year estimates for populations of almost any size. ACS 1-, 3-, and 5-year estimates are period estimates, which means they represent the characteristics of the population and housing over a specific data collection period. Data are combined to produce 12 months, 36 months, or 60 months of data.
6 This report examines the percentage and number of people living in census tracts with poverty rates of 20 percent or greater (poverty areas). A series of appendix tables provides estimates of the number and percentage of people living in census tracts with various levels of poverty: below the national average (14.9 percent), between 14.9 percent and 20 percent, between 20 percent and 40 percent; and greater than 40 percent.
7 All population numbers in this report refers only those included in poverty universe. The poverty universe includes individuals in housing units and noninstitutional group quarters and excludes children under age 15 who are not related to the householder, people living in institutional group quarters, and people living in college dormitories or military barracks.


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