A quarter of Americans live in poor neighborhoods

On many counts, the U.S. economy has come a long way from the seemingly endless gloom of the Great Recession. The latest positive note came on Friday morning, when the U.S. Labor Department reported a far-more-robust-than-expected 288,000 new jobs were created in June. And while overall economic growth has been lackluster compared with other recent recovery periods, the U.S. is expected to rebound from its first-quarter reversal and kick back into forward when second-quarter GDP numbers are released.

But by another important measure, things are not at all going in the right financial direction: The number of Americans living in "poverty areas" has skyrocketed from 49.5 million, or 18.1 percent of the population, in 2000, to at least 77 million, or 25.7 percent, in 2010.

Over that period the number of employed people living in poverty areas -- defined as a census tract where more than 20 percent of the population live below the federal poverty level -- increased by 8 percent, more than twice the growth rate for unemployed people, according to a new report from the Census Bureau. The Census report compares data from 2000 to that of 2008-2012, but uses the midpoint of that period, 2010, as the basis for comparison.

Of the 7.2 million people who qualify as living below the poverty line and also participate in the labor force, that is, working or actively seeking work, 4.9 million were employed, while 2.3 million were unemployed. Between 2000 and 2010, number of poor employed people living in these areas increased by 12 percentage points.

The current poverty line for a family of four is an annual income of $23,000.

Poverty areas add to the burdens of the poor by almost always having worse schools, worse public services and higher crime rates. They also lack access to supermarkets and health care facilities, making them more expensive to live in because of the added cost of commuting to get these places or, in the case of groceries, buying them at convenience stores that charge higher prices.

According to the report, 30 percent of the population lived in areas of poverty in the District of Columbia and 14 states -- an increase from only four states and D.C. in 2000. States with the greatest increase included Tennessee, Oregon, Arkansas and North Carolina. Regionally, the South has the greatest share of its population living in poverty areas, while the Midwest saw the fastest rise in growth of concentrated poverty.

The increase occurred in cities, suburbs and rural areas. Of people living in poverty areas in 2010, 51.1 percent lived in central cities, 28.6 percent in suburbs and 20.4 percent outside metro areas. While minorities and households headed by single mothers are most likely to live in poverty areas, whites living in poor areas had the greatest proportional increase -- from 11.3 percent in 2000 to 20.3 percent in 2010.

The Census Bureau's 2012 American Community Survey, the most recent official counting of poverty currently available, shows an overall U.S. poverty rate of 14.9 percent, or 46.5 million people, statistically the same as the year before and 2.5 percentage points higher than in 2007.

However, the Census Bureau admits the number could be much larger. The official rate is calculated based on three times the minimum food diet in 1963 using today's prices. It doesn't take into account the difference in the cost of living in different areas. The amount you have to earn to qualify as living in poverty is the same in New York City, where everything is more expensive, as it is in Biloxi, Miss., for example.

The Census Bureau has also figured poverty based on the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which uses information about what people spend today on housing, food, clothing and utilities, and takes into consideration the different cost of housing in different areas. Using the SPM, the poverty threshold for renters in New York City is $30,000 a year for a family of four.

As of the latest SPM, from 2012, Census found 16 percent of Americans live in poverty versus the 14.9 percent found using the traditional method.

  • Constantine von Hoffman On Twitter»

    Constantine von Hoffman is a freelance writer and writing coach. His work has appeared in outlets such as Harvard Business Review, NPR, Sierra magazine, Brandweek, CIO, The Boston Herald, TheStreet.com, CSO, and Boston Magazine.

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