Despite recovery, a big spike in U.S. poverty rates

As many Americans can tell you, the post-recession years haven't been easy. Now, new data backs that up.

Poverty increased in about one-third of U.S. counties between 2010 to 2014 when compared with the previous five years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, which studies more than 3,000 counties (see first map below). Does that mean the rest of the country was lifted into prosperity during those years? Not so much. Only 4 percent of counties saw a decrease in poverty over the more recent span.

The increase in poverty coincided with lower household incomes in about one-third of counties (see second map below). The official poverty line currently is $24,230 for a family four and just over $12,000 for individuals, and folks who fall below that line are officially classified as poor. And some areas saw sharp spikes in poverty during the past five years: 119 counties had poverty rates that were 30 percent higher than from 2005 to 2009. Almost 80 percent of those counties are in the South.

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U.S. Census Bureau

But not only the poor are getting poorer. Census findings show that median household income has declined for three consecutive years. Even the wealthiest Americans, the top 5 percent of households, saw their earnings fall last year, Census said in September.

To be sure, some parts of the country could be experiencing upturns right now the data doesn't yet reflect, given that it aggregates information for the past five years. But overall, it helps explain the dismal experiences that many Americans have lived through since the Great Recession officially ended in mid-2009. No wonder more than seven out of 10 Americans still believe the country is mired in an economic downturn.

"A lot of people who aren't in poverty can't live at the same level they did before the recession hit, and that means to them the recession is still here," said Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program senior fellow William Frey. "The poverty rates have stayed high since then, and the value of the Census data is you can see how pervasive it is."

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U.S. Census Bureau

The one bright spot during the past five years is North Dakota, Frey noted, which has been buoyed by a stronger economy -- such as higher pay and more jobs -- due to the energy boom there. That has increased migration to the state during some years, which he added he never thought he would see. However, the recent collapse in oil prices is putting North Dakota's boom in jeopardy.

At the same time, some states that have been long-time draws for people seeking to relocate, such as Florida and Arizona, have been hard-hit by the housing slump and subsequent troubled economies, which has slowed migration to those states, he added.

"Parts of the country in terms of housing, income and unemployment took a double whammy, because the housing market went belly up, and the job market went bad," he noted. "I would never have thought we would have had a net migration out of Florida or Arizona, and that's what we saw for part of that period."