The Census Bureau says counties along the U.S.-Mexican border and isolated areas across the South and Midwest were among the poorest in the nation in the late 1990s.
The bureau reported Tuesday that more than half the children in two counties lived in poverty in 1999: Starr County, Texas, near the Mexican border, and East Carroll Parish in northeastern Louisiana. Texas had six of the 10 counties with the nation's highest overall poverty rates, while South Dakota had two. The other two counties were in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Figures released Tuesday are separate from poverty estimates from the 2000 census already announced this year. Though three years old, bureau officials say the latest figures offer a more comprehensive look at poverty at the county level.
"We do lag behind the country, but during the decade there was greater improvement in Texas," said Dayna Finet, senior research associate for Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, Texas' capital. "To say that it's a completely dire situation is not very accurate."
Nationally, 17 percent of children 17 and younger lived in poverty in 1999, down from 19 percent in 1998 and 23 percent in 1993, the earliest year with which data can be compared.
Still, Finet said the government's estimates of poverty were outdated and inaccurate. Many families went from being in poverty to "working poor" status, she said.
The poverty threshold differs by household, depending mainly on the size of the family. For instance, in 1999 the poverty line for a family of four with two children was an income of $16,895 a year.
In Starr County, Texas, on the Rio Grande River across from Mexico, 50.5 percent of children 17 and younger, or 10,128 children, lived in poverty in 1999. Nearly one-fourth of the county's residents are not U.S. citizens.
East Carroll Parish, La., had the next highest share of children in poverty at 50.1 percent. However, bureau officials said statistical error rates could affect a county's ranking.
Some improvements appeared in the South and rural Appalachia during the 1990s. For instance, Owsley County, Ky. had the highest child poverty rate in 1993 at 65 percent; by 1999, it had fallen to 44.7 percent, the eighth highest rate in the nation.
Part of the improvement can be traced to the region diversifying an economy that had long been based on manufacturing and mining, said Duane DeBruyne, spokesman for the federal Appalachian Regional Commission.
"We are making progress, but not fully there yet," he said.
Left uncertain by the 1999 figures is how the economic slide that began the next year will affect county poverty estimates. Last month, the latest national estimate of poverty showed rates increasing between 2000 and 2001 after nearly a decade of decline.
Tuesday's report also found that the Denver suburb of Douglas County, Colo., had the highest median household income in the country at $87,335. Buffalo County, S.D., home to the Crow Creek Indian Reservation, had the lowest at $15,531.
Because of changes in the way estimates were calculated, 1999 income figures were not comparable to those of previous years.
The estimates are based in part on a survey that asks more detailed questions about economic status than the 2000 census, and also incorporates tax records and other government data that the census did not account for.
By Genaro C. Armas