Commentary | Inequality and Poverty

Child poverty rises dramatically in most states


Mississippi and Arkansas have the highest poverty rates in the nation (at 21.9% and 18.8%, respectively), and Florida saw the largest increase in poverty (2.8 percentage points) over the course of the recession, new Census data shows.  Poverty was lowest in New Hampshire (8.5%) and Alaska (9.0%), but even in those states at least one in 12 residents lived in poverty.

While the new data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) are similar to the nationwide data on poverty released earlier this month, the ACS provides a more detailed look at poverty in every state. The result is more evidence of the widespread pain resulting from the Great Recession.  In the nation overall, there were 42.9 million people in poverty in 2009. For the average family of four, this means that their combined income for the year was less than $21,954 (the exact threshold varies by family size and number of children). From 2007 to 2009, 47 states and the District of Columbia experienced increases in their poverty rates. The first Map shows poverty rates by state and how they changed throughout the Great Recession, which began in late 2007.

Child Poverty

While the overall poverty rate was high in 2009, the child poverty rate was even higher. Nationwide, one in five children lived in poverty in 2009. The second Map presents the new data on child poverty rates by state, which ranged from highs of 31.0% in Mississippi and 29.4% in the District of Columbia to a comparable low of 10.8% in New Hampshire.

It is important to note that poverty today is likely to be even higher than what is reported in this new report because the economy has deteriorated since these data were collected. In general, as the unemployment rate increases, so does the poverty rate. These data reflect the economic situation between the middle of 2008 and the middle of 2009, a period when the national unemployment rate averaged 7.5%. The most recent data from August 2010 show that the unemployment rate is now 9.6%.  Furthermore, the poverty rate often increases even after the unemployment rate has peaked. So not only is poverty likely to be higher now, it could be even higher next year.

These data show just part of the impact of the Great Recession on families across the United States. The unprecedented length and depth of this downturn calls for a strong response to combat the rise in poverty. 

Research assistance by Anna Turner

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