New Data Shows Poverty Rates Lower in 23 States

This article was written by Brian Glassman, Poverty Statistics Branch. It was originally published to the Census blog, Random Samplings, on October 13, 2016.

The official poverty rate for the United States declined in 2015 to 13.5 percent from a rate of 14.8 percent in 2014. However, this decrease in poverty was not uniform across states or Metropolitan Statistical Areas when looking at data from the American Community Survey — another key data source for examining poverty at state and local levels. In fact, poverty rates decreased in 23 states and did not increase in any state in 2015, as shown in Figure 1. However, poverty rates in 27 states and Washington, D.C., were statistically unchanged.

Many factors contribute to a change in a state’s poverty rate. The bar chart below shows several possibly related economic factors that give a broader sense of the economic changes happening within states. From 2014 to 2015, unemployment rates decreased and median household income increased in each of the 23 states where poverty decreased. For the 27 states and Washington, D.C., that had no change in poverty in 2015, unemployment decreased in 14 states and Washington, D.C., and median income increased in 16 states and Washington, D.C.

Estimates of households with income under $10,000 and households receiving food stamp/SNAP benefits are two other conditions potentially related to poverty status. In 2015, there were 12 states where both poverty rates and the percentage of households with food stamp/SNAP benefits decreased. In 11 states, the poverty rates did not decrease but the percentage of households receiving food stamp/SNAP benefits fell.

There were 16 states where poverty rates fell and the percentage of households with income less than $10,000 also fell. However, in three states and Washington, D.C., the percentage of households with income less than $10,000 fell without a drop in the poverty rate. To see changes from 2014 to 2015 in poverty rates, unemployment rates, median income, food stamp/SNAP participation and percentage of households with income below $10,000 for each state, visit <https://www.census.gov/data/tables/2016/demo/income-poverty/glassman-acs.html>.

The chart below shows that changes were not uniform across metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), even for those MSAs in a state that experienced a decline in poverty. Between 2014 and 2015, out of a total of 380 MSAs, poverty rates decreased in 63 and increased in 14. The Washington, D.C., MSA is not included in this analysis. The chart also separates MSAs into two categories: (1) those in the 23 states that experienced a decrease in poverty rates from 2014 to 2015 and (2) those in the 27 states that experienced no change in poverty rates. If an MSA crosses state borders, it is assigned to the state where the majority of its population resides.

The key thing to note from the chart is that a decline in the state poverty rate may not be shared by all MSAs in the state. Poverty rates increased in some MSAs located in states in which poverty rates decreased (this includes Asheville, N.C.; Redding, Calif.; Hinesville, Ga.; Sebring, Fla.; Corpus Christi, Texas; Killeen-Temple, Texas; and Lubbock, Texas). Similarly, even in states that experienced no significant change in state poverty rates, some MSA poverty rates did change.

Click the map to zoom to your area.

Mapping Poverty in the Appalachian Region

The Appalachian region is home to hardworking individuals who value their families, community, and living in the natural beauty of one of America’s most beautiful regions. For generations, families have earned a living on jobs provided by the region’s primary industry- coal. In its heyday of the 1910s and 20s, more than 700,000 jobs were provided by the coal industry. In Appalachia, that number now hovers around 44,000 – with not much coming in to fill the void.

When the demise of the coal industry began in the 1940s, unemployment and poverty hit the region hard. Those with higher education went to other states for better jobs and higher wages- a trend we still see today, especially among young adults. More recently, the outsourcing of jobs overseas has caused soaring unemployment in a number of counties.

The outlook for coal is only expected to worsen as federal regulations, the decreasing cost of natural gas and the increasing costs of mining in the region continue. However, people in some of Appalachia’s most impoverished counties are coming up with their own ways of building a future without coal.

Still, poverty, unemployment, and low-paying wages persist. While communities across the US struggle with poverty, some of the most impoverished- and unnoticed- are in Appalachia.

Poverty in Appalachian Counties 

Appalachia has some of the highest poverty rates in the US. The US poverty rate is 15.6 percent, while the Appalachian region is 19.7 percent. However, what is most revealing is when you compare an Appalachian state’s poverty level to the same state’s Appalachian region’s poverty level. For example, in Virginia the poverty rate is 11.5 percent, much lower than the US rate. However, when you look at Virginia’s Appalachian region’s poverty rate, it increases considerably to 18.8 percent (Fahe.org). As depicted in the map below, the same is true for states like Kentucky and West Virginia as well. That’s the difference that frequently goes unnoticed.

CC Map Poverty3

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Unemployment in Appalachian Counties Relative to US Rate

Unemployment in the Appalachian region is 6.5 percent, and in the US it’s 6.2 percent. While this difference is not startling at first glance, when you look to specific counties, it becomes a much bigger issue. When coal companies and manufacturing plants close their doors, a jobs void affects workers in the surrounding areas. In Lewis County, KY, when Nine West shoe company closed their plant to move overseas, the county’s unemployment rate climbed to 12 percent.

CC Map Unemployment

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Appalachian Counties’ Per Capita Income

Unemployment is only one facet of the poverty in the region. As you can see from the map below, the Appalachian region has some of the lowest wages in the US. The average income in the Appalachian region is $37,260 and $46,049 in the US. What’s perhaps most telling is the labor market engagement map. It’s an index that describes the level of employment, labor force participation, and level of education in a census tract. Much of the region is plagued by poor labor market engagement, a direct reflection of poor job prospects and low wages.

CC Map Per Capita Income

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CC Map labr mrkt engagement

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Building Opportunity in Appalachia

The data and statistics look disheartening, but fortunately one of the greatest assets the region has are its people.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Peter Hillie, President of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) says unlike the past, Appalachia’s future prosperity will require more than one industry to come in and save the region, “There’s not a silver bullet,” he said, “There’s just a lot of little silver BBs.” One of those BBs is getting young people to stay.

In the same interview, Ada Smith from Lechter County, KY said “For people who grow up here or have roots in this place, parents and grandparents who know there’s not a lot of opportunity here encourage their loved ones to go and find jobs elsewhere.” Some counties are beginning to see the return of young people who left. One man returned from Louisville to open a tattoo parlor, others have opened restaurants, t-shirt companies and record shops. With a loan from MACED, one former coal miner even bought sheep from Vermont to start his own business- Good Shepherd Cheese.

Perhaps most inspiring is the work done by Smith and other young people from Appalachian states. Dismayed by the perception that staying in poor Appalachia counties is equated with failure, the group created Stay Together Appalachian Youth (STAY). Made up of young people from Appalachian states, the group discusses how they can better their local communities and work to encourage other young people to stay and work towards the same goal. “I feel like people are having conversations and willing to try different things that they never would have before,” Smith said. The enthusiasm for the movement is catching on, as more young people are moving to Whitesburg (where Smith lives) for the sense of community among other young adults that live there.

Building prosperity in Appalachia requires a homegrown effort, with commitments and investments from everyone. It needs people thinking about how they can work across county lines and state lines to move forward as a region –with its young people as the catalyst.

Data Viz of the Week: One Indicator, 5 Ways

People absorb information in many ways. Here at Community Commons, we present data differently to ensure it comes across in an easy-to-understand way.

For example, each month we update our data on unemployment rates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. When you access this data you’ll see it in two places: maps and reports. And within our maps and reports, you’ll see the data presented five different ways:

  1. As a map layer;
  2. As a data table;
  3. As a total number or percentage of a total;
  4. As a comparative dial; and
  5. As a line graph/trend line.

Below the data are displayed in a map. Each county is shaded to indicate the rate of unemployment. The darkest shades indicate a higher rate of unemployment. The areas in light green and yellowish-green indicate a lower rate of unemployment.


Click the map to open and zoom to your location

Beyond the maps you can also view this same data in our report tool. Reports can be created for any county in the nation. Within the reports we present the data in several ways. First, the indicator will be displayed and described in text. Have you ever noticed that the text changes based on the data?


Beyond the text, the data are presented as a table where you can easily compare the data at the county, state, and national levels. The color of the text (green or red) will vary based on whether the indicator is better or worse than the state average. Did you know you can download the data from the table into Excel?

Moreover, in this section you will see a data gauge. These gauges are another way to help you understand the data and put it into context. Knowing that a county has an unemployment rate of 9% may not mean much to you but knowing that’s nearly twice the national average may help you make meaning of the number.

Finally, you will notice some of the indicators in the report will include a trend line. In addition to the context gained from comparing your county to the state and the nation, knowing the context of your indicator over time is also valuable.

In the case of unemployment rate, we’re able to display a 12-month trend line and a 10-year trend line. Did you know these charts are interactive? You can click on the boxes in the legend to toggle on/off the different lines or hover over the lines on the chart to see the specific values.


There you have it. One indicator, five ways. We’ll continue to work to make the data on Community Commons meaningful and understandable to support you and your important work improving communities.

Data Viz of the Week: 2015 Unemployment

This week we are exploring data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) – the principal Federal agency responsible for measuring labor market activity, working conditions, and price changes in the economy. Its mission is to collect, analyze, and disseminate essential economic information to support public and private decision-making. As an independent statistical agency, BLS serves its diverse user communities by providing products and services that are objective, timely, accurate, and relevant.

The data below displays unemployment rates for counties within the United States. Click on any map to zoom to your location. Use the interactive map environment to turn layers on and off or add more data.

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 3.47.50 PM

Unemployment, Rate by County, January 2015

January unemploy

Unemployment, Rate by County, April 2015

April unemploy

Unemployment, Rate by County, July 2015

July unemploy

Unemployment, Rate by County, October 2015

October unemploy

More information on how the BLS  handles local area unemployment statistics can be found here.