The Great Recession and Poverty in Metropolitan America

Elizabeth Kneebone
Elizabeth Kneebone
Elizabeth Kneebone Former Nonresident Senior Fellow

October 7, 2010

As expected, the latest data from the Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey (ACS) confirm that the worst U.S. economic downturn in decades exacerbated trends set in motion years before, by multiplying the ranks of America’s poor. Between 2007 and 2009, the national poverty rate rose from 13 percent to 14.3 percent, and the number of people below the poverty line jumped by 4.9 million. Yet because the economic impact of the Great Recession was highly uneven across the nation, the map of U.S. poverty shifted in important ways over the past couple of years, with implications for both national and local efforts to alleviate poverty.

An analysis of poverty in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas, based on recently released data from the 2009 American Community Survey, indicates that:

The number of poor people in large metro areas grew by 5.5 million from 1999 to 2009, and more than two-thirds of that growth occurred in suburbs.  By 2009, 1.6 million more poor lived in the suburbs of the nation’s largest metro areas compared to the cities.

Between 2007 and 2009, the poverty rate increased in 57 of the 100 largest metro areas, with the largest increases clustered in the Sun Belt.  Florida metro areas like Bradenton and Lakeland, and California metro areas like Bakersfield, Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, and Modesto, each experienced increases in their poverty rates of more than 3.5 percentage points.

Poverty increased by much greater margins in 2009 than 2008, with cities and suburbs experiencing comparable rates of growth in the recession’s second year.  Between 2008 and 2009, cities and suburbs gained 1.2 million poor people, together accounting for about two-thirds of the national increase in the poor population that year.

Several metro areas saw city poverty rates increase by more than 5 percentage points, while many suburban areas experienced increases of 2 to 4 percentage points between 2007 and 2009.  The city of Allentown, PA saw a 10.2 percentage-point increase in its poverty rate, followed by Chattanooga, TN with an increase of 8.0 percentage points.  Sun Belt metro areas were among those with the largest increases in suburban poverty, including Lakeland, FL and Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA.