News Release

Poverty Persisted in U.S. Metros Despite 1990s Boom

August 6, 2002

A new study by the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy shows uneven progress in the nation’s fight to reduce poverty, despite the strong economic growth of the 1990s.

The study, “A Decade of Mixed Blessings: Urban and Suburban Poverty in Census 2000,” co-authored by Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution and Bill Frey of the University of Michigan and the Milken Institute, examined poverty trends in the nation’s largest 100 metropolitan areas. While the percentage of people living below the poverty line declined nationally from 13.1 percent in 1990 to 12.4 percent in 2000, this modest good news masked more complex trends taking place in cities, in suburbs, and across the different regions of the country. Specifically, the report reveals the following key findings:

  • In 2000, the poverty rate in central cities (18.4 percent) was more than twice that in the suburbs (8.3 percent). The poverty rate “gap” between cities and suburbs was widest in metros in the Northeast and Midwest, and narrowest in metros in the Southeast and West.
  • However, the overall poverty rate in central cities dropped slightly in the 1990s, while the rate in suburbs edged up, narrowing the poverty “gap” by half a percentage point. Most cities saw their poverty rates decline, even as the majority of suburbs experienced increases.
  • Forty-nine percent of all poor people resided in the suburbs in 2000, up from 46 percent in 1990. This shift resulted mostly from rapid population growth in suburbs, and poverty rate increases in some large suburbs.
  • Poverty rates declined in most midwestern and southern cities, while poverty increased in cities and suburbs throughout New England, New York, and southern California. Some of the steepest drops in poverty rates occurred in Detroit, MI, Gary, IN, and San Antonio, TX; while the greatest gains took place in Providence, RI, Syracuse, NY, and Riverside-San Bernadino, CA.
  • There was no clear relationship between population change and poverty rate change in cities during the 1990s. Only half of all cities that lost population in the 1990s had declining poverty rates. Conversely, more than one-third of all growing cities saw their poverty rates increase.

“The good news about the prosperous 1990s is that half of the nation’s largest cities saw their poverty rates decline,” observed Bruce Katz, director of the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy. “The bad news is that half of the largest cities saw no change or increases in their share of poor households. This confirms that there is still enormous room for improvement at the national, state, and local levels to lift working families out of poverty and revitalize communities.”

About Brookings

The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. Our mission is to conduct in-depth, nonpartisan research to improve policy and governance at local, national, and global levels.