Prosperity Watch Issue 33, No. 2: North Carolina's counties remain in poverty's tight grip

Fifty years ago this week, President Johnson launched a crusade against poverty. As we reflect on those efforts, we must recognize the War on Poverty’s successes as well as the work that remains. The good news is that safety net initiatives inspired by the War on Poverty reduce the number of families living in poverty by almost half, while simultaneously reducing the depth of the hardship faced by poor families. The bad news, however, is that despite this progress, economic hardship still remains high across too many communities in North Carolina.

North Carolina is enduring a painfully slow economy and workers are facing too few jobs and wage stagnation. The ongoing hardship is evidenced in new data released last month by the Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) program. This new data allows us to analyze poverty and income trends in all 100 counties over the same one-year period—a level of specificity not possible in the data released by the Census Bureau last fall. Statewide, the poverty rate held steady at 18 percent in 2012, with more than 1.7 million North Carolinians living on incomes below the federal poverty level—which was $23,492 annually for a family of four. 

Of North Carolina’s 100 counties, 63 counties had poverty rates higher than the state average in 2012 (see the map below). The highest county-level poverty rate was in Robeson County, where more than 1 in 3 residents lived in poverty. In fact, Robeson County consistently ranks as the poorest county in the state and as one of the poorest in the nation as a whole. The 31 highest county-level poverty rates were all in rural counties, which continue to face job loss and deal with long-term structural changes in the state’s economy. Among urban counties, the highest poverty rate was in Forsyth County, where more than 1 in 5 residents lived in poverty. At the opposite end of the spectrum, rural Camden County had the lowest poverty rate (9.7 percent) in the state and Wake County had the lowest poverty rate (11.6 percent) among urban counties.


 
Children continue to be the poorest age group in the state and nation, with more than one in four children living below the poverty line. Seventy-four counties had poverty rates higher than the state rate  of 25.8 percent, including seven counties—all rural—that had a rate higher than 40 percent. Rural Northampton County housed the largest share of children living in poverty in the state at 48 percent, compared to rural Camden County who had the smallest share at 14.5 percent. Among urban counties, Forsyth County had the largest poverty rate at 32.4 percent and Orange County had the lowest rate at 15.3 percent. Research shows that for the youngest children, the effects of poverty are literally built into the architecture of their developing brains with implications for their chances at success in school and on the job.

As further proof that vast disparities exists across the state, only 20 of the state’s 100 counties had median household incomes (MHI)—the income directly in the middle of the income scale—higher than the state figure, or $45,195. Wake County ranked at the top with a MHI of $64,107 whereas Robeson County ranked at the bottom with a MHI of $29,965. In terms of MHI rankings, the bottom 53 slots were all rural counties.

See this table for complete poverty and income estimates for the state and each county.
 

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