Prosperity Watch Issue 45, No. 2: Poverty data suggests NC is facing another lost decade

Poverty reduction is idling in neutral for North Carolina and most of its 100 counties. The year 2013 marked the sixth straight year where no gains in poverty reduction were accomplished in North Carolina, on average. This means that another lost decade may be on the horizon in the Old North State where the weak economic recovery continues to bypass many local economies as workers face too few jobs and a boom in low-wage work. While the economic gains are primarily flowing to earners at the top of the income scale, many families and childless adults at the bottom end continue to struggle to pay the bills across North Carolina.

The ongoing hardship is evidenced the Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) program data that was released last month. 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 17.8 percent in 2013, with more than 1.7 million North Carolinians living on incomes below the federal poverty level—which was $23,550 annually for a family of four. 

The extent of poverty’s reach in 2013 varied considerably across North Carolina’s counties, with rates ranging from 9.5 percent in Camden County to 34.1 percent in Scotland County (see map below). Although poverty’s fierce grip in North Carolina remained statistically unchanged, there were several setbacks at the sub-state level between 2012 and 2013. For example, 7 in 10 of North Carolina’s counties had poverty rates higher than the state average in 2013. That’s worse than the previous year when approximately 6 in 10 counties had worse rates of poverty than the state as a whole.

The geography of poverty at the county level reveals the bleak economic reality rural residents face. In 2013, the highest forty-six county-level poverty rates were all in rural counties—in 2012 it was just 31 rural counties. The jump reflects how rural communities continue to face job loss and deal with long-term structural changes in the state’s economy while the majority of the economic growth is concentrated in their urban counterparts.

Whereas Robeson County has consistently ranked as the poorest county in the state, it now ranks third as Scotland and Halifax counties experienced the worse rates of poverty (34.1 percent and 31.6 percent, respectively) in 2013. While the rankings have changed, what hasn’t changed is the stark reality that roughly 1 in 3 of residents in these counties struggle to put food on the table and make ends meet. Among urban counties, the highest poverty rate was again in Forsyth County, where more than 1 in 5 residents lived in poverty. At the opposite end of the spectrum for another year, rural Camden County had the lowest poverty rate (9.5 percent) in the state and Wake County had the lowest poverty rate (10.9 percent) among urban counties.

As further proof that vast disparities exists across the state, only 24 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 $45,946. For another year, Wake County ranked at the top with a MHI of $65,433 whereas Robeson County ranked at the bottom with a MHI of $30,248. In terms of MHI rankings, the bottom 47 slots were all rural counties.


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