NC Budget and Tax Center, Poverty and Income Data 2013

North Carolina’s counties remain in poverty’s tight grip

North Carolina is enduring a painfully slow economic recovery. There are too few jobs open for all of the people looking for work, and the majority of the new jobs available pay wages so low that families can’t make ends meet. The ongoing economic hardship is evidenced in new data released last week by the Census Bureau. Statewide, the poverty rate held steady at 17.9 percent in 2013, with more than 1.7 million North Carolinians living on incomes below the federal poverty level. That’s about $24,000 annually for a family of four—certainly not enough to pay all the bills, much less get ahead.

However, just looking at statewide averages can mask the concentrations of hardship in particular geographic communities. A large and growing body of research shows that where one lives can determine if one has access to the educational and employment networks that can pave a pathway to the middle class. Because place is deeply connected to the opportunity structure, it important to analyze county-level (as well as neighborhood-level) variances in poverty.

Of the 40 counties in North Carolina for which 2013 data is available, 15 are urban and 25 are rural (based on population size).* Nine of the ten counties with the highest poverty rates were rural counties, which continue to face job loss and struggle with the consequences of the exodus of manufacturing jobs. The highest county-level poverty rate was in Robeson County, where nearly 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. In a glimmer of hope, that county’s poverty rate dropped by nearly 5 percentage points from 2012 to 2013 (though it is still well-above the state average). Right now, it is not clear what drove the drop in economic hardship in Robeson County.

Among urban counties, the highest poverty rate was in Forsyth County, where more than 1 in 5 residents lived in poverty. While the average poverty rate in rural counties is 2.3 percentage points higher than the average for urban counties, the pockets of deepest hardship exist primarily in inner-city urban areas in the state. For example, several of those pockets of poverty are in Wake County, which had the lowest poverty rate (10.7 percent) among urban counties in 2013. So even within a county that is thriving overall, economic hardship can—and often does—vary greatly from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Unfortunately, a child’s shot at the American Dream depends to a great extent on where they grow up. It doesn’t have to be this way. North Carolina can build a more prosperous state only if lawmakers make economically distressed areas a priority through targeted investments—including boosting education and economic-development dollars to low-wealth areas—so that all communities have a shot at thriving.

*Due to small sample sizes, one-year estimates will not be available for all of the state’s 100 counties until December 2014 when the Small Area Income and Poverty estimates are released. 

This is the third post in a series that takes a detailed look at the 2013 US Census Bureau poverty data released on September 18. The first post looked at how North Carolina is faring overall, and the second post looked at how poverty varies by race. Read the entire series here.

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