When Boundaries Matter: Counties, Census Tracts, and Anti-Poverty Programs

Wednesday, November 02, 2016 | Sonali Mathur

Recent discussions about potential federal anti-poverty programs underscore that seemingly mundane choices about geographic units could have important impacts on how available funds are distributed.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Hillary Clinton asserted that if elected, she would develop an anti-poverty strategy modeled on the “10-20-30” approach put forward by Congressman James Clyburn (D-South Carolina), the number three Democrat in the House.

Initially proposed during the drafting of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, the 10-20-30 approach called for 10 percent of funds of federal programs subject to this plan be directed to persistent poverty counties where at least 20 percent of the population has been living in poverty for 30 years.

While this may have worked for the original intent of appropriately directing the rural development funds, the county based approach may not necessarily work across a wider range of programs and may not be the right approach to address extreme poverty.

While most discussion about the anti-poverty proposal has been focused on the money that would be made available, the geographic level used to allocate funds – be it counties, neighborhoods or something else – will significantly affect where the money would be spent and who would benefit from it.

Most notably, basing the selection criteria at the county level would tend to allocate money mostly to rural parts of the United States. Shown below is the map of persistent poverty counties (defined as any county that has had 20 percent or more of its population living in poverty in the 1990, 2000 and 2010 decennial censuses).

Source: JCHS tabulations of decennial census and American Community Survey 2006-2010  Note: The exact list of eligible counties may vary based on the data source used. The choice of American Community Survey data (ACS) 2006-2010, ACS2007-2011 or Census bureau’s small area estimates results in the difference.

The county-based approach results in a majority of persistent-poverty areas being rural counties spread across 30 states; (85 percent of these counties are in non-metropolitan areas) and this approach excludes many areas of extreme poverty in inner cities of urbanized areas such as Los Angeles (Los Angeles County), Detroit (Wayne County), Chicago (Cook County), Dallas-Fort Worth (Dallas and Tarrant Counties), Newark (Essex County, New Jersey) and the District of Columbia.

In comparison, when applied at the census tract level, which is a much smaller geography than a county, the 20-30 rule yields a much broader array of urban, suburban, and rural communities of extreme poverty with a broader representation across states. At the census tract level, at least one persistent-poverty tract appears in each of the 50 states and in DC. In all, the tract-level application results in a total of 8,472 persistent-poverty tracts, which together are home to 30.7 million people (ACS 2010-2014). Only about 8.5 of these people are in persistent poverty counties. This implies that the county-level application of the 10-20-30 rule would exclude nearly 22.2 million people who live in persistent-poverty census tracts that are not in persistent-poverty counties.

Click image to launch interactive map. Please note: Maps may take a moment to fully render.

 Click to go to interactive map

Yet another layer of complexity arises when you consider the many areas where at least 40 percent of the population is in poverty but have not had high poverty rates for the last three decades. These areas include 776 census tracts that are home to 2.8 million people, (ACS 2010-2014) that are not persistent-poverty tracts. Moreover, approximately 10.8 million people live in census tracts where at least 40 percent of the population is in poverty but the county is not considered a persistent-poverty area. Including these areas in anti-poverty efforts is important because numerous studies, including Harvard University’s Equality of Opportunity Project, have shown that concentration of poverty amplifies the adverse effects of poverty, as individuals deal not only with their own poverty but of those around them as well.

In short, the application of the 10-20-30 rule at the county level would exclude the vast majority of poor people who live in urban and suburban census tracts that are in persistent poverty. Additionally, focusing on persistent poverty tracts alone would exclude some areas that currently face concentrated poverty but may not fit the definition of persistent poverty.

It should be noted that Clinton’s op-ed used the term ‘communities’ instead of ‘counties’ perhaps signaling that her application of the rule might be at a smaller geography than counties. Although, there have been other reports where she has been quoted to show support for Clyburn’s original formula with the use of the term ‘counties’, and it also appears that the formula has made its way into several congressional proposals, which makes it imperative to discuss the geography of its application.


Read More About: Affordability, Demographics & Projections

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