Background and Uses

The USDA, Economic Research Service’s (ERS) Poverty Area Measures data product serves as a resource for researchers, Federal agencies, policymakers, and practitioners working to better understand and address issues of poverty, rural development, and equitable access. This data product builds upon ERS’s longstanding work with poverty area measurement data.

Since at least the 1960s, poverty area measures have been relied upon by policymakers to target, implement, and monitor Federal programs designed to support a range of initiatives. These initiatives include but are not limited to support for:

  • Educational and employment opportunities
  • Health care services and healthy food access
  • Transit services and community facility improvements
  • Housing assistance and land development loans
  • Fiscal health and administrative capacity of local governments
  • Energy savings and climate change resilience
  • Aid to historically underserved population groups
  • Access to telecommunication, including broadband

Recent Federal legislation has reinforced and expanded upon the demand for poverty area measures to meet similar needs (for more information, see the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, P.L. 116-260). Measures of high and persistent poverty at multiple spatial scales are in demand as is the ability to adjust those measures using different years of data and data sources. This data product offers those capabilities for county and census tract geographies. It is not exhaustive of all possible data years and sources, but it includes those commonly used in Federal high and persistent poverty area definitions.

High Poverty

"High poverty" is defined as an areawide poverty rate of 20 percent or more, based on the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census’s Official Poverty Measure (OPM). It is generally understood that changes in poverty concentrations falling between 20 (high poverty) and 40 percent (extreme poverty) have the greatest marginal impact on individual well-being. The 20 percent poverty rate is also highly correlated with poverty areas defined by multi-factor measures of areawide economic hardship (e.g., the Appalachian Regional Commission’s county economic classification system), which highlight a range of disparities that area residents may face. As such, a high poverty measure can be used to identify areas where poverty has reached a critical impact point (i.e., where neighborhood poverty begins to negatively affect individual well-being for area residents regardless of their own poverty status) and as a proxy for the potential extent of that impact (i.e., as an area’s poverty rate increases from 20 percent up to 40 percent it is likely to produce areawide poverty conditions that are more structurally and demographically systemic).

This data product contains high and extreme poverty area measures for counties (1960; 2017–21) and census tracts (1970; 2015–19). For examples of these measure uses, see Descriptions and Maps and Extreme Poverty Counties found Solely in Rural Areas in 2018 (Amber Waves, May 2020).

High poverty area status can fluctuate from year-to-year especially for areas with a poverty rate that is near the 20 percent cutoff; therefore the year of data chosen can impact the outcome. For instance, poverty rates can change rapidly due to cyclical changes in the macroeconomy, causing short-term economic difficulty or improvement. This can be particularly problematic for economies that rely heavily on one relatively unstable industry, as is typical of many rural manufacturing and natural resource-based economies. The ERS County Typology Codes can serve as a resource for identifying these types of areas, but caution should be taken when interpreting high poverty area status in any given year. Examination of multiple years of data can be useful for identifying patterns, such as areas of emerging high poverty. For an example, see The Concentration of Poverty is a Growing Rural Problem (Amber Waves, December 2012). If there is interest in identifying areas with historical legacies of high poverty area status, then consideration of a persistent poverty area measure is recommended.

Persistent Poverty

"Persistent poverty" refers to long-standing geographic concentrations of poor individuals, as determined by OPM poverty income thresholds. It is defined by consistent high poverty area status over multiple decades, typically spanning 30 years. For more information, see ERS’s County Typology Codes, persistent poverty county and persistent child poverty county definitions. As an indicator of well-being, it effectively captures the interwovenness of localized private sector disinvestment, deficiency of community resources, and limited economic opportunities. The long-term entrenchment of these conditions is often characterized by a lack of baseline necessities for area residents, such as access to health care facilities, grocery stores that offer affordable and nutritious food, an adequate housing market, a sufficient educational system, jobs that pay a living wage, and essential public services. The relationship among factors of chronic underdevelopment, limited access, and persistent poverty has long been recognized through federal research and initiatives. See for example, Persistent Poverty in Rural Areas and Small Towns (Agriculture information Bulletin Number 664-54, July 1993) and U.S. Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration’s Economic Innovation Group Initiative working to tackle persistent poverty.

A persistent poverty area measure can serve many purposes including, but not limited, to research, policy, and program applications. For instance, when ERS’s official persistent poverty area measure was first introduced (see ERS's Legacy of Poverty Area Measurement), ERS researchers sought to examine spatial trends in poverty over as long a period as possible. They were particularly interested in examining the distributional impacts of 1950s and 1960s economic prosperity trends, the War on Poverty initiatives, and related issues of interest to USDA including agrarian technological change and migration trends. More recent reports include examinations of regional and racial patterns, distributional impacts of the Great Recession, and correlation to Coronavirus pandemic outcomes. See:

This data product contains official USDA, ERS persistent poverty county measures for periods ending in 1990, 2000, 2007–11, and 2017–21 as well as a research measure ending in 2015–19. The measures are geographically standardized to 2020 county geography for ease of comparison (for more information about substantial changes to counties and equivalents over time, see U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census’s Substantial Changes to Counties and County Equivalent Entities: 1970–Present).

The data product provides similar census-tract-level persistent poverty area measures, introduced here for the first time, for all but the periods ending in 1990 (because of the lack of 1960 nationwide tract-level data) and 2017–21 (expected to be added in the summer of 2024).

Official Measures

Persistent poverty area status is determined by ERS using 4 data periods, approximately 10 years apart, and spanning 30 years (baseline and 3 evaluation periods). It is updated every decade by rolling forward the data periods used to construct the measure. For instance, the 2004 edition of the County Typology Codes includes persistent poverty area measures (total and child populations) derived from Decennial Census data years 1970, 1980, 1990, and 2000. The next edition of the county typology codes (published 2015) dropped 1970 and added American Community Survey (ACS) 5-year period estimates for 2007–11 to the persistent poverty measure, which reflected a transition to using ACS estimates for poverty statistics. The current official measure includes 1990 and 2000 decennial census data and 2007–11 and 2017–21 ACS 5-year period estimates.

A comparison of persistent poverty county geography based on official measures ending in 2007–11 and 2017–21 can be found in Rural America at a Glance: 2023 Edition.

Research Measures

ERS often receives Federal stakeholder requests for persistent poverty area status updates in advance of the normal decennial update. Previously these unofficial updates—referred to in this data product as research measures—have not been published. This data product contains a persistent poverty area research measure derived from 1990 and 2000 Decennial Census data and the ACS 5-year period estimates for 2007–11 and 2015–19. 

Enduring Poverty

In keeping with the historical motivation for establishing a persistent poverty area measure—to examine spatial trends in poverty over as long a time as possible—this data product also introduces a new measure of enduring poverty.

"Enduring poverty" extends the persistent poverty area timeframe as far back as comparable poverty area data are available. As described above, ERS’s persistent poverty area definition uses 4 time periods spanning 30 years, rolling forward every decade. The 1990 persistent poverty area measure provided in this data product includes decennial data years 1960 through 1990, while the current official measure spans 1990 to the 2017–21 ACS 5-year period estimates. The enduring poverty measure captures the entire timeframe from 1960 to 2017–21. These are counties that have consistently had high poverty rates for approximately 40 years or more. The same measure is provided for census tracts, but spanning the years 1970 to 2015–19. This measure can be used to identify areas where poverty has historically been and remains the most entrenched (see Descriptions and Maps for maps showing consecutive decades of high poverty since 1960 and comparison of enduring and persistent poverty counties).