Prosperity Watch Issue 22, No. 1: Economic Disparities Persist across North Carolina's Counties

The economic recovery that began in mid-2009 has failed to make progress against poverty in North Carolina. In 2011, the number of people living below the federal poverty level topped out at almost 1.7 million North Carolinians, a figure that continues to remain well-above pre-recession levels. But the reality of poverty for many North Carolinians may be even starker than the topline poverty rate suggests, given that statewide estimates tend to mask differences in poverty and economic hardship across different regions in the state. Fortunately, reviewing county-level estimates of poverty helps provide us with this kind of regional picture of poverty.

According to Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) released in December 2012 by the United States Census Bureau, the sluggish economic recovery has been more devastating to certain geographic communities in state than others. As illustrated in the map below, the state experienced significant differences among county-level poverty rates in 2011. For example, county-level poverty rates ranged from a low of 9.3 percent in Union County to a high of 30.9 percent in Robeson County. Thirty-four counties had poverty rates equal to or below the state rate of 17.8 percent and 66 counties had poverty rates above 17.8 percent.

Regional differences in poverty levels were even more pronounced when comparing rural and urban areas. Of the state’s 100 counties, only 15 of are designated as urban counties, while the remaining 75 are designated rural. In 2011, the average poverty rate for North Carolina’s rural counties was 19.2 percent, a full 2.8 percentage points higher than the average for urban counties. In 2011, the 45 highest county-level poverty rates were all concentrated in rural counties, including Robeson County (home of the highest poverty rate in the state) where nearly 1 in 3 residents lived in poverty. Year after year, Robeson County consistently ranks as the poorest county in the state. In contrast, the highest poverty rate among urban counties reached 19.5 percent (Durham County) while the lowest poverty rate stood at 11.6 percent in Wake County.

Children have also been disproportionately affected by poverty, with the child poverty rate climbing as high as 25 percent in 2011. Looking across all 100 counties, poverty rates ranged from 14.4 percent in Union County to 44.4 percent in Scotland County, while overall, 69 counties had child poverty rates above the state rate. As troubling as it is to have more than 1 in 4 children living in poverty in our state, a couple of counties—Scotland and Robeson—had child poverty rates that were approaching nearly 1 in 2 children.

Economic disparities among counties in North Carolina are driven by a range of factors, including job availability and industry changes, inequitable public and private investments, and, in some instances, long-term economic exclusion. Ensuring a robust recovery and broadly-shared prosperity requires consistent attention and investment in those communities that are falling behind the rest of the state—and especially those communities with persistently high poverty rates.  


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