Persistent poverty counties and the digital divide - Affordable Housing Online

Persistent poverty counties and the digital divide

By on July 13th, 2021

Tagged As: Affordable Housing News, Editorials

“Rural” photo © michael_swan

There are hundreds of counties in the United States where poverty has been entrenched for decades. These are places where on average more than a quarter of the population lives in poverty. Although we tend to think of inner city urban areas when we think of extreme poverty, persistent poverty counties are overwhelmingly rural.

What are persistent poverty counties?

According to the federal government, persistent poverty counties are places with poverty rates of 20% or greater over the last three census counts (which is a period of 30 years). Looking at data from the 1990, 2000, and 2010 census counts, there were 429 persistent poverty counties in the U.S. in 2010.

Persistent poverty counties are almost all rural. 86% of these counties are entirely rural. Many of these places also have concentrated poverty among racial and ethnic minorities. Nearly 60% of the population of persistent poverty counties is made up of racial and ethnic minorities. There are nearly 2,000 rural census tracts with a minority-majority population. They line up closely to the regions where persistent poverty counties are found.

Persistent poverty counties are clustered in specific areas of the country. They are found on tribal lands. They are also concentrated in the lower Mississippi Delta, the colonias along the U.S.-Mexico border, and Appalachia. In addition, these counties can be found throughout the Southeast and in agriculture-dependent areas like California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Who lives in persistent poverty counties?

Persistent Poverty Counties 1990 – 2010.
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The household median income in persistent poverty counties is $31,581. This is more than 40% below the national median income. The overall poverty rate for these counties is 25%. The poverty rate for racial and ethnic minorities is even more staggering. The poverty rate is 32% for minorities in persistent poverty counties.

Many low-income households in persistent poverty counties, whether they are renters or owners, also suffer from poor quality housing. Housing stock in persistent poverty counties is more likely to be old, in poor shape, or lacking plumbing. Housing units in persistent poverty counties lack adequate plumbing at more than twice the national rate.

Even though the cost of living is lower in most rural areas than urban ones, nearly half of renters in persistent poverty counties have housing cost burden. This means they pay more than 30% of their income for rent and utilities, leaving little money for basic things like food, clothes and medicine.

Problems in persistent poverty counties

Low incomes and unaffordable housing also contribute to overcrowding. Many families will double up to save money, when apartments are scarce, or when there is a crisis. Nearly 400,000 households in persistent poverty counties live in crowded conditions.

Many of these areas have limited access to critical resources and services. Broadband access is much more limited in poor rural areas. The pandemic made clear how important remote access is for health care, education, and business. Lack of affordable and reliable broadband service further isolates these rural counties.

Not all rural areas are created equal, though. Minority communities in big cities and rural areas alike are more likely to lack access to high speed internet than white communities. Low-income renters in these places also struggle to afford the cost of high speed internet, as well as the cost of equipment like computers or tablets.

According to a study by national think tank Third Way, broadband availability is 16% higher in rural white-majority counties than in rural African American-majority counties. And compared to Native American-majority counties, broadband access is 45% higher in majority-white rural counties.

How are persistent poverty counties helped?

People can lack broadband access because there is no local infrastructure for it. They can also lack access because they can not afford it. In many minority-majority communities, the only internet service may be through older, slower systems. At the same time, providers are charging premium rates for the slower service. These connections are not fast enough to do basic things required since the pandemic, like remote learning for school children or telemedicine visits.

The federal government has recognized the need to invest in persistent poverty counties. Several USDA Rural Development programs and the Treasury Department’s Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) fund must follow the 10-20-30 Rule. This means that 10% of their investments must benefit counties with poverty rates of 20% or higher over the last 30 years.

Congressional Republicans have started to agree that broadband connections are “critical infrastructure” like roads and power grids. The pandemic showed how important broadband connectivity is for commerce, education, health care, and other critical needs. The bipartisan bill supported by many Republicans and President Biden includes $65 billion for broadband infrastructure and access. This will move the country closer to assuring that every American has access to affordable broadband.

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Chris Holden

Chris Holden, Affordable Housing Online's Senior Housing Analyst, has been in the affordable housing field for 25 years. Originally from Keene, New Hampshire, he has worked as a researcher, policy analyst, lender, trainer and real estate developer. He also taught political science at Keene State College. He is focused on making housing policies more accessible for low-income renters.