American median income, poverty rates, and inequality by county

Check out these maps of American inequality and income using the latest American Community Survey data.

The below five maps were created by Calvin Metcalf, Kyle Box and Laura Evans using the latest five-year American Community Survey estimates provided by the Census Bureau for last weekend’s National Day of Civic Hacking (we’re geeking out on these projects this week).

Working from Boston, the group has so far mapped nearly a dozen demographic points from the data, including a few they calculated on their own (be sure to check out the very bizarre map of America’s gender ratios by county). These five maps, however, jumped out at us for how they each illustrate deep and lingering differences between the American North and South, as seen through several different data points. Of course, the patterns aren’t perfect, and exceptions abound; major cities in the North turn out to be hotspots of inequality on par with much of the Deep South…

Median income (in annual dollars)

Population living below the poverty line (by percent)

Income inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient, the closer to zero the better)

There do seem to be seem some regional differences. But, these three maps raise other questions:

1. This may be a good place for population weighted maps. While counties are one unit of geographic measure, they can obscure finer-grained data. For example, the map of median income shows higher incomes in urban areas but this glosses over poor urban and suburban neighborhoods. Plus, many of the counties in the South, Great Plains, and Mountain West have relatively fewer people.

2. The income map shows one story – generally higher incomes in urban areas – and the inequality, measured by the Gini coefficient, shows that these same urban areas have high levels of inequality. This may be an issue with the county measure but it also highlights that while cities are economic engines, they are also homes to pronounced inequality.

More bad economic figures: median household income down, poverty up

The effects of the economic crisis are reflected in two key updated figures just released by the US Census Bureau:

Data released by the Census Bureau today showed the proportion of people living in poverty climbed to 15.1 percent last year from 14.3 percent in 2009, and median household income declined 2.3 percent. The number of Americans living in poverty was the highest in the 52 years since the Census Bureau began gathering that statistic. Those figures may have worsened in recent months as the economy weakened…

The ranks of people in poverty increased to 46.2 million from 43.6 million. The last time the poverty rate reached 15.1 percent was in 1993. It climbed to 15.2 percent in 1983. Median household income in 2010 was $49,445, down from $50,599 the year before…

The income figures declined even as the U.S. economy expanded 3 percent in 2010. Growth has slowed this year to an annual rate of less than 1 percent, raising concern that the financial struggles of families will continue to worsen and hamper the recovery…

It was the third consecutive annual increase in the poverty rate, a trend that won’t reverse itself without “concerted action” on the part of policy makers, said Melissa Boteach, who leads a campaign to reduce poverty at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based research group with ties to the Obama administration.

I would love to hear politicians talk about this ahead of the 2012 elections and to do so in ways that go beyond typical “political speak.” Talking about taxes and jobs might make some sense: they have an effect on incomes and poverty rates and every politicians loves to promise more jobs. However, there are other factors involved as well and talking about taxes and jobs means that the conversation never really turns to these indicators but only stays on “safe” ground.

UPDATE 9/13/11 3:20 PM: Here is some more data on the topic, including time-series charts that give some perspective on poverty rates and median incomes by race.

Defining the poverty line in Indonesia

One statistic that tends to generate discussion, including in the United States, is where to draw the poverty line (see a quick overview here). The issue is also drawing attention in Indonesia:

According to the Central Statistics Agency (BPS), based on the one-dollar-a-day poverty line, there are about a million fewer poor Indonesians this year. The new BPS statistics released on Friday showed that the poor now constitute 12.5 percent of Indonesia’s population, down from 13.3 percent last year. BPS says this translates to 30.02 million poor Indonesians, as opposed to the 31.02 million in March last year. ..

BPS head Rusman Heriawan said this drop was recorded even though the government raised the poverty line to Rp 233,740 ($27.35) per capita per month from Rp 211,726 last year.

Despite the raised figure, the definition of poverty still worried experts. “The poverty line indicator is the minimum income for people to survive,” said Bambang Shergi Laksmono, dean of the University of Indonesia’s Social and Political Science Faculty.

Statistics are rarely just statistics: they are numbers politicians and others want to use to shed light on a particular issue. Here, the government wants to suggest that poverty has been reduced. On the other side, academics suggest there are plenty of people living in difficult situations and the poverty threshold doesn’t really doesn’t measure anything. Who is right, or at least perceived as right, will be adjudicated in the court of public opinion.

While it appears that the number in people living in critical poverty has been reduced, this is also a reminder that one needs to look behind claims of progress to see what exactly is being measured and whether the measurements have simply changed.

Mapping poverty rates by county across the US

A story about the recently released figures regarding poverty in the United States includes a nice map from that show poverty rates by county. The map shows higher rates of poverty in Louisiana, Mississippi, some parts of Texas and New Mexico, Appalachia, some of the middle parts of the southern Atlantic states, and some pockets in the upper Great Plains.

This map shows the proportion of residents who are living in poverty; while the national rate is now about 1 in 7 Americans is under the poverty line, 25% or more of residents in these locations live in poverty. Many of these counties are more rural counties. The map would look different if it were mapping the absolute number of people living in poverty – then you might see a shift toward some larger metropolitan areas.

While areas of concentrated poverty in the city get a lot of attention, what is going on in some of these more rural areas? How did poverty rates shift over the last couple of decades in these locations?