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Poverty in America

An analysis of the difficulties of measuring poverty

This map shows, in some way, poverty across U.S. counties. We say “in some way” because poverty isn’t a well-defined or stationary object. Today’s poor in the U.S. could be rich in another country or in another century. So it’s important to understand what is measured when people talk about poverty rates.

The data shown here are based on the American Community Survey from the Census Bureau, which asks families about all their cash income (including social benefits, alimony, dividends, etc.) but before capital gains, non-cash benefits, and taxes. That income is then compared with a standard. The Census Bureau determines a threshold income that depends on the number of family members and that is adjusted for inflation. The map above is for 2015: At that point, the poverty threshold for a family of four with two children under 18 was $24,036. For a single person above 65, the threshold was $11,367. See this link for details.

The map shows the proportion of families in each county who fall below these thresholds. The highest incidence is in Jefferson County, Mississippi, with 48.7%. The lowest is 1.4% in Borden County, Texas. Does this mean that there is 35 times more poverty in Jefferson County than in Borden County? Not necessarily. First, this measure says nothing about the distribution of income below the threshold. Second, the measure does not take into account living expenses. Income in, say, Manhattan, New York, is treated the same as in, say, Harlingen, Texas. Finally, Borden County has a total population of 627. Measurement of poverty with small samples is extra difficult.

How to create this map: The original post referenced an interactive map from our now discontinued GeoFRED site. The revised post provides a replacement map from FRED’s new mapping tool. To create FRED maps, go to the data series page in question and look for the green “VIEW MAP” button at the top right of the graph. See this post for instructions to edit a FRED map. Only series with a green map button can be mapped.

Suggested by Christian Zimmermann.

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