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The pitfalls of mapping poverty

Definitions are important, but difficult to pin down

Where is poverty prevalent in the United States? There’s no simple answer to this question because notions of poverty differ. And defining an objective threshold for poverty is especially difficult. But we can use FRED to put forth a good-faith effort. The Census Bureau uses a specific procedure to categorize poverty and then provides the data: First, they categorize 48 types of American households—which vary by age and composition. Second, they determine what income counts toward the threshold. And third, they determine what that threshold is. They then estimate what proportion of these households live below that threshold.

The results at the county level are shown in the GeoFRED map above. Before interpreting it, though, one needs to keep in mind that there’s no geographical variation for the poverty thresholds. This means that two families with the same income may be considered to be living in poverty regardless of whether they live in a high-cost or low-cost county. This absence of regional adjustment may bias the map. Indeed, according to some (subjective) poverty standards, too many people may be counted as poor in Mississippi (where costs are rather low) and not enough may be counted in the Washington, DC, area (where costs are rather high). So, one should always be cautious when looking at poverty data.

How this map was created: Go to GeoFRED, select county-level data, and search for “Estimated Percent of People.” (This label isn’t very helpful, but the FRED Team is hoping to improve that in the near future.)

Suggested by Christian Zimmermann.

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