Geography of Poverty

A journey through forgotten America

Geography of Poverty

A journey through forgotten America

The most vulnerable Americans are being crushed by the grip of poverty, from the deserts of the Southwest through the black belt in the South, to the post-industrial, rusting factory towns that dot the Midwest and Northeast.

From border to border, high-poverty rates have crippled entire communities, leaving bellies burning with hunger and hope of better days dwindling. Income inequality has widened in recent decades while upward mobility has declined. A tiny percentage of high income Americans hold the majority of the wealth in this country.

Quite plainly, the rich have grown richer and if you’re born poor here you’re likely to die poor. The slight declines in the national poverty rate have done little to allay the day-to-day plight of so many who are just scraping by, largely invisibly and along the margins.

The poverty rate for African Americans and Hispanics is particularly stark, with 27% and 23.5% respectively falling below the poverty line.

The Journey

      The sheer number of poor people in this country is striking: fully 45 million meet the official guidelines for poverty. And that doesn’t include millions more who are among the working poor – those who tip-toe just above the government’s official poverty line, which for a family of four means an annual income of less than $23,850 and for an individual means an annual income of $11,670. Recent reports suggest more than 50% of food stamp recipients are the working poor.

      For the first time in more than 50 years, the majority of America’s public school children are living in poverty.

      What does this all mean for folks trying to achieve some semblance of the American dream, let alone keep food on the table and a stable roof over their family’s heads? With the myriad roadblocks that often confront poor people, like a lack of access to a quality education or a good job, what prospects do people in this group have for overcoming these hurdles? What does success and survival even look like when you’re poor in America?

      Over the course of the next few months MSNBC and photographer Matt Black will undertake an ambitious accounting of poverty in America in a project called The Geography of Poverty. We will travel across this country from coast to coast, border to border, visiting more than 70 cities and towns connected by the simple fact that more than 20% of their residents fall below the poverty line. We will document the struggles and triumphs of the people at the heart of these communities.

      On this journey we will be publishing stories and photographs from the places we visit. Black’s photographs will also be posted in real time on Instagram and you can follow us using interactive tools that highlight poverty statistics by county, city and state.

      We’ll launch the trip in California’s central valley and travel down to the Rio Grande Valley along the Texas border. We’ll then head into the South through Louisiana and Mississippi, then head North and North East before cutting across the Great Lakes Region, through the Dakotas and Indian Country and ultimately into the great Northwest.

      See the poverty profile of where you live..
      The national poverty rate in 2013 was 15.8%, a decrease of 0.1% compared to 2010.
      Food assistance
      Education level
      Household status
      In poverty
      Without H.S. diploma
      On food stamps

      The Geography of Poverty is a project decades in the making for Matt Black. For nearly 20 years he has chronicled life in California’s Central Valley, a vast agricultural area that draws a steady flow of migrant workers hoping to dredge some semblance of a living from the soil. The region’s recent drought, along with hostile immigration policy and untenable working conditions, have kept these workers shackled to hard labor, low wages and uncertain futures.

      Because many of these workers are undocumented they’re often not afforded access to social programs like public colleges, housing or food stamps. Many are forced to sleep in cramped quarters, sometimes paying twice as much for rent than the going rate.

      In Santa Maria, where the poverty rate is 20.9%, many migrants scrape together a living by harvesting sweet beautiful fruit sold to millions of far more fortunate Americans. Is their hard work for naught?

      “I think it’s the optimism of immigration, the new immigrant, it’s a contest between that and the reality they face. Is the power of the dreams that people bring with them enough for them to overcome the realities that they face in these communities?” Black said.

      By exploring these questions through pictures, text and new technology and media platforms, the goal is to capture the many colors of poverty and to present a truer portrait of what poverty looks like in 21st century America.

      The use of social media pushes the undertaking into a new realm -- geotagging images to, as Black said, “put these forgotten towns on the map.”

      The nation’s poor are scattered across every region of the country. But much like America itself, many are segregated by race. Large pockets of poor African Americans remain concentrated in the old slaving states of the South. Others live along the path of the Great Migration from the South to industrial cities in the North and Midwest, like Chicago. There they found no true solace, trading violence and Jim Crow segregation for racist housing and other policies that left them vulnerable to social, economic and political predators.

      Huge swaths of poor whites (particularly white women) reside in Appalachia, which boasts some of the highest poverty rates in the country. Many in these communities are hamstrung by limited public transportation, entrenched and generational poverty and troubling environmental and health concerns. Still others are ensnared into the criminal justice system -- an unfortunate outcome for impoverished Americans of all races.

      In recent years poverty has expanded into the suburbs founded by families fleeing urban blight. Today, more low-income people live outside of cities than ever. Some have called this phenomenon “the New America Poverty.”

      An example of this phenomenon is the Atlanta metropolitan area, where sojourners from all over the country flocked for the affordable housing and good schools. A recent report found 88% of Atlanta’s poor now live in the suburbs, and the area’s poor population grew by 159% between 2010 and 2011. By 2011, the same report found, the number of people living below the poverty rate in the suburbs across the country numbered a whopping 16.4 million, surpassing those living in cities.

      The notion of an escape, of climbing out of poverty, of pulling one’s self up from the trenches to something better, is as elusive as ever. Being poor bears a stigma often perpetuated by politicians who play on tired stereotypes and stubborn myths.

      President Barack Obama talked at length about poverty during a recent conference at Georgetown University, urging liberals and conservatives to work together to attack the challenge head on.

      “Talk to any of my Republican friends,” Obama said. “They will say, No. 1, they care about the poor — and I believe them. But when it comes to actually establishing budgets, making choices, prioritizing, that’s when it starts breaking down.”

      Obama noted his own failed effort to raise taxes on hedge fund managers as an example of the refusal by lawmakers to help the poor. He noted that the top 25 hedge fund managers haul in more income than all of the nation’s kindergarten teachers combined.

      “If we can’t ask from society’s lottery winners to just make that modest investment, then really, this conversation is for show,” Obama said.