America's Poorest States

5. Alabama 
> Median household income: $41,415
> Population: 4,802,740 (23rd highest)
> Unemployment rate: 9% (18th highest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 19% (7th highest)

In 2011, Alabama’s median income was more than $9,000 below the nation’s median income, while 6.4% of families lived off less than $10,000 a year — higher than in all but five states. For the second year in a row, Alabama’s poverty rate was 19%, remaining more than three percentage points above the national rate. Despite struggling with poverty, only 14.3% of Alabamians did not have health insurance last year — slightly better than the national figure of 15.1%. It is likely that Alabama’s cheap health care–the least expensive in the country for the fourth quarter of 2011–resulted in more insured residents.According to Gallup, since August of 2011 almost 23% of state residents reported not having enough money to buy food at least once.

4. Kentucky 
> Median household income: $41,141
> Population: 4,369,356 (25th lowest)
> Unemployment rate: 9.5% (13th highest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 19.1% (5th highest)

Kentucky’s unemployment rate of 9.5%, while not as high as states such as South Carolina and Mississippi, was well above the national rate of 8.9%. The employment rate will likely stay high in the near future as mining, a major industry in Kentucky, has declined in the past year due to a drop in natural gas prices. Severe poverty plagues the state, as 6.9% of families earned less than $10,000 in 2011, the fourth lowest of all states. Meanwhile, a mere 3% of Kentucky families earned more than $200,000 a year, the seventh-lowest rate in the country.  Fortunately for those with lower incomes, Kentucky has the fourth-lowest cost of living in the U.S., including the second-lowest cost of living for groceries.

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3. Arkansas 
> Median household income: $38,758
> Population: 2,937,979 (19th lowest)
> Unemployment rate: 8% (tied-25th lowest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 19.5% (4th highest)

While the national median household income fell to $50,502 in 2011, Arkansas was just one of three states where median income remained below $40,000 for the year. Despite an unemployment rate of 8% in 2011, nearly one percentage point below the national rate, the 19.5% of families lived below the poverty line, one of the nation’s highest rates. Poverty was slightly less of a problem in Little Rock, the state’s largest city, which had a 16.4% poverty rate and a median income of $40,976. Despite having the third-lowest cost of health care nationwide at the end of 2011, 17.1% of residents lived without health insurance last year–well above the national figure of 15.1%.

2. West Virginia 
> Median household income: $38,482
> Population: 1,855,364 (14th lowest)
> Unemployment rate: 8% (tied-25th lowest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 18.6% (10th highest)

West Virginia’s median income of $38,482 was well off the median income of $40,093 in 2007. The state’s unemployment rate of 8% was well below the 8.9% nationwide. But, like Kentucky, a softening mining sector in 2012 could weaken West Virginia’s economy. The proportion of West Virginia residents without health insurance grew 4.9%, the third-largest increase in the U.S. Fortunately for cash-strapped residents, although the state’s overall cost of living is in the middle of the pack compared to all other states, the cost of groceries is the third lowest in the country.

1. Mississippi 
> Median household income: $36,919
> Population: 2,978,512 (20th lowest)
> Unemployment rate: 10.7% (4th highest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 22.6% (the highest)

The median income of the poorest state in the country, Mississippi, was just slightly less than 53% of the median income of Maryland, the richest state. Mississippi’s median income–like many states– fell each year between 2008 and 2011, dropping $2,677 during that time. Not only did Mississippi have the highest poverty rate in the country, but 7.8% of Mississippi families made less than $10,000 in 2011, which was also the lowest rate in the country. While unemployment declined in most states between 2010 and 2011, Mississippi’s actually rose 0.2 percentage points, one of only two states to see an increase in unemployment.

Michael B. Sauter, Samuel Weigley, Brian Zajac and Alexander E. M. Hess

Also Read: America’s Richest States