Special Report

America's Poorest Cities

Despite an ongoing economic recovery in the U.S., American households are still struggling. While last year the median household income rose to $52,250, Americans are still not as well off as they were just a few years earlier — in 2009, the median household income was $54,389.

Incomes in individual cities similarly reflected the same lack of growth that the nation experienced. Of America’s 372 metro areas, just 16 recorded a statistically significant increase in median household incomes between 2009 and 2013, while 115 recorded a meaningful decline. The distribution of incomes between cities, too, remained especially wide. The San Jose metro area is the nation’s richest, with a median household income of $91,533 in 2013, while Sebring, Florida is the nation’s poorest, with a median income of just $33,811 last year.

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While income levels and poverty rates do not always move in lockstep, they tend to be closely related. In fact, the Census Bureau measures poverty status by determining an income threshold for a household, depending on the age of the householders, family size, and number of children. As a result, poverty levels tend to be higher in places with exceptionally low incomes. Notably, the poverty rate in all 10 of the poorest metro areas exceeded the national rate of 15.8% in 2013. More than 34% of people in the McAllen, Texas metro area lived in poverty last year, the highest rate nationwide.

High-paying jobs are often concentrated in just a few industries, and the nation’s richest cities typically have very high concentrations of jobs in these fields. Professional services like the sciences and management positions, for example, accounted for 11.1% of America’s workforce. In most the wealthiest metro areas, however, far more regional workers were employed in these professions.

Not only do Americans living in poverty often lack such high-paying jobs, but they also suffer from additional problems that are compounded by poverty. In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., Beth Mattingly, researcher with the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, said that “It’s not just having less money. Life is harder when you’re poor.” Mattingly, who also serves as the director of research on vulnerable families at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, added that poverty “introduces barriers.” For example, Mattingly noted that the working poor often lack sick leave, or could lose their jobs if they take time off.

Further, low income areas tended to have smaller shares of residents that had earned at least a bachelor’s degree. Last year, 29.6% of Americans aged 25 and older had completed at least a bachelor’s degree. In the richest cities, this percentage was frequently far higher. In one of the richest metro areas, Boulder, Colorado, more than 58% of residents 25 and over had a college degree, the highest rate in the nation. In seven of the 10 poorest metro areas, on the other hand, fewer than 20% of adults had a bachelor’s degree.

Holding down a job can also play a major role in promoting high incomes because most Americans derive the majority of their income from their jobs. In a 2013 working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, authors Jeff Larrimore, Richard V. Burkhauser, and Philip Armour concluded that most of the decline in American post-tax incomes during the Great Recession was driven by a decline in employment.

Notably, nine of the 10 richest cities had unemployment rates below the national rate of 7.4% in 2013. On the other hand, in many of the nation’s poorest cities, the unemployment rates were quite high. Most of the poorest cities had unemployment rates above the national rate in 2013, and three of these metro areas had unemployment rates at or above 10% last year.

Mattingly also pointed to jobs as the predominant problem for most impoverished families. “There are certainly systemic issues in poor communities, but what I hear most often is a lack of jobs,” Mattingly said. “Good jobs that pay the bills, that pay a living wage, are harder and harder to come by.”

Based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey (ACS), 24/7 Wall St. identified the U.S. metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) with the lowest median household incomes. Median income data for all previous years is adjusted for inflation. We also reviewed figures on poverty, home values, and income inequality from the Census Bureau’s ACS, as well as annual average unemployment rates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Figures on gross domestic product for metro areas, called gross metropolitan product (GMP), are for 2013 and are from IHS Global Insight.

These are America’s poorest cities.