America’s Poorest Cities

October 15, 2014 by Thomas C. Frohlich

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.

Click here to see the poorest cities in America

Click here to see the richest cities in America

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.

The Poorest Cities in America

10. Muncie, Ind.
> Median household income: $36,402
> Population: 117,484
> Unemployment rate: 8.7% (66th highest)
> Poverty rate: 22.6% (29th highest)

The median household income in Muncie was just $36,402 last year, the 10th lowest nationwide. Like in a majority of the country’s poorest cities, poverty in Muncie was quite high. More than 22% of area residents lived below the poverty line last year, versus less than 16% of all Americans. Poor incomes in the area are likely due, in part, to Muncie’s high unemployment rate, which was 8.7% last year, among the higher unemployment rates nationwide. While residents were quite poor, just 12.4% of the civilian population didn’t have health insurance last year, an exceptionally good rate compared with other poor cities. By contrast, 14.5% of all Americans didn’t have health insurance in 2013.

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9. Las Cruces, N.M.
> Median household income: $36,343
> Population: 213,460
> Unemployment rate: 7.5% (142nd highest)
> Poverty rate: 27.8% (8th highest)

Nearly 28% of Las Cruces adult residents had completed at least a bachelor’s degree as of last year, only slightly lower than the national rate and considerably better than other poor cities. Additionally, the area’s unemployment rate was in line with the national rate, at 7.4%. Still, Las Cruces residents still struggled with low incomes and poverty. One reason maybe that less than 79% of adults had at least a high school diploma last year, one of the worst rates nationwide. A typical household earned just $36,343 in 2013, and nearly 28% of residents lived below the poverty line, compared with the national poverty rate of 15.8%.

8. Anniston-Oxford-Jacksonville, Ala.
> Median household income: $36,205
> Population: 116,736
> Unemployment rate: 7.3% (158th highest)
> Poverty rate: 21.8% (37th highest)

Fourteen percent of Anniston area households reported an income of less than $10,000 in 2013, well-above the nationwide percentage of 7.6% and the seventh worst rate in the country. One issue likely placing a low ceiling on incomes is the absence of a highly educated workforce. Just 15% of residents 25 and older had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2013, versus nearly 30% of adults nationwide. Despite the low incomes, just 14.5% of the population in the Anniston metro area lacked health insurance last year, in line with the share of all Americans who were uninsured. However, relatively few residents in Anniston were insured through private insurance or employer-sponsored plans. Instead, they were more likely than most Americans to rely on Medicare or need-based coverage such as Medicaid.

7. Cumberland, Md.
> Median household income: 35,211
> Population: 101,225
> Unemployment rate: 7.4% (152nd highest)
> Poverty rate: 17.6% (131st highest)

The typical rent in Cumberland was exceptionally low at just $486 per month in 2013, less than half the median monthly rent of more than $900 across the nation. Also, nearly 90% of adults in the area had completed at least high school as of last year, better than the national rate, and exceptionally high compared with other poor cities. Higher education attainment rates, however, were remarkably low. Just 16.5% of Cumberland adults had at least a bachelor’s degree as of last year, one of the lowest figures nationwide. While the median earnings for all individuals in the U.S. was well over $30,000 last year, the median earnings in the Cumberland area was just $21,627. Despite the area’s low-paying jobs, more than 88% of area residents had health insurance last year, better than the national coverage rate.

6. Valdosta, Ga.
> Median household income: $35,104
> Population: 143,947
> Unemployment rate: 7.9% (110th highest)
> Poverty rate: 26.9% (9th highest)

Nearly 27% of the Valdosta area’s population lived in poverty last year, one of the highest rates in the United States. Further, 13.6% of households earned less than $10,000 in 2013, also one of the highest rates nationwide. However, Valdosta experienced a statistically significant decrease in the percentage of residents who were uninsured, which fell from 21.9% in 2012 to 18% last year. Yet, an article by the Valdosta Daily Times stated that, recently, the percentage of patients at South Georgia Medical Center, a local area hospital, that are uninsured is on the rise.

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5. McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas
> Median household income: $35,098
> Population: 815,996
> Unemployment rate: 10.8% (21st highest)
> Poverty rate: 34.3% (the highest)

McAllen had the nation’s highest poverty rate last year, at more than 34% of the population. By comparison, even after climbing for years, the U.S. poverty rate was less than 16% in 2013. McAllen’s low incomes likely exacerbate other major problems in the area. McAllen had the highest percentage of residents without health insurance in the nation last year, at more than 36%. Further, nearly a third of households last year received food stamps, the highest rate in the U.S. These problems often compound one another. As part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning series for The Washington Post last year, reporter Eli Saslow documented how many residents in McAllen struggled to stretch food stamp dollars and often could not afford healthy foods, in turn worsening health outcomes for many residents.

4. Albany, Ga.
> Median household income: $34,756
> Population: 156,277
> Unemployment rate: 8.9% (58th highest)
> Poverty rate: 24.9% (15th highest)

Like most poor metro areas, Albany residents struggled with poverty. Nearly one in four people lived below the poverty level last year, among the higher rates nationwide. More than 15% of households earned less than $10,000 last year, double the national figure, and more than in any other metro area in the country. Nearly 20% of owner-occupied homes in the area were worth less than $50,000 in 2013, also nearly double the national rate, and among the higher proportions in the nation. Low incomes and high poverty likely explains the high reliance on food stamps among area residents. Nearly 27% of households received SNAP benefits last year, more than in all but three other metro areas.

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3. Pine Bluff, Ark.
> Median household income: $34,665
> Population: 96,415
> Unemployment rate: 10.0% (28th highest)
> Poverty rate: 24.4% (16th highest)

Unemployment in the Pine Bluff metro area was exceptionally high last year, at more than 10%. Despite the high unemployment and low incomes in Pine Bluff, less households in the area fell into the lowest income classification in 2013 than in prior years. Between 2009 and 2013, the percentage of households with incomes of $10,000 per year or less fell from 13.8% — at the time the eighth highest figure in the nation — to 9.6%. Still, more than 24% of Pine Bluff’s population lived below the poverty line, one of the highest poverty rates nationally, while jobs have been hard to come by. According to the BLS, total employment in the area has been steadily declining since late 2006. As of August, there were just 34,200 nonfarm employees in the area, down from over 42,000 in late 2006.

2. Brownsville-Harlingen, Texas
> Median household income: $34,374
> Population: 417,276
> Unemployment rate: 10.1% (25th highest)
> Poverty rate: 32.5% (2nd highest)

Brownsville, Texas is among the nation’s most destitute metro areas. More than 32% of people had incomes below the poverty line in 2013, a higher proportion than in every metro area except for neighboring McAllen. Residents were also among the most likely Americans to go without health insurance, with 32.4% of residents reporting no coverage in 2013, more than in all but two other metro areas. The area is also one of just a few where the unemployment rate was above 10% last year, and Brownsville area residents were particularly reliant on food stamps. More than 29% relied on SNAP benefits last year, the third-highest proportion in the nation.

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1. Sebring, Fla.
> Median household income: $33,811
> Population: 97,616
> Unemployment rate: 8.2% (88th highest)
> Poverty rate: 18.8% (103rd highest)

With a median household income of $33,811, Sebring residents are the poorest in the nation. Low incomes may be due in part to poor rates of educational attainment. Just 15.1% of residents had completed at least a bachelor’s degree as of 2013, roughly half the national rate and among the lowest nationwide. The value of area homes — another measure of a region’s financial well-being — was also particularly low. Nearly 29% of local owner-occupied homes were worth less than $50,000 in 2013, nearly the highest proportion nationwide. The low home values are could be discouraging outsiders and area residents from purchasing property, as 7.6% of homeowner inventory was vacant and for sale last year, the highest such rate in the country.

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