Mapping How Inequality And Poverty Increasingly Go Hand In Hand

Though they are both problematic for local economies, the two factors didn’t used to be correlated. Now, they are–and that’s a real problem for working people.

Traditionally, income inequality and poverty have been treated as separate and unrelated phenomena. That an area is unequal, economically speaking, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily impoverished. But, increasingly, poverty and inequality are rising in the same places, according to new research. More of the U.S. is becoming both poorer and more unequal at the same time–a combination that is especially deadly for the economy.


The research comes from Beth Jarosz and Mark Mather at the Population Reference Bureau. It shows that by 2014, 41% of counties had high levels of inequality as well as high poverty rates–a 12% increase from 1989.

Take a look at the color-coded map. Areas shaded in red–high inequality/high poverty–increase in scope over time, particularly in the southern half of the country (including the Sun Belt, which is sometimes held up as an economic success story). By contrast, areas shaded in green–low inequality, low poverty–reduced in size, accounting for 28% of counties overall. Mostly these are in the upper Midwest, Mountain, Middle Atlantic, South Atlantic, and New England states.

Cities saw some of the most dramatic changes. The share of high-inequality, high-poverty counties in big metro areas doubled to 21% between 1989 and 2014. At the same time, the share among small and mid-sized metros saw a 24% increase, to 46% overall.

“Evidence from the recent recession suggests that the United States is approaching, and may already have reached, a tipping point where inequality is limiting social mobility, consumer spending, educational attainment, and the ability of the United States to compete in the global labor market,” note the authors.

The maps show that all economics, like politics, is local. We can make broad statements about inequality and poverty in the U.S. but ultimately what matters to people’s lives is how individual counties fare. We can see that many places are going backwards–and that inequality and poverty may be more related than we tend to think.

[Photo: eranicle/iStock]


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.