Mapping American Decline


1980


2010

USA Today has two maps on its website, showing which counties in the U.S. have substantial poverty rates. (You can find an interactive version of the maps here. One is for 1980 and the other is for 2010. The colored areas indicate a poverty rate of 20% or more. The dark brown areas indicate poverty among the elderly, the light brown areas indicate childhood poverty, and the gray areas indicate a combination of the two.

Overall, the maps give the impression that Americans are poorer today than they were thirty years ago. Also, there has been a shift from poverty among the old to poverty among children. This is perhaps because declining wages have resulted in more children being raised in poverty. One is also struck by the increase in the poverty rate in Western states (with the notable exception of Utah). This may indicate that the inland West is being largely passed over in the new globalized neoliberal economy.

One thing that is clear from these maps is that the southern half of the U.S. has always been poorer than the northern half. This is probably the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and so-called “right-to-work” laws. This shows what a sorry joke the much bally-hooed “New South” is. It’s worth noting that while the population of this part of the country has been steadily increasing, it has apparently not gotten any wealthier.

There are two large areas where poverty has not apparently increased substantially. One is a region that the French geographer, Jean Gottmann, called “Megalopolis”. It extends roughly from Boston along the Atlantic coast to Washinton, D.C. (Judging from these maps, one can add northern Virginia, Vermont, and New Hampshire to this.) This is the most densely populated region in the country. (Note how lightly populated counties in the West have gotten poorer.) It’s also a region with major port cities. This no doubt shows the importance of global trade to the economy. This region also has a good deal of high tech companies

The Great Lakes region has has also been relatively steady, with the notable exceptions of Michigan and Ohio, which have been hit hard by outsourcing in the automobile industry.

Also indicating the importance of trade and technology is the fact that the major West Coast ports, plus the Silicon Valley and Hawaii, have been doing comparatively well. Los Angeles and Long Beach appear to be the exceptions here, but bear in mind that Los Angeles County covers an enormous area, mostly desert and mountains, so this may be deceiving.

Note also that the poorer states tend to be what pundits call “red states”, that is, they tend to vote for the Republican candidate in presidential elections. Since Republicans don’t even pretend to care about the poor, one must assume that this is due to social conservatism. Clearly, we on the left have our work cut out for us.

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