What the Best Places in America Have in Common

And what they reveal about alleviating poverty across the country

By Kathryn J. Edin, H. Luke Shaefer, and Timothy J. Nelson for The Atlantic (This article is adapted from the authors’ forthcoming book.)

When president Lyndon B. Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty” in 1964, the nation didn’t have any method of counting the poor, or even a firm notion of how poverty should be defined. His administration scrambled to come up with a measure to chart progress. The gauge, it was later decided, would be the minimum income needed for a family of three or more to put food on the table multiplied by three (at the time, food constituted a third of the typical family budget).

Income is one vital indicator of well-being, but it is not the only one: Things like health outcomes and social mobility matter too. That’s why we should shift our focus from poverty to disadvantage. Disadvantage is a more useful term than poverty because we aren’t just talking about income—we’re trying to capture the complexity of a person’s life chances being hindered by multiple circumstances. Disadvantage is more accurate because it implies an injustice. People are being held back—unfairly.

Disadvantage cannot be understood at the individual or family level alone. Thanks to social-science research, we now know that children’s life chances are profoundly affected by their context—not only income and family circumstances but also their community—more so than by their genetic profile or the medical care they receive.

With this in mind, we created what we call the Index of Deep Disadvantage, which reflects two traditional measures of income (the poverty rate and the “deep poverty rate,” meaning those with incomes below half the poverty line), two markers of health (birth weight and life expectancy), and the rate of social mobility for children who grow up in low-income families. We used this index to rank the roughly 3,100 counties in the United States along with the 500 most populous cities.

Immediately, the rankings revealed a stark geographical pattern. The first surprise—especially for professors who have spent our careers studying urban poverty—was that the most disadvantaged places on our index were primarily rural. But they didn’t fit the stereotypical image of rural America. Though some of these were majority white, most were majority Black or Hispanic. We could see, too, that many places with large Native American populations ranked among the most disadvantaged in the nation. Considerable poverty exists in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. But in our apples-to-apples comparison, none of those cities ranked among even the 600 most disadvantaged places in the nation. The only cities on that list were a relatively small number of industrial municipalities such as Cleveland, Detroit, and Rochester.

Some might say we should have taken into account the high cost of living in many cities, but this is more complicated than it appears. Although people pay more for housing in some places, they also benefit from good health-care systems, a more generous safety net, public transportation, and higher-quality schools. Those living in the 200 most disadvantaged places on our index were just as likely to have major difficulties paying for housing as those in America’s 500 largest cities.

The places that our index identified as the 200 most disadvantaged are concentrated in three regions—Appalachia, South Texas, and the southern Cotton Belt. (Not one county in the West, apart from those with disproportionately large Native American communities, showed up on the list.) These places share a history of intensive resource extraction and human exploitation not seen to the same degree elsewhere in the United States. In each place, this economic pattern emerged (or, in the case of the Cotton Belt, fully flourished) in the late 19th or early 20th century. In each place, one industry came to dominate the economy, a pattern that held, broadly, until the 1960s, when King Cotton, King Tobacco, King Coal, and South Texas agriculture, would bow to the twin forces of automation and global competition.

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