The South looks in rough shape on national maps of many kinds — maps of life expectancy, single-parent families and households without bank accounts. The South is where poor children have the worst economic mobility and where, as teenagers, they're least likely to graduate from high school on time.
These maps are all snapshots of life today, enabling us to compare one corner of the country to another at the same time. Compare these same places to how they looked decades ago, however, and here is one case where the South emerges as a national leader: Poverty rates have fallen almost universally there since 1960, while other parts of the country have, in contrast, grown poorer.
The map comes from a Pew Research Center analysis of historic Census data that points to two overarching trends in how the geography of American poverty has shifted over the last half-century. Poverty today is less southern than it once was. And, like the U.S. population on the whole, it has become more urban, too. In 1960, 49 percent of poor Americans lived in the South; today 41 percent do, even as Sun Belt cities have swelled in population over this same time. In 1960, 70 percent of the U.S. poor lived in urban areas; today 81 percent do (this is a broad definition of urban that includes suburbs in metropolitan areas).
The above map also neatly captures the outlines of what we would consider the Rust Belt along the Great Lakes. But part of what it shows is that, in comparison, things were really bad in the South 50 years ago. Poverty rates there have fallen steeply from a high high point in 1960, when one in three Southern families was considered poor by the government. As quality of life there has broadly improved, the region's disproportionate share of the country's poor has declined.
Jens Manuel Krogstad, who wrote the Pew analysis, notes one other particularly interesting urban trend: The share of America's poor living in the 20 largest counties has grown over this same time. More than one in five poor Americans today lives in these 20 large counties, which include big cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit. In 1960, just 14 percent of the country's poor did.
While these big cities can attract the poor, their poverty rates have also risen over the last 50 years because of who moved out. As middle-class and wealthier residents left for the suburbs after 1960, they left behind cities, like Detroit, where poverty became more concentrated.