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Poverty Takes a Deep Dive In Central Cities

by Larry Jones
October 9, 2000

According to a report released by the U.S. Census Bureau on September 26, poverty in America declined to a 20-year low—from 12.7 percent in 1998 to 11.8 percent in 1999, which is the lowest on record since 1979. Also, real median household income reached $40, 816, the highest level ever recorded.

The report shows there were 2.2 million fewer people living in poverty in 1999 (32.3 million) than in 1998 (34.5 million). Annual household earnings rose above the poverty level ($17, 029 for a family of four) for these individuals last year. During a press briefing in Washington, Daniel Weinberg of the Census Bureau said "declines in poverty were concentrated in metropolitan areas, particularly central cities." Of the 2.2 million people leaving the poverty roles, most, 1.8 million, live in central cities. Weinberg said "every racial and ethnic group experienced a drop in both the number of poor and the percent in poverty, as did children, the elderly and people ages 25 to 44."

Acknowledging the role of metro economies in fueling the nation's robust economy, U.S. Conference of Mayors President and Boise Mayor H. Brent Coles said "the Census Bureau"s latest report on poverty is just one more sign that central cities are back. Not only is poverty and crime down but the economic expansion in our metro regions continues to create employment opportunities that have allowed more of our poor residents to move off the welfare rolls into good paying jobs." Citing a report on U.S. Metro Economies released last spring, U.S. Conference of Mayors Vice President and New Orleans Mayor Marc H. Morial said "metro areas are now generating 84 percent of the nation's employment and 88 percent of the nation's labor income and I am pleased that the Census Bureau"s report shows that some of the nation's prosperity is beginning to reach our poor residents."


Poverty hit a historic low in 1999 for all major racial groups except Whites. For non-Hispanic Whites, the poverty rate was 7.7, which equaled the low level reached in 1988-1989. The rate for African Americans was 23.6 percent, which was the lowest ever measured by the Census Bureau. As a result, there were 700,000 fewer African Americans living in poverty in 1999 (8.4 million) than in 1998 (9.1 million). For Hispanics of all races, the poverty rate was 22.8 percent which was statistically equal to the low level reached in 1979. Between 1998 and 1999, the number of Hispanics living in poverty declined by 600,000 to 7.4 million. For the first time, the Bureau showed data on the poverty rate for American Indians and Alaska Natives. Based on a three-year average (1997-1999), the poverty rate among this group was 25.9, with about 700,000 living in poverty. The percentage of people 65 and over living in poverty reached a low of 9.7 percent while the proportion of children in poverty was 16.9 percent, the lowest since 1979.

For families, the overall poverty rate also declined to a 20-year low of 9.3 percent. For married couples, the rate fell to 4.8 percent and for female householders it fell to 27.8 percent, record lows for both types of families. The report points out however, that despite the drop in child poverty, children under the age of 6 remained particularly vulnerable to female householder families with no husband present. Those living in such households experienced a poverty rate of 50.3 percent, more than five times the rate for children under 6 in married-couple families. Also, poverty among non-Hispanic Whites and Hispanics families fell to 25 and 20-year lows respectively. For African American families, the poverty rate remained unchanged in 1999.

Although all racial and ethnic groups saw a decline in poverty, the decline was not spread equally among all regions. The Northeast and West had significant declines in poverty, while the South and Midwest experienced no statistical change. Poverty in the South remained at an all time low of 13.1 percent.


Overall, the median income level for the nation's households rose by 2.7 percent, from $38,744 in 1998 to 40,816 in 1999. The median income reached the highest level ever recorded for non-Hispanic Whites, $44, 316; for African American, $27,910; and for Hispanics, $30,735. For American Indians and Alaska Natives, the three-year average (1997-1999) median household income was $30,784. Although the median household income of Asians and Pacific Islanders rose to $51,205 (the highest median income for any group) between 1998 and 1999, it was not statistically different form their previously recorded high. Median household income reached record highs in 1999 in the Midwest at $42,679 and in the South at $37,442 but remained statistically unchanged in the Northeast at $41,984 and West at $42,720. Also real median income for households inside metropolitan areas rose by 2.1 percent and the median for households inside central cities rose by 5.0 percent between 1998 and 1999. The 1999 median income for households outside metropolitan areas remained statistically unchanged.

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