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A bird’s-eye county view of poverty

Ninth District poverty by county.

November 1, 2006


Rob Grunewald Associate Economist
A bird’s-eye county view of poverty

Poverty is spread throughout the district, but some areas have higher poverty rates than others. Maps of district poverty rates in 2003 and changes in poverty rates from 1993 to 2003 reveal a few tendencies. First, poverty rates in 2003, the last year county-level data are available, generally are lower in the eastern part of the district and higher in the west. Second, metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) tend to have lower poverty rates than non-MSA counties, although there are exceptions. Third, counties that showed the largest decreases in poverty rates between 1993 and 2003 tended to have comparatively high poverty rates in 2003, and counties that showed poverty increases tended to have low poverty rates.

The district's lowest poverty rates are located in the counties of the Minneapolis-St. Paul MSA other than Hennepin and Ramsey counties, which include the core cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The district's three lowest poverty rates are in this area—Scott (3.8 percent), Carver (4 percent) and Wisconsin's St. Croix (4.2 percent). Central and southern Minnesota include several counties with poverty rates below 9 percent. Pockets of low poverty rates are also found in north-central Wisconsin and northeastern Minnesota.

As one travels west, poverty rates begin to climb. Almost all counties in Montana have poverty rates above 11 percent, and more than half have rates above 13 percent. While many poverty rates for counties in the eastern portions of North Dakota and South Dakota are below district average rates, counties in the western portions of these states tend to be above average.

The highest poverty rates are found in southwest South Dakota, where counties have a large number of Native Americans living on reservations relative to the total population. The district's highest poverty counties include South Dakota's Shannon (35.6 percent), Todd (33.7 percent) and Ziebach (33 percent).

There are exceptions to the east-west dynamic. In the relatively low poverty eastern side, Beltrami and Mahnomen in Minnesota have poverty rates above 13 percent, as well as Day and Roberts counties in eastern South Dakota and four counties in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

In the relatively high poverty western side, Montana has four counties with poverty rates below 11 percent, including Sweetgrass, Stillwater and Jefferson in the southwestern part of the state and Fallon in the east. Across the state border from Fallon are Bowman and Adams in North Dakota. These three counties have low unemployment rates and may have benefited from oil and gas exploration in the area. Sully and Stanley counties in central South Dakota stand out with poverty rates below 9 percent.

Most MSA counties have poverty rates below 11 percent, particularly in the eastern part of the district. Almost all of the counties in the Minneapolis-St. Paul MSA have poverty rates below 9 percent. However, Douglas County in Wisconsin, part of the Duluth-Superior MSA, and Grand Forks County in North Dakota have poverty rates above 11 percent. While the Bismarck, N.D., MSA's poverty rate is below 11 percent, other western MSAs have rates above 11 percent, including the counties that comprise the MSAs of Rapid City in South Dakota, and Billings, Great Falls and Missoula in Montana.

District County Averages by Povery Rate
  Lowest 10% of Counties

Lowest 80% of Counties

Highest 10% of Counties

Poverty rate, 2003
Population, 2000
Per Capita Income, 2003
Minorities as a Percent of
Total Population, 2000
Foreign Born as a Percent of Total Population, 2000
Presence of a Native
American Reservation
Percent of Population Over 25 Years Old With A College Degree, 2000
Years of Education, 2000
Unemployment Rate, 2003
Median Age, 2000
Sources: U.S Census Bureau, Bureau of Economic Analysis,
Bureau of Labor Statistics

Most district counties watched poverty rates decline from 1993 to 2003, but 38 counties saw increases. Of the counties that saw increases, almost half were counties with poverty rates below 9 percent in 2003, making parts of the change in the poverty map an inverse of the poverty rate map. Of the 77 counties with the largest decreases (between -13.6 percent and -3.1 percent), half were counties that had poverty rates of 13 percent or higher. It seems that counties with higher poverty rates had more room to decrease compared with counties having lower poverty rates.

High and low poverty counties

Comparing counties with the lowest poverty rates to counties with the highest poverty rates reveals a number of differences. The lowest 10 percent by poverty rate, which includes about 30 counties, tend to have higher population levels than the highest 10 percent. The lowest poverty counties also have a higher percentage of population that is foreign born compared with the highest poverty counties. The percentage of population that is minority is much higher among the highest poverty counties compared with the lowest poverty counties, as well as the percentage of counties with the presence of a Native American reservation.

Not surprisingly, average income and education levels are higher in the lowest poverty counties. Personal income averaged across the lowest poverty counties is 58 percent higher than personal income in the highest poverty counties. Education levels follow suit in two measures: Both the percentage of population with a college degree and average years of education attainment are higher in the lowest poverty counties.


Neither is poverty limited to cities or rural areas, but is found in both. Nevertheless, when county poverty rates are grouped by population density and proximity to urban areas, poverty rates are lower in more densely populated counties (see chart).

Chart: Poverty Rate by Population Density

Counties in the Minneapolis-St. Paul MSA have lower poverty rates compared with other designations. The average poverty rate across counties in other district MSAs is lower than most other designations, while the highest poverty rates are found in the most sparsely populated counties. In addition, more densely populated counties tend to have higher education levels and per capita income, and lower median ages.