Population Research and Policy Review 17: 91–109, 1998.
1998 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
Spatial inequality and poverty among American children
SAMANTHA FRIEDMAN & DANIEL T. LICHTER
Department of Sociology, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania, USA
Abstract. National-level statistics often mask extreme spatial differentiation in child poverty.
Using county-level data from the 1990 US decennial census summary tape ﬁle, we show that
child poverty is distributed unevenly over geographic space. Child poverty is concentrated
in counties in Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, and the southern ‘black belt’. Child poverty
rates are strongly inﬂuenced by the local industrial composition (e.g., agriculture and manufac-
turing), but the effects are largely indirect, operating primarily through reduced employment
opportunities among adult workers. High county unemployment and underemployment rates
contribute directly to children’s economic deprivation, as well as indirectly by undermining
the formation and stability of two-parent families. Our results highlight existing spatial differ-
entiation and inequality in children’s economic well-being, and provide a point of departure
for additional research on the geography of child poverty.
Key words: Children, Poverty, Spatial inequality, USA
The apparent intractability of poverty in America is responsible for the con-
tinuing and often heated debates about welfare reform and anti-poverty leg-
islation (Corbett 1993). The poverty rate in the USA of nearly 15 percent
in 1992 was only slightly lower than that observed during the early 1980s
recession, while the number of poor people (37 million) exceeded that of
any year since the early 1960s (US Bureau of the Census 1993). The prob-
lem is particularly acute among America’s children (Bane & Ellwood 1989;
Bianchi 1990; Eggebeen & Lichter 1991). In 1990, children constituted about
36 percent of the poor population. Over one-in-ﬁve children today are poor,
a poverty rate higher than that of any other age-segment of the population.
Since 1990, the child poverty rate has resumed its upward trajectory, while
the economic circumstances of the elderly population continued to improve
(US Bureau of the Census 1993).
Much of the increase in child poverty has been attributed to changing
family structure, especially to the rise in the proportion of children living
in ‘at risk’ female-headed families (Bianchi & McArthur 1991; Eggebeen
& Lichter 1991). Demographic explanations that emphasize family structure