From the Ozarks to the Delta: A Historical Perspective of Regional Poverty in Arkansas

When many of us think of historically impoverished regions across the United States, places that may come to mind include Appalachia, the Arkansas/Mississippi Delta or the Ozarks, with varying topographies, cultures, identities and issues that have helped shape these areas. Arkansas’ diverse landscape includes the mountains of the Ozarks in the northwest and the fields of the Delta in the east, each region with its own history of poverty. As 2014 marks 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson declared in his 1964 State of the Union address, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America,”[1] we’ll take a look at how poverty has changed in these two distinct regions of Arkansas over that time period.

The Census Bureau started measuring poverty in the 1960s using the “official poverty measurement.” In 2010, the Census Bureau added a second measurement—the “supplemental poverty measurement.” The most notable differences are “unlike the official poverty rate, the supplemental poverty measure takes into account the impact of different benefits and necessary expenses on the resources available to families, as well as geographic differences in housing costs.”[2] (To understand more about how the Census Bureau measures poverty, visit www.census.gov/how/infographics/poverty_measure-how.html.) Since the official poverty measurement has been used since the 1960s, this measurement will be used to better understand the history of poverty in the Arkansas Ozarks and Delta regions.

Historical census data indicates that poverty has dramatically decreased in Arkansas since the 1960s, from a high poverty rate of 47.51 percent reported in the 1960 census to 18.7 percent in the 2010 census. In comparison, the U.S. poverty rate in 1960 was 22.1 percent and 15.3 percent in 2010. Although the state poverty averages in Arkansas have dropped significantly, poverty rates still may vary considerably across regions of the state. Historically in Arkansas and compared to the rest of the country, areas of the Arkansas Delta have had considerably higher poverty rates.

Three of the easternmost counties in the Arkansas Delta that border the Mississippi River are Chicot, Desha and Phillips. Although poverty rates remain stubbornly high in this area of the state, the poverty rate in some of these counties has declined by almost half since the 1960s. (See Table 1.) Combining the three counties, the region had a poverty rate of 63.32 percent in 1960; by 2010, the regional rate was 31.56 percent—still much higher than the national average but much lower than 50 years ago.

TABLE 1

Regional Poverty Rates Based on Census Year

  1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
United States 22.10% 13.70% 12.40% 13.10% 12.40% 15.30%
Arkansas (state) 47.51% 27.80% 18.95% 19.10% 15.80% 18.70%
Arkansas Ozarks region (Benton, Madison, Washington counties) 45.10% 24.56% 15.73% 14.76% 14.43% 16.36%
Arkansas Ozarks—Benton County 39.40% 19.40% 11.13% 9.60% 10.10% 10.20%
Arkansas Ozarks—Madison County 61.22% 36.00% 21.18% 20.10% 18.60% 19.30%
Arkansas Ozarks—Washington County 34.67% 18.30% 14.89% 14.60% 14.60% 19.60%
Arkansas Delta region (Chicot, Desha, Phillips counties) 63.32% 47.60% 35.50% 39.13% 30.16% 31.56%
Arkansas Delta—Chicot County 67.34% 52.30% 39.98% 40.40% 28.60% 30.70%
Arkansas Delta—Desha County 59.80% 42.30% 27.04% 34.00% 28.90% 28.00%
Arkansas Delta—Phillips County 62.84% 48.20% 39.76% 43.00% 32.70% 36.00%

Sources: https://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/census/1960/; http://www.census.gov/did/www/saipe/data/statecounty/data/2010.html

Currently, areas in the Arkansas Ozarks region have a much lower poverty rate than areas of the Arkansas Delta. During the 1960s and into the 1970s, parts of the Ozarks had very high poverty rates, but it was greatly reduced in the 1980s. Three of the northwestern Ozarks counties clustered along the Oklahoma and Missouri borders—Benton, Madison and Washington—had an average poverty rate of 45.1 percent in the 1960s; in 2010, the average was 16.36 percent for the cluster.

Just as the topography of the Arkansas Ozarks and Delta are extremely different, so too are their histories related to poverty. While both areas had extremely high rates of poverty compared to national averages in the 1960s and both saw declines over the past decades, the current poverty average (16.36 percent) of northwest Arkansas’ Ozarks region is much more in line with the national average (15.3 percent), exemplifying that even areas perceived as historically impoverished can change, decrease poverty rates and improve their economic status.

Many rural areas of the United States are struggling with long-term higher-than-average poverty rates. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service, 301 of the 353 counties that are considered to be persistently poor (i.e., have a poverty rate above 20 percent for the past 30 years) are in nonmetropolitan areas.[3] Approximately 84 percent of all persistently poor counties are located in the South; many of these counties in the Eighth District of the Federal Reserve are concentrated in the Arkansas/Mississippi Delta region and in the Ozarks of southern Missouri. (See Figure 1.)

FIGURE 1

Persistent Poverty Counties in the U.S.

Figure 1

Source: USDA, Economic Research Service. Persistent poverty counties had poverty rates of at least 20 percent in each U.S. Census 1980, 1990, and 2000, and American Community Survey 5-year estimates, 2007–2011. www.ers.usda.gov/topics/rural-economy-population/rural-poverty-well-being/geography-of-poverty.aspx

Over time, even areas with a legacy of high poverty can change. Certainly one factor that would help to lower a region’s poverty rate is strong regional job growth. In 2013, preliminary data ranked the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers metropolitan statistical area (MSA), which includes the counties of Benton, Washington and Madison in the Arkansas Ozarks, fourth in the nation for job growth, as measured by the Arizona State University W.P. Carey School of Business. Later revised data dropped this ranking to 87th out of 383 ranked metro areas in the nation for 2013, but still a respectable 2.41 percent increase in jobs.[4] This area is anchored by corporations such as J.B. Hunt, Tyson Foods and Walmart; these one-time entrepreneurial companies have grown into global corporations that have definitely helped the region grow over the past few decades.

It is important that poverty rates continue to decline, whether that happens via job or business growth, institutional or societal changes, governmental policies, educational attainment or other factors that create necessary change. Although poverty rates have decreased over the past 50 years, poverty in Arkansas and the United States did increase between the 2000 and 2010 census. In Arkansas, the poverty rate at the 2000 census was 15.8 percent and 18.7 percent in 2010. For the U.S., the rate was 12.4 percent in 2000 but increased to 15.3 percent by 2010. The Arkansas Ozarks and Delta regions also saw poverty rate increases in 2010. For the three counties of the Arkansas Ozarks, the increase was 1.93 percent; Arkansas Delta counties saw an increase of 1.4 percent from 2000 to 2010. This increase over the past decade is a reminder that just as poverty has decreased over time, it can also go back up.

While census data from the past 50 years shows an overall decline in poverty rates, many rural areas are still dealing with long-term persistent poverty rates. Just as Arkansas’ history reveals two different stories of poverty in the Ozarks and the Delta region, poverty also continues to differ among the geographic areas of the United States. Creating solutions that will help create more economic prosperity in these areas remains important to the economic vitality of these regions and to the country as a whole. Beneficial change can occur, but may require a longer-term vision and strategy to achieve lower poverty rates.

Endnotes

  1. Page, Susan. USA Today. 50 Years Later, War on Poverty Has New Battle Lines. www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2014/01/06/war-on-poverty-50-years-later/4344985/ [back to text]
  2. United States Census Bureau. Supplemental Measure of Poverty Remains Unchanged. www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/poverty/cb13-183.html [back to text]
  3. USDA Economic Research Service. Geography of Poverty. www.ers.usda.gov/topics/rural-economy-population/rural-poverty-well-being/geography-of-poverty.aspx [back to text]
  4. Magsam, John. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. 4 of 7 Areas in State Show Job Growth. www.arkansasonline.com/news/2014/jan/30/4-7-areas-state-show-job-growth-20140130/ [back to text]

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