Poverty rates across the Carolinas continue to grow

WASHINGTON — More than one of every four Columbia residents is now living in poverty.

Columbia has been hit harder than other cities in the Carolinas, but Charleston, Charlotte and Raleigh are also home to a growing number of poor people.

The new study by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, looked at Census Bureau data for the country's 95 largest urban areas, which are called Metropolitan Statistical Areas by the U.S. government.

The worst recession in two decades has sent family income plummeting in cities across the nation, from Hartford, Conn. — where two in five people live in poverty — to Youngstown, Ohio, and Detroit in the Midwest.

For the first time in decades, poverty is spreading rapidly in suburban areas that have been prosperous havens.

"The notion of poverty as primarily an urban problem is officially outdated," said Elizabeth Kneebone, co-author of the Brookings analysis. "About one-third of all poor people in the United States live in the suburbs of large metropolitan areas."

The report based its findings on the federally defined poverty level: $21,834 for a family of four and $11,200 for an individual.

In the Carolinas, there remain income disparities between cities and their suburbs, but the gap has narrowed in some areas.

More than 15.8 percent of Charlotte's residents are poor. That's only a slightly larger share than the 14.1 percent poverty rate in Charlotte metro area suburbs in Mecklenburg, Gaston, Union and York, S.C., counties.

York County, though, has been hit worse, with 16.3 percent of its residents living in poverty.

Things are bleaker still along the S.C.-Georgia border: Aiken County, part of the Augusta, Ga., metropolitan area, has a 19.2 percent poverty rate.

The suburban-city disparity is sharper in Columbia: The city proper has a poverty rate of 27.7 percent, compared with a 13.6 percent in its suburbs in Richland, Lexington, Kershaw and other nearby counties.

In 2000, 22 percent of Columbia's residents were impoverished, compared with 10.6 percent in its surrounding area.

Those figures mean the share of impoverished people in the capital city and its suburbs has increased by more than one-quarter in less than a decade.

While much of the political debate over the economy has focused on the loss of jobs — with South Carolina's 12.3 percent unemployment rate among the nation's highest — the report indicates millions of the working poor are suffering as well.

Columbia Mayor Bob Coble, who will end his 20-year tenure July 1, said he doesn't need to look at government statistics to understand the economic toll in his city.

"We have a significant population that is economically stressed," Coble told McClatchy Newspapers. "Many of our working poor cannot afford to live in the city, so they're moving to the suburbs."