Over the past two decades, inequality and poverty have both become more pervasive in U.S. counties. Typically, experts treat poverty and inequality as separate indicators of an area’s economic health. But by looking at the intersection of poverty and inequality in local areas—and how this has changed over time—we can produce a more complete picture of U.S. economic health. The official poverty measure is used to identify families that may not have enough money to meet basic needs, while the Gini index measures inequality between households; higher values indicate higher levels of inequality.
The results of a recent Pew Research Center survey showed that the public is relatively unconcerned about high levels of inequality in the United States. In 2013, less than half of the U.S. public (47 percent) thought that the gap between the rich and poor was “a very big problem.”1 But economic data show that the divide in the United States between the haves and the have-nots is growing. In 2014, the Gini index reached its highest level since 1967 and remained essentially unchanged in 2015. And as PRB’s analysis shows, counties are often doubly disadvantaged—experiencing high levels of inequality in combination with high poverty rates.