The Poorest States In America Are Worse Than Most People Expect

Every year, the American Community Survey ranks states by their poverty levels. The U.S. national average of poverty is 10.5% of all people. However, certain states have percentages far higher than that. Some have a startling income gap, while others are missing middle-income jobs that residents desperately need. Here are the poorest states in America–and how they ended up that way.

Louisiana Has Rampant Unemployment

A man sits in front of a demolished building in New Orleans.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Louisiana is the second poorest state in America. At least 19% of the population lives in poverty, and unemployment runs rampant there. In 2020, 13% of people did not have jobs, but this number has dropped to 7.1%.

Compared to the rest of the South, Louisiana is also quite expensive. The average family of four requires $69,700 to live comfortably, but most struggle to make $15,000. Since Louisiana is one of five states without a minimum wage, many employees only make $7.25 per hour.

New York’s Income Gap Is Crushing People

A homeless man in New York sleeps with an American flag blanket.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

New York is notorious for its high cost of living, which greatly contributes to the poverty rate there. At least 13% of the population is impoverished there, over one million people. Although this rate has decreased since 2014, it is still a real struggle for many New Yorkers.

According to City Limits, New York has a significant income gap. “The top five percent of New Yorkers received 28 percent of all incomes generated in the city, while the bottom 20 percent received a mere two percent.”

Arkansas’s Businesses Have Been Floundering

Dilapidated farm homes are surrounded with debris.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Arkansas is the fifth poorest American state, and–believe it or not–its poverty rate has improved recently. In 2019, 19.8% of Arkansas residents lived beneath the poverty line. In 2021, this decreased to 16.2%. But this is still far higher than the national average.

Agriculture accounts for most of Arkansas’s economy, and workers there are for 45% of the country’s rice. However, trade conflicts with China have undermined this business, and Arkansas residents have struggled.

Mississippi Is The Poorest State

A man rides past a dilapidated house on a dirt road in Mississippi.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

For the past few years, Mississippi has had one of the worst poverty rates in America. As of 2021, 19.6% of the state’s population is below the poverty line, which has remained about the same since 2019. Most household families only earn $45,000 annually, around $17,400 less than the national median.

Many of Mississippi’s industries keep the minimum wage at the national level ($7.25 per hour), which is far too little to live off of. Sadly, Mississippi also has the highest child poverty rate in the country.

South Carolina Families Struggle With Money

A car sits for sale in a rural and economically distressed part of South Carolina.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

According to a 2021 study from WalletHub, South Carolina is one of the worst states in America to raise a family. Part of that is due to its low affordability. Over 13.8% of the population lives in poverty, which is down from 18.9% in 2011.

South Carolina suffers from a massive income gap. In 2019, the state’s Housing Report found that 32% of households (including renters) struggled to afford all of the food, clothing, and transportation they needed.

North Carolina’s Middle-Income Jobs Are Vanishing

In North Carolina, an impoverished man plays guitar on his front porch.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Both Carolinas suffer from a high poverty rate. North Carolina is the nation’s tenth poorest state, with 13.6% of people struggling to pay for basic necessities. According to CNBC, middle-income jobs are disappearing, forcing many people to resort to low-income careers.

North Carolina’s minimum wage has been at the national level for 12 years. Because of this, 42% of households couldn’t buy all that they needed, even before COVID-19. In 2018, the poverty rate was a whopping 18%.

Nevada Needs $342 Million To Combat Homelessness

Homeless women pitch their tents in Reno, NV.
Max Whittaker/Getty Images
Max Whittaker/Getty Images

Even outside of Las Vegas, many people are losing money in Nevada. The state has a 12.5% poverty rate that has barely changed over the past several years. According to the Review-Journal, Nevada has a $342 million annual shortfall to combat homelessness.

Southern Nevada is the hardest place to survive, with over 6,500 people living on the streets. Over 184,000 kids live on food stamps, and over 76,500 households have grandparents caring for kids because parents cannot afford the cost of living.

West Virginia’s Poverty Rate Has Drastically Increased

An American flag is tangled above two impoverished homes in West Virginia.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

According to the Los Angeles Times, West Virginia has the largest population decline of any U.S. state. Its high poverty rate likely contributes to that. At least 16% of the state’s population is under the poverty line, and this percentage has only increased since 2014.

Because of this downward decline, the pandemic hit West Virginia hard. The U.S. Department of Education reported that over 10,000 students experienced homelessness in this state between 2019 and 2020.

Idaho Has The Second-Highest Income Inequality Nationwide

Activists help to clean the streets of a homeless area.
VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images
VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

With an 11.2% poverty rate (195,000 people), Idaho is slightly above the U.S. national average. The state’s income inequality is the second-highest in the nation, as the recent economic growth has not been evenly split.

Idaho’s median household income is also lower than the national average–over $4,000 lower. This is despite having one of the highest home prices of any state. Although the general cost of living is low, most residents struggle with high rent.

California’s High Costs Keep One-Third Of People Near Poverty

Veterans sleep in tents on the sidewalks of Los Angeles.
George Rose/Getty Images
George Rose/Getty Images

The Golden State does not have as much wealth as its nickname implies. At least 11.8% of residents live beneath the poverty line, which is 4% lower than 2014. The state’s poverty measure–$25,500 for a family of four–does not take housing prices into account.

According to the California Poverty Measure, one-third of Californians live near or within the poverty line. And there would be more living there if not for the state’s social safety net programs. The high cost of living is unreachable for most people.

Michigan Has Struggled With Poverty For Over Ten Years

In Detroit, people wait in line to receive food.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Michigan has desperately battled poverty in the past decade. Currently, the poverty rate is 13%, but in 2014, it was 27.6%. These numbers have plenty of explanations: a high unemployment rate, dwindling industries (namely in automobiles), and few college graduates.

Currently, the unemployment rate has hovered around 5% throughout 2021, and the child poverty rate is even worse. According to Detroit News, 20% of children under the age of five are impoverished in Michigan. That’s around 419,000 kids.

Alabama Residents Do Not Get Paid Enough

IN Selma, AL, a pile of tires sits in front of a poor autoparts shop.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Alabama’s poverty rate is at an all-time high. In 2021, 15.5% of people struggle to make ends meet, which is the highest percentage since 2000. Although the state has a low unemployment rate, employers do not pay residents enough.

For years, state officials have claimed that they will raise the minimum wage, but it still sits at $7.25 per hour. This has resulted in a massive wage gap between residents. Many poor areas only offer a few industries, so it’s nearly impossible for people to leave their low-paying careers.

Florida Has 55% Of Children Below The Poverty Line

homeless
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images

Florida’s economy must be bustling through tourism, right? Not necessarily. The Sunshine State has high housing prices that continue to rise as more Americans move there. At least 12.7% of residents live beneath the poverty line.

Florida’s children are also struggling. Nearly 55% of the state’s four million children live near poverty, and at least 20% are below the poverty line. Over 556,500 families do not make enough money, and 70% of these residents have children.

Kentucky Residents Often Need Food Support

Impoverished Kentucky residents sit in front of their home.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

With 4.5 million living in the state, Kentucky’s population is steadily growing. And yet, it remains fairly poor, especially in the eastern part. In 2021, 14% of people statewide enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which donates food to needy families.

On a positive note, this is slowly getting better. In 2011, the poverty rate was 19.4%; by 2021, it lowered to 16.3%. That said, Kentucky is still the fourth poorest state nationwide.

Oklahoma’s Economy Is Harming People

A woman walks past a poor, abandoned construction project.
David McNew/Getty Images
David McNew/Getty Images

Oklahoma’s poverty rate has been high for the past decade, but the COVID-19 pandemic skyrocketed it. Due in part to the oil market crash, 15.2% of the population lives in poverty. Sadly, 21.7% of all children in Oklahoma also live beneath the poverty line.

Although Oklahoma has a cheaper cost of living them most of the country, employees aren’t being paid enough. According to Ziprecruiter, most salaries land between $26,729 and $44,703, but families need more than $50,000 to live comfortably.

Georgia Has The Lowest Minimum Wage In America

Derelict Buildings
Diane Macdonald / Contributor
Diane Macdonald / Contributor

Georgia sits within the 15 poorest American states in 2021. With a poverty rate of 13.3% and over 10 million residents, the state is struggling with a huge impoverished population. Georgia’s minimum wage is also the lowest in the nation, only $5.15 (although most residents received $7.25 due to the Fair Labor Standards Act).

About one-fifth of children in Georgia–at least 500,000 kids–live beneath the poverty line. These families only make $26,000 per year, when most people need over $75,000 per year.

Tennessee Requires A Lot To Live Comfortably

Two women wait in a parking lot to receive medical attention in Tennessee.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Although Tennessee isn’t the poorest state in the U.S., it’s still much worse than the national average. Around 13.9% of residents live below the poverty line. In this state, one in five children lives in poverty.

Low pay and high housing costs combine to make life in Tennessee tough, especially in cities like Nashville. According to a 2018 study by GoBankingRates, the average household needs $85,000 annually to “live comfortably,” which is $31,480 above the median average.

Montana Is No Longer The “Treasure State”

A man squeezes through the doorway of his hut in Montana.
ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP via Getty Images
ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP via Getty Images

Despite having the nickname “The Treasure State,” Montana struggles with rampant poverty. At least 12.6% of residents live in poverty, and this number is lower than the past few years. According to the Red Lodge Area Community Foundation, 13% of households make less than $25,000 annually.

Compare that to the high cost of living. If one adult has two children, they need $62,191 annually to live comfortably in Montana. However, the median income is only $54,970.

Delaware Is A Rich State–With Over One Million In Poverty

A restaurant in an impoverished area receives repairs.
Colin Archer/Getty Images
Colin Archer/Getty Images

In Delaware, 11.3% of people live in poverty (over one million people). Despite being the ninth-richest state in the U.S., the poverty rate has also increased, according to the Manhattan Institute. Much of that stems from the high cost of living.

In major cities, citizens need $136,000 to live comfortably, or $41,771 in smaller towns. Sadly, the median household income is $70,176, and impoverished families make less than that. People in low-paying careers have a hard time advancing their net worth.

Missouri Is Improving, But Still Bad

truck
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Although Missouri’s poverty rate has been declining, many residents still struggle. Around 12.9% of people cannot afford basic necessities, which is over 791,000 residents. Missouri has over six million residents and low pay.

The good news is that this is rapidly improving. In 2018, the minimum wage there was $7.85 per hour; by 2021, it rose to $10.30 per hour. Health insurance and housing prices remain high, but hopefully, higher pay will alleviate some peoples’ lives.

Indiana’s Residents Are Leaving For Better Jobs

Indiana residents carry tents onto a field to sleep overnight.
Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

If you were to divide the country into “poor states” and “wealthier states,” Indiana would be in the poor half. The poverty rate is 11.9%, which is forcing many residents to leave the state. According to Moneywise, over 57% of the people who leave Indiana do so for better job opportunities.

Although Indiana’s unemployment rate is lower than the national average, jobs aren’t providing enough. Minimum wage is only $7.25 an hour, and most families only make $56,303–not enough to live comfortably.

New Mexico’s Child Poverty Is Out Of Control

A homeless man walks with his belongings in New Mexico.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

New Mexico has one of the worst poverty rates in America, especially for children. In 2019, one in four children there lived in poverty. Compare that to the American national average, which is 17%.

As of 2021, 18.2% of people in New Mexico live in poverty. One reason is the state’s high medical expenses, which affects children as well as adults. According to New Mexico Voices for Children, the state spends billions each year to combat child poverty, to little avail.

Ohio’s Cost Of Living Has Only Increased

A homeless man walks through neighborhoods in Ohio.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Ohio has a large population of over 11.7 million residents, but it also has a high poverty rate. Over 13.1% of people don’t make enough money, which has hardly changed since 2014. The minimum wage is only $8.70, and impoverished families of four often make $25,926 annually.

So how much do you need to happily live in Ohio? In cities like Cleveland, the living wage is as high as $105,525. The cost of living has gradually increased since 2020, according to the Consumer Price Index.

Arizona’s Population–And Poverty–Have Increased

Poor houses sit near the cliff of AZ.
David McNew/Getty Images
David McNew/Getty Images

Over seven million people live in Arizona, and this population has increased by 13.9% in the last decade. Unfortunately, the poverty rate has also increased, up to 13.5% in 2021. In 2011, the state’s poverty rate was a whopping 19%.

So what is happening in Arizona? Part of the issue is that fewer and fewer citizens are getting college degrees, which leave them with low-paying careers. Over 19.1% of children live in poverty in Arizona, according to Arizona PBS.

Pennsylvanians Spend More Than Half Their Income On Rent

In Pennsylvania, a homeless man sits on the curb covered in a blanket to keep warm.
William Thomas Cain/Getty Images
William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

In 2021, UHaul noted that more people are moving into Pennsylvania than out. However, this hasn’t stopped the poverty problem. Over 1.5 million people live in poverty in the state, around 12%. And this has hardly changed since 2016.

One issue is the high housing prices. In 2017, 52% of Pennsylvanians were spending more than half their income on rent, according to the Community Action Association of Pennsylvania. Combine that with many people only earning $20,000 annually and it’s a bad situation.

Kansas Sees Poverty, Despite Having A Low Cost Of Living

A dilapidated school bus sits in front of impoverished buildings in Kansas.
Chandler Cruttenden/Unsplash
Chandler Cruttenden/Unsplash

According to the World Population Review, Kansas has one of the lowest costs of living in the U.S. However, it still has a poverty issue–around 11.4% as of 2021. Over 15% of kids hail from impoverished families, and the minimum wage remains at $7.25.

On top of that, research by RewardExpert determined that Kansas is one of the worst places to live if you’re poor. Impoverished families get little federal support there, and state law does not even promise medical leave.

Illinois Is Worse Than You Might Think

A man takes food from a food pantry in Illinois.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

According to a report from the company 24/7 Wall Street, Illinois is one of the top 15 states whose poverty level is “worse than you might think.” At least 11.5% of residents live in poverty, or 1.47 million people. 15.5% of children also live in poverty.

Illinois has a high rate of disconnected youth, or people between the ages of 18 and 24 without high school degrees. Combine that with low-paying jobs, and many people get stuck in poverty.

Texas Has Almost Four Million People In Poverty

A cowboy waves an American flag while speeding around on his horse during a rodeo.
Melissa Newkirk/Unsplash
Melissa Newkirk/Unsplash

Texas has a large and growing population, as more and more people are moving there. However, it also has a growing poverty issue. Over 13.6% of people live under the poverty line there, which equates to over 3,944,000 people.

In 2018, the Texas Tribune claimed that Texas had its lowest poverty levels in over a decade–14.7%! The state has always had an issue with poverty, mainly due to its low minimum wage and the massive income inequality there.

Oregon’s Poverty Has Become A Lot More Common

In Portland, OR, a homeless man walks across the street.
Ohm Kittipong/Unsplash
Ohm Kittipong/Unsplash

Although more and more people are moving to Oregon, the state still struggles with poverty. At least 11.4% of the population lives beneath the poverty line, and this has risen drastically since 2014. That’s four in ten Oregonians that are impoverished.

To live comfortably in Portland, you need $60,000 per year, according to Oregon Live. But due to low-paying jobs, many people only make $13,000 annually, which is still too little to make ends meet in smaller towns.

Iowa’s Suffering Agriculture Has Endangered Residents

An impoverished building in a field is painted with the American flag.
Michael Heuser/Unsplash
Michael Heuser/Unsplash

One out of eight Iowan residents lives in poverty, or 12% of the population. The state’s largest industry, farming, has been hit hard over the years. In 2020, many agriculture businesses went bankrupt, and many are still recovering.

The minimum wage there is only $7.25, and over 10% of Iowans struggle to make enough money for food. And despite the low unemployment rate, this number has hardly budged. Neither has the child poverty rate; 105,000 children are impoverished in Iowa.