New index ranks America’s 100 most disadvantaged communities

January 30, 2020

Contact: Lauren Slagter, lslag@umich.edu

A new Index of Deep Disadvantage developed by researchers at the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative and Princeton University’s Center for Research on Child Wellbeing seeks to unpack poverty beyond income-based measures to other dimensions of disadvantage, including health and social mobility. 

The index reveals stark disparities across the U.S. that can help direct resources and action to where they’re needed most.

This holistic measure of disadvantage is complemented by local perspectives that provide a deeper understanding of America’s most vulnerable communities. By painting a vivid portrait of the conditions and social and physical environment in the nation’s most disadvantaged communities, the index not only uncovers what factors drive disparities, but can help pinpoint where policymakers, state and local leaders, and residents can take action to improve health, well-being, and opportunity for all.  

The multidimensional Index of Deep Disadvantage uses data on three interconnected types of disadvantage — income, including rates of poverty and deep poverty; health, including life expectancy and low birth weight; and social mobility, using intra-generational mobility estimates — to shift attention from the individual to the ways in which disadvantage affects entire communities. The index offers a unique side-by-side comparison of cities and counties, which typically are ranked separately on poverty-related measures.

Analysis of the top 100 most disadvantaged communities reveals the following key trends:

  • Rural counties are much more likely to be disadvantaged. Of the top 100 most disadvantaged communities, 80 are rural — including 19 rural counties in Mississippi — and only nine are cities. This finding is significant because rural areas are more likely to lack infrastructure and investment to alleviate poverty.
  • Disadvantage is clustered, and largely driven by historical context. Regions with high levels of disadvantage include: the Mississippi Delta, the Cotton Belt, Appalachia, Tribal Nation Lands, areas near the Texas -Mexico border and the Rust Belt cities of Cleveland; Detroit; Flint, Michigan; and Gary, Indiana. One theme across these areas of deep disadvantage is a long history of racial and environmental exploitation; historical context is important to acknowledge and understand when shaping strategies to alleviate poverty in these communities.
  • Disparities in health and economic outcomes are stark. In terms of health, people living in the most disadvantaged areas are more likely to die a full 10 years before their counterparts in the most advantaged areas (72 versus 82 years in average life expectancy). The average poverty rate of the 100 most disadvantaged communities (34.8%) is more than four times higher than the poverty rate among the 100 most advantaged communities (7.3%). 

“Our policies suffer when social science research misses so many of the places with the greatest need,” said Kathryn Edin, co-director of the Center for Research on Child Wellbeing at Princeton and a lead researcher on the project along with H. Luke Shaefer, of U-M, and Tim Nelson, of Princeton. 

“The Index of Deep Disadvantage directs our attention to rural areas and places with a history of exploitation,” Edin added.

In addition to identifying the most disadvantaged communities, this ongoing research funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation includes stories and insights from some of the most disadvantaged communities. Starting in the summer of 2019, researchers embedded in the communities for months and interviewed low-income residents and leaders to understand existing challenges and what solutions would make a difference.

The combination of data and on-the-ground observations builds on the approach used by Edin and Shaefer to inform their award-winning book, “$2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America.”

“Without that understanding of the community context, we can miss critical factors that drive health and other disparities,” said Shaefer, director of Poverty Solutions at U-M. “We were surprised by many of the insights gained from the months our team spent living in these communities.”

In small towns hit by repeated hurricane-related flooding in South Carolina, researchers found that many people could not access available disaster relief funds because they live in “family homes” that have been informally passed down over generations, without clear documentation of homeownership.

And when it came to community solutions, researchers based in parts of Appalachian Kentucky saw how volunteer-run organizations often help government agencies fill holes in the social safety net. 

This research offers policymakers a more comprehensive view of what daily life is like in disadvantaged communities across the U.S. and the most effective ways to respond to their challenges.

These are the top 10 most disadvantaged communities in the U.S. To appear on this list, cities and counties must appear in the top 100 for at least two indicators to ensure one indicator is not driving the ranking.

  1. Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota 
  2. Todd County, South Dakota 
  3. Claiborne County, Mississippi 
  4. Issaquena County, Mississippi  
  5. Holmes County, Mississippi  
  6. Buffalo County, South Dakota 
  7. Leflore County, Mississippi 
  8. East Carroll Parish, Louisiana 
  9. Coahoma County, Mississippi 
  10. Corson County, South Dakota 

The 10 most disadvantaged communities — which are home to more than 120,000 people — are all rural. The four counties in South Dakota are home to Sovereign Tribal Nations, and three of the Mississippi counties are along the Mississippi River.

See a complete list of the 100 most disadvantaged communities.

Data dashboard

Project overview

Correction: The original version of this release misstated the number of most disadvantaged counties in Mississippi that border the Mississippi River.