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The Injustice of Place: Uncovering the Legacy of Poverty in America

Kathryn J. Edin, H. Luke Shaefer and Timothy J. Nelson

A sweeping and surprising new understanding of extreme poverty in America from the authors of the acclaimed $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America.

Three of the nation’s top scholars ­– known for tackling key mysteries about poverty in America – turn their attention from the country’s poorest people to its poorest places. Based on a fresh, data-driven approach, they discover that America’s most disadvantaged communities are not the big cities that get the most notice. Instead, nearly all are rural. Little if any attention has been paid to these places or to the people who make their lives there.

This revelation set in motion a five-year journey across Appalachia, the Cotton and Tobacco Belts of the Deep South, and South Texas. Immersing themselves in these communities, pouring over centuries of local history, attending parades and festivals, the authors trace the legacies of the deepest poverty in America—including inequalities shaping people’s health, livelihoods, and upward social mobility for families. Wrung dry by powerful forces and corrupt government officials, the “internal colonies” in these regions were exploited for their resources and then left to collapse.

The unfolding revelation in The Injustice of Place is not about what sets these places apart, but about what they have in common—a history of raw, intensive resource extraction and human exploitation. This history and its reverberations demand a reckoning and a commitment to wage a new War on Poverty, with the unrelenting focus on our nation’s places of deepest need.

Index of Deep Disadvantage

To understand disadvantage across the U.S., researchers developed an Index of Deep Disadvantage using the same data for both counties and cities, which allows for direct comparison. This index represents a holistic look at disadvantage, using health indicators (life expectancy, low infant birth weight), poverty metrics (rates of poverty and deep poverty), and social mobility data (Opportunity Insights Mobility Metrics).

This 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 in the nation’s most disadvantaged communities, the index not only uncovers what factors drive disparities, but it can help pinpoint where policymakers, state and local leaders, and residents can take action to improve health, well-being, and opportunity for all.


The Authors

Stories from the Field

Karen Otzen Kling profile photoSocial infrastructure and recent surges in opioid-related deaths amid the pandemic
By Karen Otzen Kling
According to the American Medical Association, more than 35 U.S. states have reported an increase in opioid-related deaths since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some addiction experts argue that social isolation resulting from the social distancing guidelines required to slow the spread of the virus may be helping to fuel the surge in opioid overdoses.


emily miller profile photoHometown heroes hold up social safety net in rural Kentucky
By Emily Miller
Barreling up a hill on dusty, dirt road, the gravel crunches and a rainbow of green flanks the narrow roads. It is a muggy Monday mid-afternoon just outside Manchester, Kentucky. I am in a van stacked with freshly cooked and packaged meals for seniors. The lead…


Disinvestment in rural Kentucky leaves ‘nothing to do’ but drugs
By Liv Mann
Clay County is tucked away among the rolling mountains of eastern Kentucky. It’s home to just over 20,000 people, but less than 1,400 live in the county seat, Manchester. The rest of the population is strewn throughout the county in towns like Oneida or tucked…


Murky homeownership status derails flood relief in South Carolina
By Jasmine Simington
Jerry Testle is tucked into the arm of his living room couch watching television when a local community leader escorts us into his home. He can barely adjust his body to greet us, and he smiles only with his lips when we introduce ourselves…


Moving the needle on syringe exchanges in Appalachian Kentucky
By Lanora Johnson
There are no sidewalks on either side of the narrow road that leads toward Angel’s house, tucked away in a shallow holler in Clay County, Kentucky. The faded asphalt gives way to Angel’s yard — large and hilly, home to a bleating goat, chickens and at least three dogs…


Flood Recovery out of Reach in Rural South Carolina
By Meg Duffy
Water seeped under the doors of old homes and trailers in Nichols as the flooding from Hurricane Matthew began. Nichols is situated just north of the confluence of the Lumber and Little Pee Dee rivers, so as 18 inches of rain pelted the Carolinas, water came flooding into Nichols, bringing….