At the beginning of 2015, the five poorest states in the United States were Mississippi, New Mexico, Louisiana, Georgia and Kentucky. Factors causing these states to top the list include high poverty rates, high levels of homelessness, high unemployment rates, low minimum wages and inadequate social services. Many poor states have additional confounding issues that keep them mired in poverty, including high rates of teen births and drug addiction.
Mississippi has the highest poverty rate in the U.S. Nearly a quarter of the state's residents at 24.1%, or a total of 695,915 Mississippians, live below the poverty line. The child poverty rate, at 33.7%, is even worse. With more than one-third of the state's children growing up in poverty, combined with the inescapable truth that cyclical poverty, passed from generation to generation, is difficult to break, it remains a safe bet that Mississippi stays among America's poorest states.
Making matters worse for the thousands of Mississippi's poor is even those willing and able to find work are not guaranteed the ability to support a family. Mississippi workers are the most underpaid in the country and, with Mississippi having no state minimum wage, many earn only the paltry federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
2: New Mexico
Only Mississippi has worse poverty and child poverty rates than New Mexico. It is called the Land of Enchantment, but for the 22% of adults and 31% of children who live below the poverty line, New Mexico is a land of unbridled despair. The state's homeless problem is legendary, as are its number of residents who struggle with drug addiction. New Mexico's meth epidemic was the inspiration for one of the most popular television programs of the 21st century, Breaking Bad.
The Great Recession of 2007-2009 hit New Mexico hard. Almost 4,000 public sector workers lost their jobs. Even six years into the recovery, the state's unemployment rate remains a full percentage point higher than the national rate.
New Mexico's minimum wage, at $7.50, is higher than the federal rate of $7.25. But the 25-cent-per-hour difference is trivial, amounting to $500 per year. A full-time minimum wage worker in New Mexico earns an annual income of $15,600, which is insufficient to support a single person, much less a family.
Much of the Deep South is mired in poverty, Louisiana being no exception with a poverty rate of 19.8%. Women fare especially badly in Louisiana, earning only 66% what their male counterparts make. The state's income inequality is among the worst in the U.S. The top 20% outearns the bottom 20% by a factor of 18.
As of 2015, the unemployment rate in Louisiana, at 6.6%, is 20% higher than the national rate. The state also has no minimum wage other than the federal rate, ensuring its lowest-paid workers have difficulty making ends meet.
While opportunity abounds in Atlanta, particularly for workers with education and experience, the remainder of the state is filled with broad pockets of poverty and little economic opportunity. At 19%, the poverty rate in Georgia ranks among the highest in the nation. The job outlook for Georgia's youth and young adults is bleak. As of 2015, over 20% of 18- to 21-year-olds are neither in school nor working.
Even those Georgians who have jobs struggle. Over 20% of workers get paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Their unemployed peers fare much worse, as Georgia's social safety net is threadbare. Only 4,000 residents receive welfare.
Kentucky's unemployment rate has fallen sharply and, as of April 2015, stands at 5%, lower than the national rate. Unfortunately, broad swaths of the state, particularly its eastern portion, have not benefited from this drop. Several counties in eastern Kentucky have had double-digit unemployment for much of the 21st century.
The state's poverty rate is 18.8%. Good news exists, however, for some of these poor residents, particularly state employees working for minimum wage. In June 2015, Kentucky Governor Steven Beshear signed an executive order mandating a minimum hourly rate of $10.10 for all state workers. For workers in the private sector, Kentucky's minimum wage is stuck at $7.25 per hour.