By Chris Zeilinger

On Poverty, Persistence and Public Transit

Jan. 16, 2020

What is “persistent poverty?” The most common federal definition is that an area is experiencing persistent poverty if at least 20 percent of its population is living in poverty for each of at least three consecutive decennial censuses.

Yes, let’s talk about persistent poverty and transit.

After all, President Johnson announced the “War on Poverty” in January 1964, and he signed the first Urban Mass Transportation Act into law in July 1964. So, both our national concern about poverty and our nation’s investment in public transit marked their 55th anniversary last year. More to the point, though, is a line item in the most recent Federal Transit Administration (FTA) appropriation:

$8.5 million in Section 5339 bus and bus facility grants are designated for competitive grants to areas of persistent poverty.

This raises a pressing question: what is “persistent poverty?” The most common federal definition is that an area is experiencing persistent poverty if at least 20 percent of its population is living in poverty for each of at least three consecutive decennial censuses.

Sometimes, a federal statute or program will define persistent poverty areas with a little more specificity. For example, this FTA appropriation is for counties (or census tracts) in which at least 20 percent of the population lived in poverty in the 1990 and 2000 decennial census and also had a poverty rate of at least 20 percent as measured by the Census Bureau’s most recent “Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates” (SAIPE) data.

There are 411 counties that qualify for these FTA persistent poverty grants, based on the definition used in FTA’s FY 2020 appropriation. To see a list of these counties, including a helpful map, and a lot of “in the weeds” detail about how federal programs define persistent poverty, there’s an interesting 2019 report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) that you can read at If you look at that report, note that it examines several alternative persistent poverty determination schemes, so read it closely before jumping to any conclusions.

Based on the data compiled by CRS, the 411 persistent poverty counties (and county-equivalents) that would qualify for these particular FTA transit grants are located in 34 states, and include a variety of urban and rural areas. To look at a map, one sees that persistent poverty areas dominate the landscape across much of the rural southern US, significant portions of Appalachia, the Missouri Ozarks, Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, part of California’s Central Valley, and a lot of areas with significant Native American populations. The population numbers, though, skew toward some metropolitan areas having counties (and equivalents) with persistent poverty, such as Baltimore, Bronx, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Richmond, and St Louis, as well as more mid-size metro areas, such as El Paso and Fresno, whose counties also are persistent-poverty.

But here’s where the notion of persistent poverty gets interesting: among the counties and county-equivalents with persistent poverty, we see the counties and independent cities of Charlottesville, Va., Harrisonburg, Va., Montgomery County, Va., (in which Blacksburg is located), Athens, Ohio, Athens-Clarke County, GA., and a few other areas with a similar characteristic: high numbers of households consisting solely of college and university students.

Is that surprising? Not really. After all, the federal government uses one simple metric to determine poverty status: household income, relative to household size. While poverty calculations typically exclude persons living in institutional settings, such as college dormitories, medical facilities, nursing homes, military housing or prisons, the fact is that a bunch of college students sharing an apartment or group house are considered a “household,” and if none of them have jobs, or have only low-paying part-time jobs, one quickly realizes that this is what counts as a “poverty household,” even if it challenges some of our stereotypical notions of who lives in poverty and their circumstances.

In any case, there’s nothing wrong with looking at the intersection of transit service and poverty status. Persons living in households with below-poverty income don’t have a lot of money, by definition. Where available, public transit is a much more affordable form of mobility than the private automobile. Given that the average cost of automobile operation is around $8,500 per year (not even accounting for the vehicle’s purchase price!), and the federal poverty line for a two-person household is annual income of $16,910, you can see that there’s almost no pathway out of poverty without available, affordable, appropriate public transportation.

There is a challenge, though, in that the mobility needs and expectations of transit-reliant populations can be hard to address in an effective way, and that most high-poverty areas also have a tax base that struggles to generate enough revenues for meeting local demands on the public sector, and often cannot even generate funds for sufficient support of projects for which all the community needs to contribute is a small local share of federally funded activities.

Let’s bring this discussion back to that small $8.5 million program of upcoming FTA Section 5339 grants to areas of persistent poverty. The appropriation’s statutory language says these grants are to be made on a competitive basis. They can be used for planning, engineering, or the development of technical or financing plans for transit projects (in other words, even though these are, strictly speaking, transit capital grants, they’re not to be used for vehicle acquisition or construction). Eligible recipients are state departments of transportation and grantees or subrecipients of Section 5307, 5310 or 5311 funding. Grants under this program can be used to cover 90 percent of project costs. But, because this is Section 5339 funding, the non-federal share must be either cash, social service contract revenue, or a “value capture” funding mechanism.

This interface between transit and poverty is interesting and important, on many levels. In light of this particular stream of FTA funding, here’s your homework assignment: If you’re in one of those 411 counties or county-equivalents, or if you’re not in one of those areas, but have census tracts that would satisfy this definition of persistent poverty, start thinking about how a few more FTA dollars for planning or engineering can help make a difference.

And for all of us in the public transportation family, it’s time to take a fresh, 21st-century look at how transit can be a positive force in the lives and communities of persons living in poverty.

Do you like statutory language? Here’s the actual language from part of the FY 2020 appropriation of general funds to supplement FTA’s Section 5339 program:

$8,500,000 shall be available for competitive grants to eligible entities to assist areas of persistent poverty: Provided, That areas of persistent poverty means any county that has consistently had 20 percent or more of the population living in poverty over the 30 years preceding the date of enactment of this Act, as measured by the 1990 and 2000 decennial census and the most recent Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates, or any census tract with a poverty rate of at least 20 percent as measured by the 2013-2017 5-year data series available from the American Community Survey of the Census Bureau: Provided further, That grants shall be for planning, engineering, or development of technical, or financing plans for projects eligible under chapter 53 of title 49, United States Code: Provided further, That eligible entities are those defined as eligible recipients or subrecipients under sections 5307, 5310 or 5311 of title 49, United States Code, and are in areas of persistent poverty: Provided further, That the Federal Transit Administration should complete outreach to such counties and the departments of transportation within applicable States via personal contact, webinars, web materials and other appropriate methods determined by the Administrator: Provided further, That State departments of transportation may apply on behalf of eligible entities within their States: Provided further, That the Federal Transit Administration should encourage grantees to work with non-profits or other entities of their choosing in order to develop planning, technical, engineering, or financing plans: Provided further, That the Federal Transit Administration should encourage grantees to partner with non-profits that can assist with making projects low or no emissions: Provided further, That projects funded under [this paragraph] shall be for not less than 90 percent of the net total project cost.

The Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) and its members believe that mobility is a basic human right. From work and education to life-sustaining health care and human services programs to shopping and visiting with family and friends, mobility directly impacts quality of life.