Poverty in Your Community: Developing a Community Profile

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What does poverty look like in your community? In your VISTA role, it’s essential to understand the makeup of your community, as well as the challenges people living in poverty face.

In this presentation, we’ll direct you to resources that will help you gain important insights into the community you'll be serving. Along the way, Stephen Pimpare, a national expert in poverty, will share his thoughts and reflections.

How will your Community Profile help you as a VISTA?

stephen pimpareDr. Stephen Pimpare teaches courses on social policy mostly to graduate social work students at Columbia University, NYU and the City University of New York. He also writes books and articles about poverty and inequality in the U.S. Before getting his Ph.D., Stephen worked for over a decade in small community-based soup kitchens and food pantries.

Learning about community members in need and their circumstances can inform the services your organization provides and the types of partnerships you pursue. You might discover factors such as a high rate of single-mother households living in poverty within your community, or a large disparity between income level and local housing costs.

  • Learn about the people in your area
  • Impact the design and delivery of your services
  • Shape your partnering decisions
  • Help with resource development
  • Enlist supporters

How would those findings impact your services?
Listen to Stephen Pimpare talk about how a clear picture of local needs can support resource development and attract people to your work.

Audio Transcript: You should know what the poverty is not just in your region, not just in your state, but in the very particular community that you're working in and that you're serving. You should know that simply because that's useful, important information to have at your disposal. But it also might come in handy if you are charged with, say, helping put together grant applications, providing very particular kinds of data in order to justify the need for particular new funding for your agency, or communicating with the community or others about the work that your agency is doing. If you can talk, with specifics, about the kind of need that is present in your area, you may have a much better chance of enlisting people, whether it's donating time or energy or money, to the organizations that you're working with.

Your community in context

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Who lives in poverty in the United States?

National poverty data can help you see your community in context. This data sample from the U.S. Census Bureau provides an overview of poverty in the United States. You might also want to seek out state-level data for comparison.

According to the 2016 Census:

  • 15% of all people
  • 21% of children
  • 26% of African-Americans
  • 23% of Hispanics
  • 30% of female-headed households

Listen as Stephen Pimpare talks about national poverty data.

Audio Transcript: Poverty in the United States is common. Over this three-year period, almost half of all Americans were poor at least once. Long-term poverty in the United States is relatively uncommon. The line between poor, working poor, working class, and middle class in the United States is thin. It's permeable. Over time, people move in and out of poverty - sometimes poor one month, not poor for the next six months, poor again for three months, not poor again, et cetera - which is, I think, hugely important and something that we very often miss when we think about poverty because we're focusing so much of our attention on those snapshot numbers.

Your Community Profile


Now it’s time to learn more about the community you’ll be serving. We’ve created a special website that lets you search for your community either by ZIP Code or county and view demographic and poverty data from the Census Bureau. Explore the data to learn about poverty, education, race, employment, and income levels in your community. You can also download or print a report that includes the data, and share a link to your Community Profile with others by email or a social media post.

You may not be able to map the exact boundaries of your community, so choose the geography that most closely matches your community.

Visit the Social Explorer website to create your Community Profile report.

Dive deeper

For more insights into your community, explore the following websites:

  • Paycheck to Paycheck — Explores the ability of working households to afford typical housing in metropolitan areas across the country. Compare the costs of home ownership and rental to the median incomes for different occupations.
  • The Economic Policy Institute's Family Budget Calculator This site will help you understand the costs of basic budget items in your community and the approximate wages that families of different sizes need to make ends meet. .
  • American FactFinder The US Census Bureau’s website for accessing and exploring the full range of Ccensus data. .
  • Census Scope — Features a wide array of datasets, searchable by county, that can give you unique insights into your community including segregation indices, migration, household and family structure, and occupation. They may have tailored data and reports on your state and county.
  • USDA — Features county-level data that are searchable by poverty, population, unemployment and median household income, and education.
  • USDA Rural Poverty — Features resources on rural poverty and well-being.

Using your Community Profile

Understanding the community you’ll be serving is key to your capacity-building work as a VISTA. Share and discuss your Community Profile report with your VISTA Supervisor at your next check in. Ask him or her if the statistics reflect his/her personal experience with the demographics and poverty of the community. Brainstorm together ways you can use this data in your work as a VISTA. For example, you can use the data to design effective programs that meet the needs of your community, communicate those needs to prospective funders, and develop partnerships that reflect and support your community.

In closing, Stephen Pimpare provides a good reminder of the role numbers play in assembling the big picture.

Audio Transcript: …averages can obscure. Think of it in human terms. No one you meet is an average. No one in your community is an average. No one your agency serves is an average. Each of them will have their own particular kinds of experiences.

So, you should be able to describe the poverty rates in your area and how that varies from neighborhood to neighborhood, from race to race, from gender to gender, from age to age. But don't make assumptions that everybody in need of assistance is going to neatly fit into what you identify to be their prescribed category.