County Child Poverty Rates in the U.S.: A Spatial Regression Approach

Voss, Paul, David D. Long, Roger B. Hammer, and Samantha Friedman
Working paper no. 2004-05


We apply methods of exploratory spatial data analysis (ESDA) and spatial regression analysis to examine inter-county variation in child poverty rates in the U.S. Such spatial analyses are important because regression models that exclude explicit specification of spatial effects, when they exist, can lead to inaccurate inferences about predictor variables. Using county-level data for 1990, we re-examine earlier published results (Friedman & Lichter 1998). We find that formal tests for spatial autocorrelation among county child poverty rates confirm and quantify what is obvious from simple maps of such rates: the risk of a child living in poverty is not (spatially) a randomly distributed risk at the county level. Explicit acknowledgement of spatial effects in an explanatory regression model improves considerably the earlier published regression results which did not take account of spatial autocorrelation. These improvements include (1) the shifting of “wrong sign” parameters in the direction originally hypothesized by the authors, (2) a reduction of residual squared error, and (3) the elimination of any substantive residual spatial autocorrelation. While not without its own problems and some remaining ambiguities, this reanalysis is a convincing demonstration of the need for demographers and other social scientists to examine spatial autocorrelation in their data and to explicitly correct for spatial externalities, if indicated, when performing multiple regression analyses on variables that are spatially referenced. Substantively, the analysis improves the estimates of the joint effects of place-influences and family-influences on child poverty.