What happens within the black community when the gap widens between the poor and the affluent? That's one question raised by new census data showing well-off African-Americans leaving cities for the suburbs and the South while the ranks of the black poor grow larger.

Over the past decade, the share of black households ranking among the poorest of the poor — those earning less than $15,000 — climbed from 20 percent to 26 percent, according to census figures released Dec. 8. Other racial and ethnic groups posted smaller increases. During the same period, the percentage of African Americans making $200,000 or more a year was unchanged at 1.1 percent, even after the Great Recession.

Meanwhile, in a reversal of the Great Migration that once pushed blacks to flee Southern racism for economic opportunity in northern cities, many affluent blacks are returning to the South. Incomes and black populations have grown in the last decade in cities such as Atlanta, Dallas and Miami.

Despite some gains for middle-class blacks, African Americans on average last year still had rising poverty and worsening economic situations, compared with whites. The mostly suburban counties where blacks had growing and higher-than-average income make up about 19 percent of the black population. That's compared with 45 percent of blacks who lived in urban counties and small towns where black incomes fell relative to those of whites.

Blacks were more likely than other groups to live in neighborhoods with poverty rates of 40 percent or more. Roughly one in nine of them did.

A gap remains between black families who live in different neighborhoods, attend different schools and live different lives.

Roderick Harrison, a Howard University sociologist and former chief of racial statistics at the Census Bureau, said that the recent census data showing the success of some blacks could give ammunition to people who claim that black poverty is more a result of character flaws than societal structures that have been shaped by discrimination.

He said that among some segments of the population discussion of racial disparities “quite often is characterized as playing the race card, when you should be working harder or staying in school longer or making better life choices.”

William H. Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer who did a broad analysis of the race and income data, said the changes could pose challenges to courting the traditional black vote.

President Barack Obama is pushing a re-election theme of middle-class renewal, painting Republican reluctance to raise taxes as protecting the wealthy at the expense of average families.

“The Democratic Party will surely gain consistent support from these new black suburbanites but the active support for traditional black issues like civil rights may take a back seat,” Frey said, citing issues such as schools, housing and public safety that may eclipse civil rights.

African Americans have overwhelmingly supported liberal policies since Democratic President Lyndon Johnson pushed through civil rights legislation of the 1960s.