How A Poor Neighborhood Becomes A Trap

CREDIT: AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Vacant storefronts in Detroit

The daily experience of poverty has gotten worse for many people in America over the last decade. That’s because the poor are getting hemmed into areas of more and more concentrated poverty while people of better means flee elsewhere.

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of high-poverty neighborhoods, with a poverty rate of 40 percent or more, actually declined by more than a quarter, according to a recent report from Paul Jargowsky at The Century Foundation. But since then, they’ve started rising again. The number of high-poverty census tracts jumped by a third before the economic recession even began, from 2005 to 2009, and then increased by another 1,100 neighborhoods between 2009 and 2013. Overall, they’ve increased 76 percent since 2000.

That means more people are in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty. The populations of high-poverty neighborhoods grew by 91 percent, increasing to 13.8 million people, the highest number of residents ever recorded. And today, just under 15 percent of the poor live in these neighborhoods, up from about 10 percent in 2000.

Meanwhile, the better off are living in very different neighborhoods. “The poor are increasingly living apart from the rich,” said Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University. “Economic segregation has been rising pretty steadily since about 1970.”

The most extreme example of concentrated poverty is Detroit. In that city, the number of high-poverty neighborhoods more than tripled between 2000 and 2013, growing from 51 to 184. They have also spread out from the city center into nearby inner suburbs.

Poverty can become concentrated in a given neighborhood in two different ways: one where people of better means move to better areas, and one where more low-income people move in. Detroit has experienced the former, as have cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia, according to Rolf Pendall of the Urban Institute. “In Detroit, the key dynamic has been largely that the poverty rate generally is going up,” he said, while at the same time, “people who have the choices and the resources are moving out of the neighborhoods where poverty is increasing fastest.”

That creates a quick downward spiral. “Stores are going to have to close, public service cutbacks will happen,” Pendall said. “Community organizations fray…the resources decline.” Houses are left vacant, which can lead to rodent infestations and even arson. Snow doesn’t get cleared as quickly and trash pickup isn’t reliable. Even the roads start to deteriorate. That prompts more people who can move to decide to do so, leaving behind the poorest and most vulnerable.

This is the experience generally of living in a high-poverty neighborhood. “All of the challenges that come with living in poverty become amplified,” Sharkey said. And it’s not because the people in those neighborhoods have some sort of ingrained character flaws; it’s because of that downward spiral. Businesses pull up investments and are reluctant to make new ones. Important community institutions, such as churches and after school programs, get eroded. Schools deteriorate. Violence can emerge.

This all has consequences for the residents, ones they wouldn’t necessarily face in a more affluent area even with the same incomes. Academic performance, job opportunities, and health outcomes are all lower in these areas even when controlling for families’ individual poverty. “All of that combines to create a really different world,” said Jargowsky, the author of the study.

That different world, combined with entrenched racism, can lead to the kinds of uprisings the country has seen in places like Ferguson and Baltimore. Concentrated poverty is highest for black people: one-forth of poor black Americans live in these neighborhoods. They are three times as likely as poor white Americans to live somewhere with a poverty rate of 40 percent or more. These areas have seen a “toxic mix of racism and concentrated poverty,” as Pendall put it, as well as aggressive policing and imprisonment.

All of this is largely the result of policy choices. Suburbs have grown quickly, funded by government investment, while investments in metropolitan areas didn’t keep up. Zoning laws and housing discrimination have kept the poor out of these areas and crowded in the cities. Affordable housing is typically only built in poor areas.

The solutions also require government action. The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently released new rules requiring cities and towns to set goals for reducing racial housing segregation and track them, while also requiring communities to analyze housing patterns for bias and publicly report the results. That’s a first step, but in his report Jargowsky argues things need to go further. He calls for federal and state governments to curb suburban development so that it doesn’t surpass metropolitan population growth, as well as requiring every city and town to ensure that new housing gets built in proportion with the income makeup of the metropolitan area as a whole.

Those proposals are all incredibly tough politically, however. Local governments enjoy a lot autonomy when it comes to housing. The people who live in suburbs, who enjoy the way things stand, have a lot of political clout.

But Jargowsky says we know what is required if we want to reverse the trend in concentrated poverty. “We shouldn’t pretend we don’t know what the problem is. We know what the problem is,” he said. “We’re building an architecture of segregation.”