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"Concentration of Poverty Declines in the 1990s,"

by Paul Jargowsky July/August 2003 issue of Poverty & Race

The strong economy of the 1990s had many beneficial effects, including falling unemployment, rising wages, and declining poverty rates. Further analysis of the 2000 Census data reveals another important trend, driven at least in part by the economy. The geographic concentration of poverty, which had been increasing for decades, was sharply reduced during the 1990s. In other words, poor people were far less likely to live in isolated high-poverty ghettos and barrios.

Poverty, especially as experienced by African-Americans, means more than just struggling with a low family income. For many of the poor, the experience of poverty also means living in a blighted, segregated, inner-city neighborhood. The conditions in such neighborhoods exacerbate the problems of poverty in a multitude of ways, and ultimately make it more difficult to break the cycle of poverty.

Concentration of poor people leads to a concentration of the social ills that cause or are caused by poverty. Poor children in these neighborhoods not only lack basic necessities in their own homes, but they also must contend with a hostile environment that holds many temptations and few positive role models. Equally important, school districts and attendance zones are generally organized geographically, so that the residential concentration of poor families frequently results in low-performing schools. The concentration of poverty in central cities also may exacerbate the flight of middle-income and higher-income families to the suburbs, driving a wedge between social needs of poor communities and the fiscal base needed to address them.

For all these reasons, researchers and policymakers were concerned when poverty became more concentrated between 1970 and 1990. Over that period, there was a near doubling in the number of persons living in high-poverty census tracts – small geographic areas that approximate neighborhoods – in which at least 40% of the residents had poverty-level incomes. Of the 10 million persons living in high-poverty neighborhoods in 1990, about half were African-American, and about one-fourth were Hispanic.

The 2000 Census, however, revealed a very different trend. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of people living in high-poverty neighborhoods declined by 2.5 million (24%). The decline was even steeper for African-Americans. In 1990, 4.9 million blacks lived in high-poverty census tracts; by 2000, the figure declined 36% to 3.1 million. Poverty per se – based on family income alone – also declined for blacks, but not nearly as rapidly. As a result, the probability that a black poor person lived in a high-poverty zone dropped from 30.4% to 18.6%. This rapid decline signals a fundamental change in the spatial organization of poverty.

A number of different factors may have played a role in this historic change. The strong economy was clearly a factor. The 2000 Census was taken in April of that year, which in some ways was the peak of the boom. The economy has slumped badly since then, so that much of the improvement documented by the 2000 Census may have already been lost. The economy was not the only factor at work, however. There have also been large shifts in the public policy environment. First, we no longer build large-scale high-rise public housing projects, which are the surest way to geographically concentrate poverty. In fact, such projects are increasingly being torn down. In their place, we have substituted scattered site housing, Section 8 vouchers, and HOPE IV programs. While these programs have their problems, each has as an explicit goal the deconcentration of poverty. Although more research needs to be conducted in order to understand how much of the change was driven by the economy and how much by the change in public policies, it seems likely that both played a role.

The deconcentration of poverty is an unambiguously positive development. However, one cause for concern is that in many of the nation’s large metropolitan areas, there were increases in the poverty rates of neighborhoods located in the inner ring of suburbs, which is quite astonishing given that the economy in the late 1990s was as strong as it is ever going to be.

It would be very unfortunate if gentrification in the central cities and the continued outmigration of non-poor people to the outer ring of suburbs lead to the recreation of high–poverty zones in the inner ring of suburbs.

In the final analysis, these findings demonstrate that urban blight and the decay of central cities’ neighborhoods are not inevitable, as many had believed. In the context of a strong economy with low unemployment, and with sensible public policies, central city neighborhoods can indeed be revived. More importantly, the possibility exists for low-income people to improve their geographic access to educational and labor market opportunities, a necessary condition to make the American ideal of equality of opportunity a reality.

Paul Jargowsky is Associate Professor of Political Economy at the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD). He also directs the Bruton Center at UTD, a research center specializing in spatial aspects of social science research. His principal research interests are inequality, the geographic concentration of poverty, and residential segregation by race and class. jargo@utdallas.edu
 

Notes:

For more information on this study, see Paul A. Jargowsky, “Stunning Progress, Hidden Problems: The Dramatic Decline of Concentrated Poverty in the 1990s,” a report issued by the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy (http://www.brookings.edu/urban). Readers interested in viewing the changing organization of poverty in their cities and neighborhoods should consult the interactive mapping web site hosted by the Bruton Center: http://www.urbanpoverty.net.

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