Urban Poverty Research Paper

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Opinions differ regarding what causes poverty in America and why it seems to be concentrated in certain areas. Regardless of these differences, there is a relatively new focus on urban poverty and an agreement that the number of persons in poverty is growing as is the concentration of poverty in urban neighborhoods.

1. Poverty In America

National interest in poverty was first triggered when John F. Kennedy, while running for president, was taken on a tour of poor areas in the rural south. What he and his entourage saw was staggering: children with bloated bellies, families living in tar paper shacks, high rates of unemployment, and illiteracy. In short, the other America—families living in a state of poverty, the likes of which most Americans had never seen. This experience so affected the young presidential aspirant that he vowed, if elected, his administration would do everything within its power to address issues of poverty in America.

During the 1960s, politics and the publication of Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1963), helped to focus the nation’s attention on the plight of the poor in urban areas. President Johnson, taking office after Kennedy’s assassination, launched the ‘War on Poverty’ in an attempt to have the federal government significantly address problems of poverty. However, due to the Vietnam conflict this effort was short lived.

It wasn’t until the publication of James Wilson’s The Truly DisAdvantaged (1987) nearly two decades later, that interest in poverty was rekindled. Wilson’s book sparked a flurry of research projects seeking to provide answers to such questions as: how widespread is poverty in America, what causes poverty, where is poverty most severe, what types of individuals and/or households are likely to wind up in poverty, what does being raised in poverty do to people, can people escape poverty, and perhaps most important, what can be done to reduce the incidence of poverty, and who should be responsible for addressing poverty issues? The results of most of these studies have revealed that poverty in America is not limited to rural areas. Every major city in the USA contains poverty neighborhoods and, in spite of growing economic prosperity, more Americans find themselves increasingly concentrated in poverty neighborhoods.

A person in poverty is defined by the United States Bureau of the Census as one whose total family income falls below a federally defined level. This level varies according to family size and is adjusted annually for inflation. In 2000, for example, the poverty threshold for a family of four was $17,463. The poverty rate for a particular neighborhood is determined by dividing the number of poor persons who live there by the total number of poor and nonpoor persons. Census tracts are used as the geographic basis for identifying the location of poverty neighborhoods. Researchers differ on the cut-off level for defining poverty neighborhoods. The range is from 20 to 40 percent, with the higher level being used most commonly. While different names have often been ascribed to poverty neighborhoods, Jargowsky (1997) refers to African-American high-poverty areas as ghettos, while barrios describe Latino high-poverty neighborhoods, and slums are poverty neighborhoods comprised primarily of whites.

2. What Causes Poverty And Why Does It Seem To Be Concentrated In Certain Neighborhoods?

A number of different explanations for what causes poverty and why poverty appears to be concentrated have been put forth. Some of these include: discrimination and segregation, immigration of rural farm workers from other countries to cities in America, the poor quality of inner-city schools, crime and the prevalence of drugs, white flight, and the emergence of a global economy.

2.1 The Creation Of Ghettos And Barrios: The Role Of Segregation

During the 1940s and 1950s, the USA underwent a rapid expansion of its industrial and manufacturing sectors. African-Americans seeking to improve their quality of life migrated in large numbers from the south to major urban growth centers throughout the USA. Segregated housing, restrictive covenants, and zoning practices forced many of these African-American migrants to seek shelter in older sections of cities. Segregation and discrimination also limited employment and advancement opportunities, which in turn impacted earning power. As a consequence, African-Americans were disproportionately concentrated in low-income and often poverty neighborhoods called ghettos (Drake and Cayton 1945, Clark 1965, Dubois 1967). Even after the passage of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, real estate agents, mortgage brokers and lenders continued to make it difficult for African-Americans to acquire housing outside of inner city areas. As a consequence, African-Americans, unlike their white counterparts, have much lower home ownership rates, one of the key ways Americans accumulate wealth (Bullard et al. 1994, Oliver and Shapiro 1995). Massey and Denton are two scholars who maintain that racial segregation and not economic segregation have played a major role in the continued growth of ghetto poverty (Massey and Denton 1993).

During the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, a large number of immigrants from Latin America, in particular from Mexico, have come to the USA. To a certain extent, these immigrants find themselves relegated to poverty areas or barrios, much like African-Americans did before them. More recently, immigrants from various Asian countries, particularly Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos have been moving to American cities. In 1990, foreign-born residents constituted 10 percent of all those living in concentrated poverty areas, up from 3.5 percent two decades earlier (Mincy and Wiener 1993, Table 6). As of yet, no single term has emerged to describe Asian poverty neighborhoods. Although references to China Towns, Little Tokyos, and Little Vietnams often imply similar conditions to ghettos and barrios. Like African-Americans, the new immigrants also find that their poverty neighborhoods suffer from inferior schools, high crime rates, inadequate housing, and limited employment opportunities. Language barriers and low educational achievement seem to be key factors contributing to the concentration of these new immigrants in poverty neighborhoods.

While researchers have easily identified poverty neighborhoods with a predominance of racial minorities, that is ghettos and barrios, few predominately white poverty neighborhoods or slums are evident in metropolitan areas. This is not to say that there are no whites in poverty; quite the contrary, the largest number of individuals in poverty are whites. It is just that poor whites are distributed throughout cities and not particularly concentrated in certain neighborhoods.

2.2 Social Mobility

Social mobility, or as Wilson (1987) calls it, ‘‘neighborhood sorting,’’ is another reason often put forward to help explain the growing concentration of urban poverty. There are two dimensions of this concept. The first focuses on white flight; that is, as more and more minorities move into urban areas, better educated and more affluent whites move to the suburbs. Reasons most often given for this out-migration of whites from central city areas include: a desire to provide better educational opportunities for their children, safer neighborhoods, better and cheaper services, more neighborhood amenities, and the ability to realize greater return on their investment in housing.

These same interests are propelling the move of middle-class African-Americans from inner city areas, leaving poor African-Americans behind. The consequence is, further concentration of poor people in central city poverty neighborhoods (Wilson 1987).

2.3 The Impact Of The Global Economy

More recent literature has focused on what role deindustrialization, brought on by a growing global economy, has had on both increasing the number of persons in poverty and the growing spatial concentration of poverty (Bluestone and Harrison 1982). The growth of new jobs is occurring faster in suburban areas than in inner-city areas. This makes it increasingly difficult for residents of poverty neighborhoods to acquire employment. Kain (1968, 1992) calls this the spatial mismatch phenomena.

Rapid job growth in the service sector has reduced the impact of some losses of industrial employment. However, these jobs tend to pay relatively low wages with few, if any, benefits. This often means that, even though individuals residing in poverty neighborhoods can secure work, the jobs they obtain do not provide adequate income or sufficient benefits to lift them or their families out of poverty. Thus, there are a growing number of working poor residing in poverty neighborhoods (Pastor et al. 2000 and Berstein et al. 2000).

2.4 The Significance Of Regional Economic Growth And Poverty Neighborhoods

Some of the more recent literature suggests that there is a link between the size and growth of poverty neighborhoods and the robustness of a region’s economy. Jargowsky, for example, shows that a rise in overall metropolitan mean income resulted in sharp declines in ghetto poverty concentration among African-Americans (Jargowsky 1997). Similarly, Pastor et al. found in 74 regions throughout the USA that regions which performed best economically were also ones that either reduced inner-city poverty or reduced the rate of growth of poverty neighborhoods (Pastor et al. 2000).

To date, the most comprehensive work examining the causes of poverty can be found in Poverty and Place: Ghettos, Barrios, and the American City by Paul Jargowsky. Unlike previous studies which are locale specific, this study examines national poverty data. Jargowsky finds that structural changes in the economy have in fact adversely affected those with lower educational levels and job skills by reducing their wages. He also finds that deconcentration of employment further reduces the possibility of these individuals finding work and that the flight of higher income individuals from poverty neighborhoods is an important factor in increasing neighborhood poverty. However, he could not find any evidence that strongly supports the notion that segregation plays a direct role in the recent growth of poverty neighborhoods. Jargowsky concludes by suggesting that neighborhood poverty is the

predictable result of the economic status of minority communities and the degree to which minorities are residentially segregated from whites and from each other by income (Jargowsky ,1997 p. 19).

3. Why Is It Important To Be Concerned About Urban Poverty?

One of the reasons for the concern with urban poverty is that place and neighborhoods matter. Therefore what happens to people living in these neighborhoods is of concern to policy-makers. Since the majority of residents of poverty neighborhoods are children often in female-headed households, they are of particular concern. What happens to children residing in poverty neighborhoods is the subject of considerable debate. There is ample evidence, for example, that many of these children are not adequately nourished, are in need of more regular medical care, are not properly supervised, and are constantly exposed to drugs and criminal acts. But there is no consensus on what should be done to improve the quality of life for these children, let alone who should do it, and how it should be financed. At the same time, most urban dwellers believe that something needs to be done. Passage of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act may have a significant impact on many of these households as mothers are required to transfer from public assistance to work.

To a lesser extent, some of these concerns apply to the elderly who are often trapped in poverty neighborhoods. Even though municipalities, for the most part, have been conscientious in providing some services to the elderly (most notably transit, housing, and nutrition), environments in which these elderly reside, by most accounts, can be hazardous.

A second reason for concern about poverty neighborhoods revolves around the question of equity, particularly in the provision of public services. Poverty neighborhoods contain the oldest housing stock most in need of repair, the most deteriorated infrastructure, have the highest levels of toxic waste concentrations, and the least amount of open space, particularly in comparison with more affluent neighborhoods. Given these conditions, how should public resources be allocated to address these problems?

A third reason for concern is that poverty neighborhoods are believed to be the cause of a number of undesirable social conditions, high crime rates, family disintegration, incidences of major health problems including high infant mortality, tuberculosis, HIV AIDS, alcoholism, and other antisocial behavior. These conditions if left unchecked could spread to other neighborhoods.

Finally, the concern with poverty neighborhoods centers around the widely held belief that these neighborhoods adversely impact other neighborhoods. Here the concern is often with crime and violence, the impact on property values, and how much of a tax drain poverty neighborhoods cause for other areas of the city. There is also the concern, as was evidenced in Los Angeles in 1992, that intolerable conditions can lead to civil unrest which has proven to be extremely costly (Orfield 1997, Pastor 1993).

4. Conclusion

After nearly four decades of research and efforts at policy reform and program intervention, one thing is abundantly clear—the number of persons in poverty is increasing and persons in poverty are becoming more and more concentrated. Between 1970 and 1990, the number of poor people in high-poverty neighborhoods nearly doubled, from 1.9 million to 3.7 million. This rate of growth exceeded the overall rate of increase in the total population in poverty neighborhoods during this same time period, in spite of the fact that during the 1980s the nation experienced good economic times. Most perplexing is the growing poverty rate among households where one or both adults are working. A robust economy might have provided jobs but not at wage levels that moved people out of poverty.

What is wrong? One might conclude that problems of poverty cannot be solved. Or one might suggest that those who are responsible for providing policy leadership on this issue simply have not found the right solution yet. More disturbing, however, is the thought that the vast number of Americans not in poverty simply do not care much about those who are.

Clearly, there is no simplistic solution to the question of poverty. Indeed this may be one of the problems. Politicians in their zeal to provide solutions respond to constituents or press accounts which usually focus on symptoms or sensational exposes. Researchers tend to focus on individual policy issues. What is needed, perhaps, is a more comprehensive policy approach which takes into account the structural sources of poverty, its multigenerational roots, and the link between individual neighborhoods and regions.


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