Residential Concentration of Poverty (and Wealth) and the Impact on Public Schools

Paul Jargoswky, the Rutgers University professor of public policy and director of the Rutgers Center for Urban Research and Urban Education, has just published a new brief on the growing concentration of poverty in many urban neighborhoods across America:

“To address the root causes of urban violence, police-community tensions, and the enduring legacy of racism, the genesis of urban slums and the forces that sustain them must be understood.  As a first step in that direction, this report examines the trends in the population and characteristics of neighborhoods of extreme deprivation… The number of people living in high-poverty ghettos, barrios, and slums has nearly doubled since 2000, rising from 7.2 million to 13.8 million… Poverty became more concentrated—more than one in four of the black poor and nearly one in six of the Hispanic poor lives in a neighborhood of extreme poverty compared to one in thirteen of the white poor.  To make matters worse, poor children are more likely to reside in high-poverty neighborhoods than poor adults.”

The problem is not merely the persistence of poverty but also its growing concentration. Jargowsky speculates about the causes: “Recent economic troubles have clearly contributed to the sharp re-concentration of poverty since 2000.  But another huge factor, in good economic times and bad, has been rampant suburban and exurban development.  Suburbs have grown so fast that their growth was cannibalistic: it came at the expense of the central city and older suburbs.  In virtually all metropolitan areas, suburban rings grew much faster than was needed to accommodate metropolitan population growth, so that central cities and inner-ring suburbs saw massive population declines.”

Cities with the highest concentration of poverty are more likely to be mid-size cities with many in the Midwest: “Whereas concentration of poverty used to be a big city problem, the fastest growth in black concentration of poverty since 2000 was in metropolitan areas with 500,000 to 1 million persons—places like Syracuse, New York; Dayton, Ohio; Gary, Indiana; and Wilmington, Delaware.  In Syracuse, for example, the number of high-poverty tracts more than doubled, rising from twelve to thirty.  Syracuse now has the highest level of poverty concentration among blacks and Hispanics of the one hundred largest metropolitan areas.”  Concentrated poverty among African American residents is highest in these ten cities: Syracuse, NY;  Detroit, MI;  Toledo,OH;  Rochester, NY;  Fresno, CA;  Buffalo, NY; Cleveland, OH; Gary, IN;  Milwaukee, WI; and Louisville, KY.   Among Hispanics, concentrated poverty is highest in these ten cities: Syracuse, NY;  Philadelphia, PA;  McAllen, TX;  Detroit, MI;  Springfield, MA;  Rochester, NY;  Milwaukee, WI;  Fresno, CA;  Buffalo, NY; and Cleveland, OH.

“Unfortunately,” explains Jargowsky, “poor children are more likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods than poor adults… The gap is largest for poor children under 6 years of age, by 16.5 percent compared to 13.8 percent for poor adults.  The gap in high poverty neighborhood residence is even larger for the black poor, with 28 percent of black poor children less than 6 years old residing in concentrated poverty compared to 24.2 percent of black poor adults.  Whites, however, show the opposite pattern, with white poor children less likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods than white poor adults.”

Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon has conducted massive research (here and here) on growing segregation of families by income and a closely related widening income inequality achievement gap at school.  Reardon’s research confirms that families are increasingly raising children in communities of either concentrated poverty or concentrated wealth.  Reardon was recently interviewed by Sam Pizzigati for Too Much, an online monthly published by the Institute for Policy Studies:  “We’re concerned about racial segregation, in part, because of the economic segregation that goes along with it.  Racial segregation often means that blacks or Latinos are unequally concentrated in poor, disadvantaged neighborhoods….”  “Increasing economic segregation means that kids from high-income families live with kids from other high-income families and go to schools that have more resources.  They go on to do better in school and have a better chance of attending a good college.  We have evidence over the last few decades that the achievement gap—the test score gap—between students from high and low-income families is widening, and maybe that’s related to these processes.”

Reardon continues: “But I think there’s another less direct but maybe more insidious way that these things operate.  If high income families increasingly live among other high-income families, and far away from middle class and lower-income families, then they may have less understanding of the plight of the middle class or the working class or the poor.  They may be less willing to invest their resources in public goods—like schools and child care facilities and health care infrastructure—that would broadly benefit everyone in society.  And so I worry that income segregation means that the affluent are increasingly sequestered in enclaves where they have little incentive to understand why we should invest in broad public goods that would help everyone.  And since these affluent control the vast majority of our economic resources—and also a disproportionate share of our political resources—then their disinvestment from public goods has broad repercussions for our society.”

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