Segregation, Inequality, Concentrated Poverty: How We Got Here

Last fall, after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, published The Making of Ferguson in the American Prospect.  Now after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in Baltimore, Rothstein has posted a new summary of government policies that have, over the past century, created tragic conditions in America’s big cities, the kind of conditions that lead to rioting as an expression of widespread anger and despair.

In From Ferguson to Baltimore: The Fruits of Government-Sponsored Segregation, Rothstein writes, “Whenever young black men riot in response to police brutality or murder, as they have done in Baltimore this week, we’re tempted to think we can address the problem by improving police quality—training officers not to use excessive force, implementing community policing, encouraging police to be more sensitive, prohibiting racial profiling, and so on.  These are all good, necessary, and important things to do.  But such proposals ignore the obvious reality that the protests are not really (or primarily) about policing.”

Rothstein quotes from the report of the 1968 Kerner Commission, established by President Lyndon Johnson to explore the deeper causes of rioting that arose from protests, again in the context of police brutality.  The Kerner Commission concluded that, “what white Americans have never fully understood—but what the negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto.  White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”  Rothstein, however, is more specific, attributing the concentrated poverty, segregation and inequality apparent across America’s big cities to government policies, not an accidental convergence of private choices.  The fact that such policies have been systemic is why we are seeing angry protests and rioting in so many places.  “When the Kerner Commission blamed ‘white society’ and ‘white institutions,’ it employed euphemisms to avoid naming the culprits everyone knew at the time.  It was not a vague white society that created ghettos but government—federal, state, and local—that employed explicitly racial laws, policies, and regulations to ensure that black Americans would live impoverished and separately from whites.  Baltimore’s ghetto was not created by private discrimination, income differences, personal preferences, or demographic trends, but by purposeful action of government in violation of the Fifth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendments.  These constitutional violations have never been remedied, and we are paying the price in the violence we saw this week.”

In his examination of Baltimore, Rothstein cites formal policies going back to 1910, policies that have included building and health regulations combined with government sanctioned policies of real estate companies, the adoption of restrictive protective covenants that specified who could not purchase homes in particular neighborhoods, the barring of African Americans from qualification for Federal Housing Administration loans, insurance redlining practices, the implications of punitive contract home sales for African Americans, and most recently the targeting of African American buyers by those marketing subprime loans, a practice that has led to much higher rates of foreclosures in black neighborhoods in cities like Baltimore and Cleveland.  For all these reasons that have made it harder for blacks to purchase homes—the primary asset by which families build long term equity—Rothstein reports that today “black household wealth is only about 5 percent of white household wealth.”

So what does all this have to do with public education, the subject of this blog?  Just this week Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathan Hendren released a study (not yet published at a site which can be linked) that re-analyzed older data that had seemed to show that moving away from segregated and highly impoverished neighborhoods did not make a difference for children’s life chances.  The new report documents—in dry academic language—that the places children grow up deeply affect their lifetime prospects and that if their families can move away from deeply impacted communities, children do better, especially if they move away when they are young.  “Overall, these results suggest that neighborhoods matter for children’s long-term outcomes and suggest that at least half of the variance in observed intergenerational mobility across areas is due to the causal effect of place.” “Urban areas, particularly those with substantial concentrated poverty, typically generate much worse outcomes for children than suburbs and rural areas…. We also find that areas with a larger African-American population tend to have lower rates of upward mobility.  These spatial differences amply racial inequality across generations….”

While we like to think that the Civil Rights Movement addressed our racial inequalities by eliminating de jure segregation across the South, Thomas Sugrue, the historian from the University of Pennsylvania, has explored what racial injustice looks like in today’s America:  “At the opening of the twenty-first century, the fifteen most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States were in the Northeast and Midwest.  A half century after the Supreme Court struck down separate, unequal schools as unconstitutional, racial segregation is still the norm in northern public schools.  The five states with the highest rates of school segregation—New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, and California—are all outside the South.  Rates of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty reach Third World levels among African Americans in nearly every major northern city, where the faces in welfare offices, unemployment lines, homeless shelters, and jails are disproportionately black.” (Sweet Land of Liberty, p. xix) “The stark disparities between blacks and whites by every measure—economic attainment, health, education, and employment—are the results.  The high degree of separation by race reinforces and hardens perceptions of racial difference.  It creates racially homogeneous public institutions that are geographically defined….” (Sweet Land of Liberty, p. 540)

When he spoke at the Cleveland City Club in February, Richard Rothstein explained one of the new ways the segregation of institutions is being perpetuated these days—again by state governments, this time copying Jeb Bush’s Florida system of assigning letter grades for schools and school districts,  grades of ‘A’ through ‘F.’  The fact that the state school ratings track all the issues described by Rothstein, Chetty and Hendren, and Sugrue is never named.  The grades are said to describe the quality of the schools, but the conditions faced by the children and the teachers are overlooked. Here is what Rothstein told the Cleveland audience:  “These rating systems really just describe the social class of the students in the schools.  And the high ratings don’t necessarily mean they’re better schools.  Many of these schools that are rated ‘A’ because they happen to have a lot of middle class children with highly educated parents may add less value to their students than schools rated ‘F’…. Those ‘F’ schools may actually be better schools in terms of what they add to students than ‘A’ schools, but most people don’t understand that.  And so if you label schools with ‘A-F’ ratings, people who attend a ‘C’ school, which may be integrated, are going to want to move their children to an ‘A’ school.  This will increase the segregation of schools by convincing people that these ‘A-F’ ratings accurately reflect the quality of the school.”

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We’ll Have to Do Something About Poverty to Improve School Achievement

In the New Yorker essay she just published on the Atlanta test-cheating scandal, Rachel Aviv quotes education researcher David Berliner: “The people who say poverty is no excuse for low performance are now using teacher accountability as an excuse for doing nothing about poverty.”  While research demonstrates a strong correlation between extreme family poverty and children’s struggles to achieve at school, many us living in middle and upper income communities struggle to discern how family poverty affects children and how the poverty of a neighborhood affects the public schools. We don’t spend much time in poor neighborhoods and we rarely go into a public school once our own children are grown. Today this blog will review some of the evidence, particularly about the impact of concentrated poverty, a phenomenon especially evident in places like Philadelphia, Detroit, Newark, Memphis, Cleveland, and Gary.

Paul Jargowsky, Director of the Center for Urban Research and Education at Rutgers, defines concentrated poverty as a neighborhood where 40 percent or more of the people are poor.  In such neighborhoods, he writes, fewer than half the men are likely to be employed and fewer than half the children are likely to be living in a two-parent family.  This kind of poverty doubled between 1970 and 1990, writes Jargowsky, then diminished in the strong economy of the 1990s, and has risen quickly since 2000.

In his recent book, Stuck in Place, New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey explains whose lives are shaped by living in such circumstances: “Being raised in a high-poverty neighborhood is extremely rare for whites…  but is the norm for African Americans.  Among children born from 1955 through 1970, only 4 percent of whites were raised in neighborhoods with at least 20 percent poverty, compared to 62 percent of African Americans.  Three out of four white children were raised in neighborhoods with less than 10 percent poverty, compared to just 9 percent of African Americans.  Essentially no white children were raised in neighborhoods with at least 30 percent poverty, but three in ten African Americans were…  This degree of racial inequality is not a remnant of the past….  If there is any difference between children in the previous generation and in the current one, the degree of neighborhood disadvantage experienced by African American children has worsened in the current generation…  Even today, 31 percent of African American children live in neighborhoods where the poverty rate is 30 percent or greater, a level of poverty that is unknown among white children.” (pp. 27-29)

Cities where African American concentrated poverty is greatest, according to Jargowsky, are Detroit, Milwaukee, Rochester, Tallahassee, Dayton, Cleveland, Gary, Louisville, Buffalo, and Memphis.  Hispanic families also experience concentrated poverty, with the highest rates in Texas—Laredo, McAllen, Brownsville; in California—Fresno and Visalia; and in Las Cruces, New Mexico; and also in several cities in the East and Upper Midwest: Philadelphia; Springfield, Massachusetts; Milwaukee; and Hartford.

Another variable that makes an enormous difference for the children, according to Sharkey’s research, is embedded in the poverty data: “In essence, when white families live in a poor neighborhood, they typically do so for only a single generation; when they live in a rich neighborhood, they usually stay there for multiple generations.  The opposite is true for African American famlies: Neighborhood affluence is fleeting, and neighborhood poverty is most commonly multigenerational.” (p. 39, emphasis in the original)

Jargowsky contends that, “Concentration of poverty is the direct result of policy choices.  Political fragmentation means that hundreds of suburbs develop.”  “Suburbs grow much faster than is needed to accommodate metropolitan population growth.”  “By policy and tradition, we create a durable architecture of segregation that ensures the concentration of poverty.” In the long term, Jargowsky prescribes reversing the trajectory of suburbanization.

Is there a way to address today at least some of the issues for the children attending schools where segregation by economic level has become entrenched?  First, the demographic data demonstrate that today’s wave of  “portfolio school reform” that closes public schools and opens privately managed charter schools is not designed to address the primary issues in Philadelphia and Detroit and Cleveland; neither are voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee. If we choose to support children living in the circumstances these researchers describe, it will be necessary to develop the political will to invest publicly in the schools in communities where poverty seems intractable.  We’ll need to provide incentives to attract the best teachers and support teachers instead of blaming them when they cannot overcome such issues on their own.  We’ll need to reduce class sizes.  We’ll need to provide the kind of wrap-around health and social services embedded in Community Schools.  We’ll need to create quality pre-Kindergarten programs to catch children up before the achievement gap gets established prior to their even beginning school. The federal government will need to increase investment in improving the public schools in our poorest communities and  find ways to create incentives to ensure that states also increase their investment in quality education for children living in poverty.

In short we’ll have to take David Berliner seriously: “The people who say poverty is no excuse for low performance are now using teacher accountability as an excuse for doing nothing about poverty.”  There is no excuse for the kind of punitive public education policy our nation is currently practicing.

Concentrated Poverty in 2014 Now 50 Percent Higher than in 2000

In her recent book, Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch decries the lack of political leadership during the past quarter century to address what she calls “the toxic mix”: racial segregation, poverty, and inequality:

“In the absence of active leadership by federal officials and the judiciary, the public is apathetic about racial and ethnic segregation, as well as socioeconomic segregation…  Neither of the major federal efforts of the past generation—No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—has even mentioned segregation….  While these programs directed billions of federal aid, they did not leverage any funding to promote desegregation of schools or communities, and in their demand to expand the charter sector, they may have worsened the problem.  As black and Hispanic students remain segregated in large numbers, their academic achievement remains low.  Then federal law stigmatizes their schools as ‘failing’ and recommends firing their principals and their teachers and closing their schools.” (pp. 294-295).

One advocate who has persistently drawn our attention to the impact of concentrated poverty and inequality overlaid on racial segregation is Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute.  In a new piece posted on the website of the Economic Policy Institute, African American Poverty: Concentrated and Multi-Generational, Rothstein describes his just-published review for the American Prospect of a new book by sociologist, Patrick Sharkey, Stuck in Place, which according to Rothstein explores the multi-generational impact of living in communities where poverty is extreme and children and their families are surrounded by a concentration of families where there is little hope.

Rothstein also directs our attention to Paul Jargowsky’s new report from the Century Foundation and Rutgers Center for Urban Research and Education: Concentration of Poverty in the New Millennium.  According to Jargowsky, “the number of high-poverty census tracts—those with poverty rates of 40 percent or more—fell 26 percent, from 3,417 in 1990 to 2,510 in 2000.”  However, “The sharp reduction in high-poverty neighborhoods observed in the 2000 census… has since been completely reversed.  The count of such tracts increased by 800 (32 percent) between 2000 and the 2005-2009 ACS data to nearly the level of 1990….  In the latest available data, spanning 2007-2011, the count of high poverty tracts rose by an additional 454 (14 percent) to 3,764, eclipsing the 1990 high.  Overall, the number of high-poverty tracts has increased by 50 percent since 2000.”

I agree with Rothstein that we must educate ourselves about our society’s growing inequality as one step toward building the political will to address the tragedy and injustice of ongoing denial of opportunity for generations of children.  Rothstein concludes his recent blog post: “Reading Patrick Sharkey’s Stuck in Place and Paul Jawarsky’s Concentration of Poverty is a sobering way to start 2014  But for deeper insights into the challenges we face in narrowing inequality, I recommend you do so.”