Recently, we discussed the growth in the number of urban high-poverty neighborhoods, which we illustrated by examining the distribution of poverty rates among census tracts. This analysis showed that high poverty neighborhoods are becoming more common in urban areas. Today we will use this distribution to discuss what few of us have directly experienced: extremely concentrated poverty. There is a small but growing segment of the population that lives in significantly differently conditions than the rest of the population; this group is one that sees extreme hardship and the highest rates of poverty nationally.

As you can see, while next to no one lived in urban census tracts had an 80% or higher poverty rate in 1970, over 72,000 people lived in neighborhoods with an 80% or higher poverty rate 40 years later. 20,000 lived in tracts with a 90% or higher poverty rate. It is extremely difficult for many to imagine living in a neighborhood where 1 in 2 people live in poverty (notice that this number tripled 1970 to 2010), but to live in a place where almost no one lives on more than $22,050 a year- for a family of 4- has profound implications for those residents.

While 72,000 is not a lot in the scope of the millions of residents of urban neighborhoods nationwide, it is still deeply concerning to have that many live in pockets of such highly concentrated poverty. To understand more about what 80% poverty means, I examined a census tract in Cleveland with an 83% poverty rate. It is census tract # 39035109801, and it is part of the Central neighborhood in Cleveland. In 1970, it had over a 50% poverty rate. Google Earth shows this picture of it:

cleveland google maps

It is a mix of empty land, industrial warehouses, and low-income housing units. The 2010 Census data provides the following demographic breakdown:

These are extremely atypical demographics. For example, the national median household income was $50,046 in 2010, compared to $7,654 in this neighborhood. Even with pictures, numbers, and demographic profiles, it is very difficult for most people to understand how difficult it can be to live in a place with this level of poverty.

We know that high poverty rates– even at the levels of 30% instead of 50% or higher- can have long-lasting implications for residents. Specifically,

“Concentrated poverty is associated with negative social effects (higher crime, worse mental and physical health), and lower economic prospects (both for current residents now and their children over their lifetimes). Concentrated poverty tends to be self-reinforcing: low-income communities have fewer fiscal resources (despite greater needs), producing low-quality public services. A lack of strong social networks undercuts the political efficacy of these citizens. There are a number of studies that review the extensive literature on the negative effects of concentrated poverty (Jargowsky & Swanstrom, 2009; Sard & Rice, 2014; Kneebone, Nadeau, & Berube, 2011).”Lost in Place: Why the persistence and spread of concentrated poverty—not gentrification—is our biggest urban challenge.

Most troubling is the direct impact on children in poverty. 26% of children are living in poverty, almost double the national rate (14.5%). In the neighborhood I just highlighted, 897 children 14 and younger—or 45% of the population according to the census—grew up in a place where if they were not impoverished, almost all of their neighbors were. The effects of a poor neighborhood, including sub-standard public services, worse schools, a lack of social ties necessary to get better jobs, and the many other well-noted direct social and economic impacts of living in concentrated poverty all mean that a growing number young children are growing up with less of a chance than they would have had 40 years ago.

More unfortunately, this also means that demographically, the growing concentration of poverty and income segregation has resulted in lower opportunities for people of color. Poverty and lowered income mobility disproportionately affects children of color; 71% of black infants and toddlers are low income, as are 67% of Hispanic infants and toddlers. (The Central neighborhood above is an even more extreme example of this disproportionality.) New evidence by Reardon, Fox and Townsend (2014) examines economic integration and racial segregation, noting that:

“The racial disparities in neighborhood income distributions are particularly troubling because these are differences that are present even among households with the same incomes. If long-term exposure to neighborhood poverty negatively affects child development, educational success, mental health, and adult earnings (and a growing body of research suggests it does, as noted above), then these large racial disparities in exposure to poverty may have long-term consequences. They mean that black and Hispanic children and families are doubly disadvantaged—both economically and contextually—relative to white and Asian families.

Given the self-reinforcing nature of poverty and its effects, this is a very concerning trend for black and Hispanic communities. The more common experience of urban poverty, and its concentration and deepening, doesn’t add up to a promising future- for any of us.

(At CityObservatory, we will continue to explore themes of poverty, economic integration, and policy solutions aimed at alleviating these issues. We also hope to illuminate growing evidence that increasing the welfare of low-income citizens has positive implications for middle and higher-income citizens. To read more about income segregation and economic opportunity, go here. For some links to articles we find particularly relevant go here and here.)