Sunday, March 22, 2009

Will There Be "Urban" Poverty in the Future? From the Inner-City to the Doughnut

If it continues (and it likely will), the continuing geographical shift of concentrated poverty from the central city to the suburbs will deeply affect visions of "urban education." Our current model is based on the idea that concentrated poverty around cities is focused in central city areas.

What happens when concentrated poverty shifts to the suburbs?

While there will surely be urban concentrated poverty for a long time, there is evidence that poor people of color are shifting out of central city areas and attempting to "escape" to the suburbs.

Of course the problem, well known by housing scholars, is that it doesn't take that many poor people of color to "tip" a neighborhood into white/middle-class flight.

When poverty is located in a city, there are at least some established sets of services, smaller distances to travel, and a tax base that consists of more than housing. What happens when a small suburb that depends on housing for tax revenues becomes poor and its housing values plummet (yes, I know, we are already finding out--but right now this isn't necessarily a shift towards concentrated poverty). Who is going to pay for schools, sewer, etc.?

From a recent article in Miller-McCune:

The displaced poor find value in the aging, outer-ring tract-home developments that once promised easy living far from the city's hustle and bustle. And housing officials, resolved to breaking up pockets of concentrated poverty (where at least 40 percent of the families are living below the poverty line), are thrilled. The federal Section 8 housing program, which allows recipients to negotiate government-subsidized rentals anywhere, is grounded in the belief that a safe, stable neighborhood can help unbuckle the straps of poverty.

But the positive benefits of moving to a neighborhood of less poverty diminish as the number of poor relocating there increases, new research suggests. In other words, families are far less likely to pull themselves out of poverty when their exposure to other poor families reaches a kind of tipping point. George C. Galster, a professor of urban affairs at Wayne State University, has quantified this poverty threshold as roughly 15 to 20 percent of a neighborhood. If the poverty rate exceeds that, Galster said, "All hell breaks loose" in the form of crime, drop-out rates, teen pregnancies, drug use and, in turn, declining property values.

Galster's working paper for the National Poverty Center, Consequences from the Redistribution of Urban Poverty During the 1990s: A Cautionary Tale, warns that polices to break up concentrated poverty may be backfiring. While the number of Americans living in the poorest neighborhoods has notably declined since 1990, by about 25 percent, poverty elsewhere has inched up. Galster worries that the rush to relocate the urban poor, through Section 8 and other poverty redistribution programs, has pushed many less-desirable suburban neighborhoods to this tipping point.

The article is focused on "keep the poor people out" kinds of solutions, instead of on wider questions about poverty. Although, if you are poor and live in a neighborhood that might tip, do you really want more poor people to move in? (Hello, institutional racism.)

Also see work by Myron Orfield, including this decade-old piece (PDF) predicting just what we are seeing and also actually discussing some solutions (he was a state legislator before he became a professor). (He's the brother of another Orfield you might have heard of.)

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