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Concentrated poverty is the new urban panic

There is far more social capital in high-poverty neighborhoods than some public policy analysts suggest

September 21, 2015 2:00AM ET

Residential clustering of very poor families, especially of ethnic minorities, is increasing. Widely reported analyses by Paul Jargowsky, a fellow at the Century Foundation and professor of public policy at Rutgers University, show a growing number of neighborhoods in which poor households exceed 40 percent — the threshold measure of a demographic condition called “concentration.” He associates concentrated poverty with riotous protest and police violence, along with high rates of school dropouts, teen pregnancy and incarceration. Concentrated poverty apparently brews a toxic mix of lawlessness and despair that is contagious, lethal and growing. 

Jargowsky’s thesis, embraced by many other urban analysts, is that large numbers of poor people living together in distressed surroundings will generate a local culture that lacks social capital and adequate “role models” and reinforces negative behavior. Inappropriate lessons learned on the streets of poor, segregated neighborhoods are viewed as a major cause of individual failure.

Such arguments fail to consider that the only neighborhoods poor people can afford overwhelmingly have underfunded schools, overly aggressive police, substandard housing, inadequate health care, exploitative businesses, paternalistic or corrupt services, few legal job possibilities and too much crime. Correlation is not causation. Distressed conditions in these neighborhoods were not caused by an absence of “role models” or inadequate social capital. In fact, there is far more social capital in high poverty neighborhoods than Jargowsky and others have assessed. But that reality is ignored in this latest round of warnings about the growing dangers of concentrated poverty. 

Jargowsky issued a much cheerier report (PDF) on the same subject in 2003, based on observed changes through the 1990s, when the number of high-poverty tracts actually declined slightly instead of increasing. Since then, however, we appear to have headed in the other direction. Much of this has been driven by the national economy, which tanked in 2008. Poverty rates spiked and have stayed high. Growing concentrations of poverty are consistent with rising rents and widespread refusal of landlords to accept housing vouchers.

Data from concentrated neighborhoods do reflect worries for youth growing up there. Correlations between high poverty rates and adverse medical, domestic, educational, employment and criminal justice outcomes seemingly confirm that these places are toxic. Jargowsky and other analysts imply that these problems are greatly aggravated by residents’ collectively inappropriate values, behavior and choices.

If concentration is the problem, then the solution should lie in de-concentration: Just move people into more wholesome environments and let them thrive. Actually, we already tried that. For nearly two decades, from 1992 until 2010, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) demolished hundreds of public housing complexes under the HOPE VI program, allegedly to rescue residents from the effects of concentration. Most families were relocated into private housing using vouchers. During that same period (1994-98), a HUD experiment called Moving to Opportunity (MTO) was launched in five U.S. cities, and randomly selected public-housing families were deliberately relocated into census tracts in which poverty-level households constituted less than 10 percent.

To gauge whether moving out of concentrated poverty improved lives, relocated families from HOPE VI and MTO were studied over the years. In Tampa, I led an independent research project on the effects of HOPE VI from 2000-09. We interviewed relocated households and homeowners in two receiving neighborhoods, and tracked socioeconomic conditions in all relocation sites in the county.

Relocation is not the answer to poverty or its concentration. We cannot abandon or demolish whole neighborhoods because too many poor people live there.

Nationally, formal evaluations of both HOPE VI and MTO showed no measurable improvements in the economic wellbeing of relocated adults or educational success of children. Few benefits were found for either program, and there were several negative outcomes. Boys faced particular problems in new neighborhoods. Recent research (PDF) with young male adults who grew up in MTO low-poverty neighborhoods revealed significantly higher levels of conduct disorder and PTSD than counterparts who stayed behind in public housing. Another, more positive study of the MTO data suggests that children in families who moved to low-poverty neighborhoods before age 13 now earn more on average as adults, and are more likely to be married. However, those who moved when they were older have fared worse than those who grew up in public housing. Although results are mixed, the most that can be said is that relocating families with young children, preferably only girls, might yield benefits in the next generation.

Many relocated families have returned to old neighborhoods, to reconnect with kin and friends, regain access to transit, and/or escape unpleasant conditions. Relations with new neighbors had been one source of unpleasantness. Relocated families we interviewed in a low-poverty Tampa neighborhood reported both social and physical isolation, as well as overt hostility from their new neighbors. Housing was better, but transit and other services were worse. Many of their old ties were severed, and new social connections intended to open opportunities and mentor youth weren't forming. Interviews with a large sample of surrounding homeowners confirmed the reported hostility: They worried about property values and safety, and were angry at the government for endangering them with “these families.”

That fearful hostility, infected with racism and fed by real economic concerns, reflects the ugly history of racially concentrated poverty and resistance to desegregation. Well into the second half of the 20th century technocrats confidently advised builders, bankers and public officials to avoid residential mixing of races. The templates of cities, suburbs and transit followed that rule, as did realtors, insurers and lenders. Too many still quietly accept it. Jargowsky concedes all this, but he leaves unquestioned the ongoing folklore about cultures of poverty and the dangerousness of poor people of color. 

The same scurrilous racial stereotypes that originally justified segregation (i.e, “concentration”) were invoked as reason to remove people from places where they may have wanted to stay and scatter them into other neighborhoods where it was believed they could learn better ways to live.

Under the HOPE VI plan, containment changed to coerced dispersal. The logic had not changed — just the tactic. Relocation was justified by claims that public housing fostered a pathological social environment, an argument that validated negative images of public-housing tenants and fueled hostile reactions in receiving neighborhoods. MTO was nearly shut down in Baltimore due to resistance in white neighborhoods. These deeply rooted beliefs are the real problem — and policies that are effectively based on them are both wrong and counter-productive.

Relocation is not the answer to poverty or its concentration. We cannot abandon or demolish whole neighborhoods because too many poor people live there. We need to fix distressed neighborhoods and enforce fair housing laws. In reality the vast majority of people who live in these stigmatized areas have middle-class aspirations and are doing their best to give their kids a chance.

Not well known to those who live in other neighborhoods are the many residents who devote their time to helping neighbors and working for change. Our policies need to support and reward that work. We must invest in decent schools and services, demand more respectful and effective policing and through media coverage, educational materials and public meetings actively challenge racist stereotypes that have caused generations of damage to our people and our cities.

Susan Greenbaum is a professor emerita of anthropology at the University of South Florida. She is the author of “More Than Black: Afro-Cubans in Tampa” and a newly released book about the Moynihan Report, “Blaming the Poor.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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