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More People Living in High-Poverty Neighborhoods, Researcher Says

Source: Rutgers University, Century Foundation

by Nick Castele

The landscape of poverty has grown in American cities, leaving more low-income people living in an expanding number of largely poor neighborhoods. That’s according to a report titled "The Architecture of Segregation," published this month by Paul Jargowsky, a fellow at the nonprofit Century Foundation.

Jargowsky says there are more people living in high-poverty neighborhoods now than 15 years ago—and that the number of poor neighborhoods itself has grown, too. He says this has been been happening since before the recession. 

"That had more to do with people of moderate means, or wealthy people, moving out of central city Cleveland into suburbs, and so forth, leaving behind the poor," he says. 

We reached Paul Jargowsky by phone this week at Rutgers University, where he runs the Center for Urban Research and Education. He says the greater Cleveland area ranks high on the list of cities where race and poverty intersect.

JARGOWSKY: The concentration of poverty is much higher for blacks and Hispanics, and that has always been the case. For example, in Cleveland, 45 percent of the black poor live in very high-poverty neighborhoods. Whereas only...about 11 percent of the white poor live in high poverty neighborhoods. So it’s a problem that disproportionately affects black and Hispanic people.

CASTELE: You write that suburbs have grown so fast that their growth, in your words, was "cannibalistic," and that this was the consequence of policy choices. What did you mean by that?

JARGOWSKY: We have a very laissez-faire development idea that each community can make its own decisions about how fast to grow in many places. And the result of that was that some of the suburban areas were growing at 20 percent or 30 percent over the course of a decade, while the central city, in some cases the older inner-ring suburbs, are actually declining in population....There was basically an emptying out going on.

CASTELE: I’ve spoken to people before about these ideas, and I’ve heard people say, it’s an individual’s right to decide where they want to move, to move wherever they like, including to a wealthy suburb far from the central city. What would you say to them?

JARGOWSKY: I would certainly agree with that. And in fact, what I would like is for everyone to have an opportunity to make the same choice. So right now, if I’m a lower income person, but I want to move to a good school district to give my kids a better chance, what I would be looking for would be a small house in a good school district. But it’s hard to find those, because in those good school districts in the suburbs, they tend to build only 3 and 4 thousand square foot houses because of zoning. So actually the way public policy works right now, is that it works to exclude people. And so I would agree with those people who would like to live where they want to live, and I would just hope that we could find a way to make the same choices available to people of more moderate income.

CASTELE: What does this mean for families, for children, who are living in neighborhoods you’ve identified where poverty is more concentrated today than it was maybe 15 years ago?

JARGOWSKY: It means, first of all, exposure, in some cases, to bad crime and violence, and we have a lot of studies showing that that affects child development. If you are living in a neighborhood where all your neighbors are poor, then children of those families tend to go to the same school, and those schools are composed largely of poor children. It’s certainly possible to have a good school in a poor neighborhood, we've seen great examples of that. But by and large it’s a lot harder to pull it off and keep it going because of all the pressures that come in from the outside...And it also is harder for the adults there to find economic opportunities because they don’t have a lot of friends and neighbors who are tied into the resources and the jobs and the opportunities that other people would take for granted.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.