1. Opinion

Column: For poor blacks in U.S., poverty hits whole communities

The poverty that poor blacks experience is often different from the poverty of poor whites. It's more isolating and concentrated. It extends out the door of a family's home and occupies the entire neighborhood around it, touching the streets, the schools, the grocery stores.

A poor black family, in short, is much more likely than a poor white one to live in a neighborhood where many other families are poor, too, creating what sociologists call the "double burden" of poverty. The difference is stark in most major metropolitan areas, according to new data analyzed by Rutgers' Paul Jargowky in a new report for the Century Foundation.

In five-year American Community Survey data from 2009-2013, more than a third of all poor blacks in metropolitan Chicago live in high-poverty census tracts (where the poverty rate is above 40 percent). That number has gotten worse since 2000. And it's about 10 times higher than for poor whites.

In St. Louis, 29.5 percent of poor blacks live in concentrated poverty. Among poor whites, just 1.6 percent do. Poor whites, in most major metropolitan areas, are spread out. Poor blacks are not.

This datapoint — the share of poor people living in deeply poor places — gets at an important element of poverty that's obscured by citywide poverty rates. "The concentration of poverty is really about the spatial organization of poverty," Jargowsky writes. It captures how we've designed communities to pen poverty in, restricting many poor blacks in particular to a limited number of neighborhoods.

"The term 'concentration' does in some way suggest that poor people are moving from all over the place into these neighborhoods, and they become teeming slums like at the turn of the century," Jargowsky says. "But it's actually the opposite: People are moving out to the older suburbs, and people in the older suburbs moving to the newer suburbs."

Concentrated poverty is getting worse because poor people — especially poor blacks — are increasingly left behind. And a number of forces drive this pattern, from systemic discrimination to policies that historically concentrated public housing to modern zoning laws that keep the poor out of wealthy communities.

Just last week, to take one example, the Chicago Tribune reported that dozens of wealthy suburbs had ignored a state deadline to produce affordable housing plans. That's the kind of willful inaction that actively contributes to concentrated poverty in Chicago.

Jargowsky has a radical idea to reverse these trends: What if every community had to build new housing that reflects the income makeup of the entire metropolitan area? Imagine if 14 percent of the new housing over the next decade in wealthy Wilmette on Chicago's North Shore had to be accessible to the 14 percent of the region's population that lives under the poverty line. Same with blue-collar and middle-class housing.

Politically, this idea is a long shot. But the underlying premise is thought-provoking: that every community should be accessible to the range of residents — the poor, the working class, the middle class and the rich — who live in a metropolitan area.

"If we don't stop making it worse obviously," Jargowsky says, "every year that goes by where we build in this kind of fashion makes it harder to undo the damage we've done."

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