The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Black poverty differs from white poverty

Image courtesy of Flickr user Jeffrey Smith under a Creative Commons license.

The poverty that poor African Americans 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 recent data analyzed by Rutgers University's Paul Jargowsky 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 African Americans 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 African Americans live in concentrated poverty. Among poor whites, just 1.6 percent do. Poor whites, in most major metropolitan areas, are spread out. Poor African Americans are not:

This data point — 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 African Americans 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 are moving to the newer suburbs."

Concentrated poverty is getting worse because poor people — especially poor African Americans — are increasingly left behind. And a number of forces drive this pattern, including systemic discrimination, policies that have historically concentrated public housing and modern zoning laws that keep the poor out of wealthier 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 for how 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.

"It sounds radical to us because we’re used to a certain way of things being organized," Jargowsky says. "We’re used to the poor living in the central city, and rich people living in these exclusive suburbs. That’s not the pattern in most of the world."

He points, for instance, to London, where every town in the region is required to have some social housing. The result, theoretically, is that no place would be deeply impoverished because every place would make room for some of the poor.

Politically, this idea is a long shot (it's much more prescriptive than the new Obama Administration housing rules that drew heat from conservatives). And it's hard to envision how it would be enforced in practice, or how private developers would respond. Would states pass such a regulation? Or would the Department of Housing and Urban Development enforce it? The demographics of a region also change with time, often faster than new housing gets built.

But the underlying premise is a thought-provoking one: 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 of the alternative, "every year that goes by where we build in this kind of fashion makes it harder to undo the damage we’ve done."

Correction: An earlier version of this report has an incorrect reference to Rutgers University's Paul Jargowsky.