New Data on the Demographics of Poverty

The Century Foundation, a non-partisan think tank, recently published a new analysis of poverty from an examination of census data. The author, Paul Jargowsky, Professor of Public Policy at Rutgers University, demonstrates that poverty has become more concentrated since 2000 — the poor are more likely than before to live in high-poverty neighborhoods (where at least 40 percent of the residents are poor).

In 2011, 7 percent of poor whites lived in high poverty neighborhoods, up from 4 percent in 2000; 15 percent of poor Hispanics lived in high poverty neighborhoods, up from 14 percent in 2000; and 23 percent of poor blacks lived in high poverty neighborhoods, up from 19 percent in 2000.

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Jargowsky asserts that the spatial dimension of poverty is important because of the many deleterious effects of living in high-poverty neighborhoods. As he reports:

Low-income neighborhoods have lower levels of education and employment, as well as higher rates of poverty, single-parent families, and other social problems [such as the prevalence of crime, drugs, and violence]. … Neighborhood characteristics affect the day-to-day quality of life, and may also hinder poor families as they seek to cope with and work their way out of poverty. Given the susceptibility of children to peer influences, the spatial organization of poverty is particularly detrimental for poor families with school-age children.”

Jargowsky argues that the poor are getting more concentrated because of racial and economic constraints on the housing mobility of low-income people. Location and transportation inadequacies further separate them from opportunities for better employment and advancement in the suburbs. Schools in poor neighborhoods are notoriously inadequate. They have less money for materials, extra-curricular programs, and good teachers.

The neighborhoods themselves are quite different than what a child would experience in a suburban area. As Jargowsky observes:

The concentration of poverty often makes for an unhealthy environment with few parks and recreational resources, greater pollution, more alcohol outlets, more advertising for alcohol and tobacco, and less availability of healthy foods. Residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods suffer higher rates of communicable diseases like tuberculosis, premature birth, self-report of poor health, diabetes, and obesity. Residence in economically and socially isolated census tracts increases the probability that adolescents will engage in health-risk behaviors. [footnotes omitted]”

Thus, Jargowsky concludes, the return to high levels of concentration of poverty is troubling for a number of reasons, not least of which is the increasing evidence that “residing in high-poverty areas has independent effects on child development, educational attainment, health, and labor market outcomes.”

You can read the entire report here.

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