A Minority View On Inner-City Poverty

Several thoughtful, in-depth articles lately have spoken to the problem of entrenched urban poverty lately in urgent ways. Bryce Covert, for example, lays out the situation in Think Progress:

more people are in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty. The populations of high-poverty neighborhoods grew by 91 percent, increasing to 13.8 million people, the highest number of residents ever recorded. And today, just under 15 percent of the poor live in these neighborhoods, up from about 10 percent in 2000.

Meanwhile, the better off are living in very different neighborhoods. “The poor are increasingly living apart from the rich,” said Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University. “Economic segregation has been rising pretty steadily since about 1970.”

As we’ve seen, this situation is bad for the rich. Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder for them so much as it makes the heart ignorant and kind of callous. But segregation is far worse for the poor.

“All of the challenges that come with living in poverty become amplified,” Sharkey said. And it’s not because the people in those neighborhoods have some sort of ingrained character flaws; it’s because of that downward spiral. Businesses pull up investments and are reluctant to make new ones. Important community institutions, such as churches and after school programs, get eroded. Schools deteriorate. Violence can emerge.

This all has consequences for the residents, ones they wouldn’t necessarily face in a more affluent area even with the same incomes. Academic performance, job opportunities, and health outcomes are all lower in these areas even when controlling for families’ individual poverty.

So what’s the solution? Right now, “affordable housing is typically only built in poor areas.” Should we instead shift our focus and build affordable housing in the suburbs and other wealthier places, where the children would have access to safer schools and more resources?

Most experts seem to agree that segregation makes poverty worse, that “separate but equal” is an impossible standard and that integration is what we know works to significantly ameliorate problems like the achievement gap. The first of This American Life’s two devastating podcast episodes about education makes this point:

NH: I think it’s important to point out that it is not that something magical happens when black kids sit in a classroom next to white kids. It’s not that suddenly a switch turns on and they get intelligence, or wanting the desire to learn when they’re with white kids. What integration does is it gets black kids in the same facilities as white kids. And therefore, it gets them access to the same things that those kids get — quality teachers and quality instruction.

IG: The US Department of Education put out data last year showing that black and Latino kids in segregated schools have the least qualified teachers, the least experienced teachers. They also get the worst course offerings, the least access to AP and upper level courses, the worst facilities. The other thing about most segregated black schools, Nikole says, is that they have high concentrations of children who grew up in poverty.

Those kids have greater educational needs. They’re more stressed out. They have a bunch of disadvantages. And when you put a lot of kids like that together in one classroom, studies show, it doesn’t go well.

This Times article about the persistent and pernicious ill effects of housing segregation in Ferguson — centered around the frustrations a parent who is desperate to access a better neighborhood and school district — makes a similar point.

So is integration the answer?

No, argues Alana Semuels in the Atlantic. And she also cites those same This American episodes to bolster her point.

Building new affordable housing in wealthy areas takes investment away from the downtrodden areas that most need it. Moving poor children to better schools can help those individual students, but does nothing to improve the sub-par schools they left behind. (For more on this, listen to the recent work by This American Life on school desegregation.) And putting poor families in the suburbs, away from bus stops, food pantries, and other services, can make their lives harder, not easier. According to Mark Rogers, a community developer in East Austin and the executive director of the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, sometimes low-income people want to live in the areas where they’ve lived their whole lives, where their parents lived, where their grandparents lived.

“You could take a paternalistic attitude and say, ‘You shouldn’t live over there, we’re not going to build housing for you over there,’” he said. And that hasn’t always been the approach, he added. “Traditionally, affordable-housing programs were able to transform communities by investing in better, safer housing.”

I’m a little skeptical of that argument: really, affordable-housing programs have transformed communities? Which ones?

But Semuels also collects first-person accounts from people who are the experts on their own lives.

Margaret Tucker, 49, grew up in East Austin, as did her mother.“Regardless of how tough the living was back then, everybody pulled together and pretty much looked out for each other,” she told me, from the living room of the affordable-housing complex in East Austin where she lives today. Tucker has lived in other neighborhoods in Austin, but says she always wanted to get back to where she knows people and where she was raised. “I have friends who say, it’s tough here, I don’t want my kids in the area, growing up, maybe they’re going to sell drugs, but personally I’ve always stay focused,” she told me. “I think it’s not where you’re at that matters, it’s how you live.”

The ideal then seems to be to do both: to continue investing in long neglected inner-city neighborhoods in a way that allows long-term residents to benefits while also opening up other opportunities for residents who do want to move.

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