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Segregation by The Numbers


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Document date: May 01, 1997
Released online: May 01, 1997
The Washington Post

Conventional wisdom holds that poor people naturally cluster in poor neighborhoods, and that high-poverty, inner-city communities are the inevitable result. But the conventional wisdom is wrong. In the Washington metropolitan area, white and Hispanic poor people are widely scattered throughout the region's suburban neighborhoods, while many poor African Americans are living in highly concentrated pockets of poverty in the inner city. An analysis of census data reveals the starkness of the region's residential segregation: Poor blacks are four times more likely than the non-black poor to live in the District and 14 times more likely to live in a neighborhood with a high concentration of poverty.

This kind of geographic concentration exacerbates the consequences of poverty. When poverty rates exceed 30 percent (my definition for a high-poverty area), neighborhoods have great difficulty sustaining the economic and civic institutions essential for a healthy community. Poor education, joblessness, teen parenthood, discrimination and crime all reinforce one another, fueling a vicious cycle of poverty, inequality, isolation and social distress.

A new study of 1990 U.S. Census data, conducted by the Urban Institute, shows:

  • Poverty is highly segregated. Sixty-one percent of poor blacks in the metropolitan area live inside the District; 85 percent of the region's non-black poor live outside the District.
  • Black poverty is highly concentrated, while white and Hispanic poverty is highly dispersed. Twenty-six percent of the regions' poor blacks live in a high-poverty, inner-city neighborhood, compared with only 2 percent of the non-black poor.

In the Washington area's high-poverty neighborhoods, all of which are located within the District, almost half the adults lack a high school diploma, compared with only 15 percent for the metropolitan region as a whole. Unemployment is nearly four times greater in these poor neighborhoods than in the metropolitan area, and almost three-quaters of families with children are headed by single women, compared with only one-quarter of families throughout the region. Moreover, as an increasing share of jobs migrate to the suburbs, poor African American communities in the central city are being cut off from access to economic opportunities.

As relative newcomers to the Washington metropolitan area, poor Hispanics have thus far avoided this kind of concentrated, inner-city poverty. The region's total Hispanic population more than doubled between 1980 and 1990, to 213,000. But only about 5 percent of poor Hispanics live in high-poverty neighborhoods, and only 25 percent of the Hispanic poor live in the District at all.

Housing discrimination and racial segregation in the Washington metropolitan region play a critical role in determining where poor people live. Poor non-black families are more likely to have access to housing opportunities in low-poverty communities throughout the metropolitan area, while their African American counterparts are far more often confined to the poorest and most distressed neighborhoods.

The Washington region has made some progress in opening up housing opportunities for African Americans. Between 1980 and 1990, the share of the area's poor African Americans living in the District dropped from 68 percent to 61 percent. And a growing number of affluent neighborhoods in the region are majority black or ethnically mixed, creating wider opportunities for people of all ethnic and racial groups.

But discrimination still persists; in February, the Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington released the results of its latest paired testing study, showing that minority apartment seekers experience discrimination more than two out of every five times that they try to rent an apartment in the Washington area.

The concentration of black poverty in our region demonstrates the continued need to combat longstanding patterns of discrimination and segregation. One promising initiative is a newly formed consortium of all the public housing authorities in the region, committed to expanding location choices for families who receive federal housing vouchers. This consortium, spearheaded by the Prince George's County housing authority and coordinated by the regional Council of Governments, has received multiyear funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Over the next five years, its members will work together to craft region-wide strategies for helping poor families find housing in neighborhoods that offer them the best chances for upward mobility and economic independence.

Highly concentrated, inner-city poverty threatens the future of individual families, undermines the health of neighborhoods, drains city finances and polarizes our metropolitan community. The Washington region has made significant progress in recent years in opening up access to suburban and low-poverty communities for African Americans and Hispanics. But unless we explicitly attack the racial segregation that concentrates inner-city poverty, efforts to revitalize distressed communities and ensure equal opportunity for all poor Washingtonians cannot succeed.

...While White and Hispanic Poverty Is Mostly Scattered

What does work? Adding a strong "outside game" to the "inside game" through regional strategies looking beyond city limits. Capture sprawl-or better yet, control sprawl-through regional growth management. Shift some revenues from wealthier to poorer communities through regional revenue sharing. Integrate more poor blacks into mainstream communities (the way most poor whites are) through regional fair share low- and moderate-income housing policies.

Many American cities have fought sprawl by capturing their share of new growth. Since 1950, half of America's 522 "central cities," such as Austin, Charlotte, and Columbus, at least doubled their territory by annexing new suburbs. Another 20 cities, like Nashville, Jacksonville, Fla., and Indianapolis, in effect, annexed their countries.

Such near-regional cities are all fiscally strong. Not one has less than an "A" credit rating. Within their boundaries they shift taxes from wealthier neighborhoods to maintain decent services in poorer neighborhoods. Poor minorities tend to be more spread out among city neighborhoods.

Controlling sprawl may work better than capturing sprawl. Portland,Ore., is the shining example. Under state law, Portland Metro, a popularity elected regional government, administers a tough Urban Growth Boundary for a three-county, 24 city region. During the 1980s, the Portland region's urbanized population grew 14 percent-and its urbanized land by only 11 percent. In its Year 2040 plan, Portland Metro projects 50 percent population growth, but only 8 percent growth in urbanized land. (By contrast, Maryland's Planning Department last year projected the Baltimore area's population would grow only 15 percent, but suburban land would expand 75 percent).

The Portland area has boomed in the 1990s, and its housing prices are escalating. High-tech companies are investing $13 billion in new plants inside the Urban Growth Boundary. By preventing developers from paving over farmland, Portland Metro has turned investment inward. In just five years, property values in Albina, Portland's poorest neighborhood, have doubled. New prosperity has come to older blue-collar suburbs as well.

While the region's poorer neighborhoods welcome new investment and middle-class households, low-income renters are facing a housing squeeze. The Metro Council, however, is considering stronger policies to scatter low-income housing throughout Portland. For inspiration Portland is looking to Montgomery County, long a leader in developing a comprehensive mixed-income housing policy. Almost 25 years ago, the Montgomery County Council began mandating that at least 15 percent of new subdivisions be affordable for working-class households. More remarkably, the countywide public housing agency buys up to one-third of the lower-cost units.

Complying with the county's new ground rule, private developers have built more than 10,000 affordable single-family homes, town houses and apartment units since 1975. The housing authority purchased 1,100 units scattered in 150 different neighborhoods. Most were located in western Montgomery County, including areas like Potomac, where most new construction occurred.

Montgomery County has become a mature inner suburb. Its progressive planning and housing policies have not totally prevented slow decline in its older, eastern areas like Wheaton and Silver Spring. But without the county's success in spreading many poorer households into newer neighborhoods and higher-income schools, eastern Montgomery County would face more severe social problems.

Neither the District nor Baltimore City can solve its problems by anexing its suburbs. But there are other hopeful stirrings. The Greater Baltimore Committee, the Baltimore region's preeminent business group, has put its weight behind regional growth management, regional affordable housing and regional revenue sharing. And this spring the legislature approved Governor Glendening's proposals to target most state, road, water and sewer funds on Baltimore City and older parts of Baltimore County, Montgomery County and Prince George's County.

The District's political hurdles are more complex, but there has been some progress. A federal control board is slowly paring down an overstuffed local bureaucracy. President Clinton has proposed federalizing the District's prisons, road department and other state government-type functions. And in Virginia, there are promising regional cooperation efforts afoot that could benefit the District as well.

Congress, though, needs to pass President Clinton's package for the District and correct federal policies that have been gutting the nation's cities for half a century. For starters, Congress needs to: reauthorize the federal transportation planning bill, the biggest boost to regional collaboration in two decades; increase funds for HUD's rent vouchers and support converting public housing projects into mixed-income communities; exempt home sales from capital gains taxes (which generally force sellers to move up and out); decrease the federal share of highway, sewer and other infrastructure projects that promote further suburban sprawl, and locate major federal offices in downtown areas.

Accomplishing all this-and developing regional strategies for managing growth, sharing affordable housing and sharing revenue-is essential to saving "Ballmer" and "Ol' D.C."

Topics/Tags: | Cities and Neighborhoods | Race/Ethnicity/Gender

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