The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 23, 2013

City neighborhoods: still "lonely islands of poverty"?

August 23, 2013

The issues we’ve reflected on at length in our commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington often center on a person’s home, neighborhood and city. Fifty years ago, Dr. King said, “One hundred years [after emancipation] the colored American lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

I sat down with Margery Turner, Urban Institute Senior Vice President, and Rolf Pendall, director of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, to talk about that lonely island in concrete terms. What follows is a lightly edited version of their discussion on racial isolation and concentrated poverty in neighborhoods.

Margery Turner: When I write about the persistence of poverty and segregation and their bad effects, I often argue that one piece of the solution is enabling poor people of color to move to neighborhoods where everything already works. To some extent that means moving to predominately white, suburban neighborhoods where the schools are good and the parks are safe.

Rolf, I think you’ve raised concerns about that as a remedy. What’s the point-counter point on that?

Rolf Pendall: My perspective is that places remain poor, and are subject to becoming poor in national crises, for a lot of different reasons. But for some people, especially immigrants, those neighborhoods actually play a pretty important role in acculturation and in getting jobs. It’s worth asking, is moving away the right answer for those people? Is there perhaps something else going on there that we want to acknowledge and accommodate, even in the face of concentrated poverty?

MT: Really interesting point. Given our history, a bunch of the high poverty neighborhoods in central cities with predominately black populations have operated as isolating traps for their residents. But there is another group of neighborhoods that may “look” just as bad, but aren’t traps. Maybe they’re launch pads. They might be poor, they might look bad, they might be undesirable places to stay, but they perform really constructive acculturation, integration, linkage functions. People move into them, do well in them, and move on.

Pushing people to move out of those neighborhoods too soon isn’t doing them or the neighborhood any favors.

RP: That’s one kind of neighborhood. But there’s a whole different set, too, especially in deindustrializing metros where the regional housing market is flat but housing construction continues on the fringe. This offers opportunities for many households to live in neighborhoods that are okay, if not great. That’s a source of constant drainage from city centers.

The people who are left behind are those living in concentrated poverty. It’s situations like those where accommodating more mobility by low-income people is a good principle. But as long as there is not a real commitment to helping the lowest-income and most vulnerable, then mobility isn’t the only answer. It has to be accompanied by something else: we must start by ending so much construction on the fringe.

MT: And the something else that you have suggested is different from what most people talk about in this context. Most people also advocate reinvesting in those old neighborhoods so they become great places to live.

You’re saying something different: you also have to stop adding more, newer housing stock in the suburbs and exurbs that is sucking population out of the central city. That is exacerbating the distress. Reinvesting isn’t going to work if you have this big centrifugal force from the exurban housing market.

RP: From a political standpoint, also, investing in these neighborhoods will delegitimize community development because those investments are destined to fail by the operation of the metropolitan housing market.

MT: To sum, I want to come back to a couple of themes around enabling people to move out. Perhaps it’s not a solution to concentrated poverty from the neighborhood’s perspective, but it may be the most ethical policy recommendation for the families who want to do that.

RP: We need to connect our responses to concentrated poverty to the metropolitan context. Houston, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. all have neighborhoods with high poverty rates – but we can’t help the people in those neighborhoods succeed with the same mobility and community development strategies.

Hanging shoes photo from Shutterstock.

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