The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 25, 2011

Concentrated Poverty and Beyond: Lessons from Metropolitan Variation

May 25, 2011

The range of concentrated poverty levels across the 100 largest metro areas bears even more notice than changes in the levels I’ve written about in March and April. As usual, California stands out as a state of extremes. In three of its coastal metro areas—San Francisco, San Jose, and Oxnard—fewer than five percent of residents live in high-poverty neighborhoods. In the Central Valley metros of Fresno and Bakersfield, meanwhile, over a quarter of residents do. The poverty rates of the coastal metros are all about 8 or 9 percent, compared with rates of around 20 percent in Fresno and Bakersfield. But the fivefold difference in the levels of concentrated poverty must reflect more than just underlying rates.

Three other metro areas stand out for their high levels of concentrated poverty. The highest levels in the country are the Rio Grande Valley metros in Texas. In McAllen, an estimated 35 percent of residents live in poverty and two-thirds of residents live in high-poverty neighborhoods. El Paso has lower rates but still has crushingly high levels of concentrated poverty; it is also increasingly a city of refugees from the dreadful violence that has engulfed northern Mexico in the still-escalating drug wars. In Memphis, finally, about 22 percent of residents live in high-poverty neighborhoods.

The Wide Diversity of Concentrated Poverty Among US Metros

Regional poverty map

The Northeast Corridor, finally, also presents a surprising array of metropolitan conditions. The Washington, DC, area has among the lowest levels of concentrated poverty in the country: 2.3 percent of its residents live in high-poverty neighborhoods, unusually low for a large metro area. Philadelphia, meanwhile, registers a concentrated poverty rate of 11.3 percent, about the same as San Antonio and higher than Chicago or Miami.

Fashioning a national response to concentrated poverty is clearly complicated by this diversity. In metro areas like McAllen and El Paso, the problem is just poverty much more than the concentration of poverty; people in these struggling cities need more and better jobs. In Fresno and Memphis, historic and continuing segregation by race and ethnicity help cement class segregation and concentration of poverty, while uneven and slow economic growth keep poverty rates high. In metro areas with low costs and low concentrated poverty rates—Colorado Springs, Boise, and Des Moines, for example—residents and officials may consider all the concern about concentrated poverty irrelevant.

The diversity of the map also suggests that the single national poverty standard has become increasingly outdated as housing costs have diverged among metro areas. Even a casual observer knows that rental housing in the San Francisco or Washington metro area costs much more than that in Fresno or Memphis. According to the NLIHC’s work on the housing wage, featured in a 2010 MetroTrends commentary, it would take four minimum-wage jobs to afford a median-rent apartment in Washington, and San Francisco isn’t far behind. Fortunately, with efforts like the NLIHC’s, we’re ready to go beyond concentrated poverty as the sole metric of neighborhood distress and of metropolitan problems.  

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