The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 18, 2011

High Poverty Neighborhoods – Say Goodbye to Stereotypes

August 18, 2011

With surprising consistency, the literature on community improvement talks about distressed inner city neighborhoods as if all are basically the same.  But that is blatantly untrue. Of the 133 neighborhoods in the LISC Building Sustainable Communities initiatives and the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Making Connections Initiative, only 23% had extreme poverty rates (above 40%) in 2000. Most had serious but more moderate levels of poverty. A third, for example, were in the 20-30% range. These neighborhoods differ from each other markedly in other ways as well.

For at least three reasons, all neighborhoods with poverty rates of 20% or more -- not just those in the extreme poverty group -- deserve policy-makers’ attention.

  1. Extreme poverty tracts house just too small a share of the population in need.  In 2000, only 12% of all poor people in metropolitan areas lived in census tracts with poverty rates of 40% or more.  Almost half (47%) lived in tracts with poverty rates of 20 percent or more.
  2. The 20-40% poverty range may be where the effects of increasing poverty are most threatening.  Wayne State’s George Galster finds that “independent impacts of neighborhood poverty rates in encouraging negative outcomes for individuals like crime, school leaving and duration of poverty spells appears to be nil unless the neighborhood exceeds about 20% poverty, whereupon the externality effects grow rapidly until the neighborhood reaches approximately 40% poverty.”
  3. While problems are even more severe in the extreme poverty group, conditions in the 20-40% range are still much worse than in those with poverty rates below that range.  For example, 45% of all households with children in metropolitan tracts with poverty rates from 20% to 30% are headed by a single parent, compared to only 24% in those with less than 20% in poverty. Similarly, the share of adults without a high school degree is 35% in the 20-30% range, but only15% in tracts with lower poverty.

This argues for learning much more about the circumstances and dynamics of neighborhoods in the moderate poverty range so we can devise a range of solutions that better fit the mix of conditions that actually exist in urban America today.

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