Urban Wire Poverty, race, and place: Map your metro
Graham MacDonald, Margery Austin Turner
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Two new books—Alan Berube and Elizabeth Kneebone’s Confronting Suburban Poverty in America and Patrick Sharkey’s Stuck in Place—have gotten people talking about poverty, race, and place. Berube and Kneebone explore the recent growth in suburban poverty, while Sharkey sheds new light on the devastating, long-term effects of concentrated poverty for African Americans.

Together, these books argue for a new generation of vigorous and sustained “place-conscious” strategies that systematically tackle poverty, inequality, and neighborhood distress in both city and suburban communities across whole metro regions. Although the basic outlines of the policy prescription apply nationwide, the details will vary from one metro to another. The history, geography, and politics of individual metro regions all matter profoundly, and any serious policy strategy must be tailored to local realities.

To help take the policy conversation from the general to the specific, we offer a new mapping tool. It lets you explore changes from 1980 to 2010 in where poor people of different races and ethnicities lived, for every metropolitan region nationwide.

Changing geography of povertytwo illustrative metros

Take a look at two very different metro areas—Milwaukee and Houston. Back in 1980, Milwaukee’s poor blacks were quite tightly clustered, while poor whites were much more widely dispersed. The region was home to relatively few Hispanics or Asians. Today, poverty is much more evident across the whole Milwaukee region, but the patterns still differ quite starkly by race and ethnicity. Poor blacks occupy a much larger area than in 1980, extending northwest from the city. Farther south, we see a significant cluster of Hispanic poverty. Several smaller clusters of poor Asians appear within areas of black, Hispanic, and white poverty. And poor whites are still far more dispersed geographically than are poor minorities—scattered across the metropolitan landscape.

The Houston metro has also seen big changes in both the composition and the geographic dispersion of poverty since 1980. But here our 2010 map shows considerably less clustering and less separation along lines of race and ethnicity. Poor blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians all appear to be sharing neighborhoods across the metro area.

Data can inform policy conversations

These differing patterns certainly don’t dictate policy solutions. But they provide essential context for answering questions like: Are some poor neighborhoods isolated from the region’s job opportunities? What would it take to connect them? Where should family support services be targeted? Which neighborhoods should be prioritized for improvements in essential amenities and opportunities? How can poor people across the metro landscape be better connected to the services and opportunities they seek?

For metro regions to systematically reduce poverty and expand opportunity, local civic and political leaders, advocates, and practitioners should start by sitting down together to understand the evolving realities of poverty, race, and place in their communities. We hope our maps help catalyze these conversations.


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Research Areas Race and equity Housing
Tags Poverty Infrastructure Racial and ethnic disparities Racial segregation Job opportunities Housing affordability Housing subsidies Neighborhoods and youth development Community and economic development Racial barriers to housing Racial inequities in neighborhoods and community development Structural racism