The blog of the Urban Institute
June 21, 2013

Poverty, race, and place: Map your metro

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.


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.


Interesting project. We mapped block-level race/ethnicity characteristics using the "then and now" technique a couple of years ago, here We have a discussion of our methodology here We had decided not to use the dot density technique to show race/ethnicity concentrations, since it seemed easier to visualize the changes with the choropleth technique. But I'd be interested in your thoughts on a comparison of the two approaches.
What I would want to know is how does home ownership and or rentals affect the dispersement by race and geographics in the two metro areas of Milwaukee and Houston? Did you take this into to consideration when analyzing the differences/ that played into social mobility? So, is it that the Houston area has more affordable rental options and better perceived housing stock even though it is rental that presents itself as the best housing opportunity regardless of the race of the Houstonians experiencing poverty?