American cities have long been unequal places – with large, often overlapping class and racial gaps. Residents of particular neighborhoods often experience many severe deprivations at the same time. Researchers attempt to understand these overlapping urban inequalities by mapping concentrations of racial and ethnic groups as well as areas that experience concentrated poverty, using U.S. census data to identify areas that are both predominantly non-white and where more. 40% of residents are poor.
But the other side of the story of urban inequality receives less attention. Although concentrated poverty in American urban centers has garnered a great deal of interest from researchers and policy makers, much less attention is paid to areas of concentrated white wealth. Failure to consider both sides of growing urban inequality is problematic as the growing advantages enjoyed by affluent white city dwellers often come at the expense of imposing ever greater disruption and disadvantage on poor and minority residents.
The growth of racially concentrated urban poverty
According to Joseph Cortright and Dillon Mahmoudi, economists and regional development experts at City Observatory, the number of high poverty neighborhoods in the United States has tripled since 1970. “This increasing concentration of poverty,” they conclude, “is the most big problem facing American cities. Additionally, as my own research in Lexington, Kentucky has shown, areas of racially concentrated poverty have not only reached an all-time high, they have also been underestimated for a long time.
Racially concentrated poverty is particularly worrying because it brings together the most disadvantaged people and multiplies their problems. Residents of these areas face more health and crime problems, deprivation of education and shorter life expectancy. To address these problems, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development attempted to disperse the poor to less deprived areas. In partnership with cities across the country, the Department has undertaken projects such as the demolition and redevelopment of social housing. This approach, however, has the effect of imposing additional burdens on the most vulnerable, poor and marginalized urban residents.
Additionally, my research in Lexington shows that areas of racially concentrated poverty have grown, not reduced, as the city has implemented this type of plan to disperse poverty. My findings suggest the inapplicability of policies that attempt to alleviate concentrated poverty simply by dispersing the poor. For example, HOPE VI is a program developed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the 1990s. In Lexington and other areas, this plan aimed to revitalize public housing projects in American cities by converting them into mixed income developments – housing that serves not only low income residents but also middle and high income residents. But so far this approach has not worked.
In Lexington, the HOPE VI projects were built on the former sites of the Bluegrass-Aspendale and Charlotte Court social housing projects. These efforts have demolished more than 1,000 social housing units and opened up the areas to new mixed-income housing. But this redevelopment has failed to reduce concentrated poverty. The problem, of course, is that moving the poor in space doesn’t make them any less poor. In Lexington, areas of racially concentrated poverty actually expanded over time as poor residents simply clustered in other parts of the city after being displaced. In turn, the “redeveloped” neighborhoods they left behind began to gentrify with an influx of predominantly white urban youth. The failure of this approach in Lexington and elsewhere stems from the obvious fact that the displacement of the poor is a mistaken spatial solution to fundamentally social problems.
The other side of concentrated white wealth
As concentrated urban poverty continues to grow, especially for racial minorities, it is only one side of the story of growing urban inequality in the United States. Equally important is to consider the flip side of racially concentrated wealth. Along with growing urban poverty, cities have also seen the growth of disproportionate white neighborhoods with median household incomes more than twice that of the city-wide median. Indeed, in Lexington, racially concentrated wealth is not only much more prevalent than racially concentrated poverty, it has been so for a long time.
Wealthy areas rarely, if ever, receive the same degree of critical scrutiny as areas populated by poor people of color. It may seem obvious that policymakers see little to worry about for wealthy areas. Yet these richer, whiter neighborhoods are implicated in the spread of urban poverty. On the one hand, as my research shows, over 40% of all residential properties in the poorest areas of Lexington are owned by people outside of those neighborhoods. Already limited financial resources or poor tenants are flowing into the bank accounts of richer landlords living in other neighborhoods around the city, or even beyond the city borders. Outgoing money flows not only reproduce poverty in poor neighborhoods, they can also subsidize wealthy white enclaves on the outskirts of the city. Therefore, even though racially focused poverty and wealth look very different, analysts should keep in mind that the social and economic forces that create the two are in many ways intertwined. Understanding the fundamental and dynamic links between places and sets of social conditions allows analysts to avoid dichotomies that are misleading or / or that too often mark discussions on the causes of urban inequalities.
Rather than seeing concentrated poverty as the opposite of gentrification or other manifestations of urban inequality, these processes must be understood as part of the same system – where poor, non-white residents and neighborhoods are repeatedly disadvantaged and drained of their resources, while at the same time the well-to-do, mostly white, and their neighborhoods enjoy more benefits and additional resources. Extreme urban poverty and wealth may seem like worlds apart, even within the same city, but they are actually linked by complex economic and social links that researchers must investigate so that policymakers can properly account for them.