Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Why Slums Are Growing Again


Scene of an American slum
Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
Hello Everyone:

The word slum immediately conjures up images of squalid, filthy, unsanitary, crime ridden places buried deep in cities.  These places seem so distant from our nice safe neighborhoods.  In her recent article for The Atlantic, "The Resurrection of America's Slums," Alana Semuels reports, "Half a century President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty, the number of Americans living in slums is rising at an extraordinary pace."  This is startling news because it seemed that during the 1990s, the number of poor people living in high-poverty areas (slums) fell.  However, the number of people now living high-poverty areas appear to be growing again.  Why is this happening in a country where anyone willing to work hard can have their American Dream?

Skid Row
Los Angeles, California
 Before we go any further, let us start by defining the characteristics of a high-poverty area.  Alana Semuels defines a slum as "...census tracts where 40 percent or more families have income levels below the federal poverty threshold."  The current federal poverty level for an individual is $11,770;  for an average family of four it is $24,250.  (http://www,healthcare.gov)  According to a new study of census data by Paul Jargowsky, a professor of public policy and a fellow at The Century Foundation, the number of people living in high-poverty areas almost double between 2000 and 2013-from 7.2 million to 13.8 million.  (http://www.tcf.org)  This is the highest number of Americans living in high-poverty areas ever logged.

This development is particularly troublesome considering that between 1990 and 2000 the number of people living in high-poverty areas dropped 25 percent-from 9.6 million to 7.2 million.  The nineties were flush economic times, which resulted in the decline of poverty.  The Earned Income Tax Credit increased the net take home pay for many low-income families.  In an aside, Ms. Semuels writes, "Studies have shown the EITC also creates a feeling of social inclusion and citizenship among low-income earners.  Unemployment dropped to 3.8 percent and minimum wage increased for the first time in a decade, making it easier for families to get by.  Prof. Jargowsky told Ms. Semuels, Programs to disassemble housing projects in big cities such as Chicago and Detroit eradicated some of the most concentrated poverty in the country.

Population Living in High-Poverty Neighborhoods
Source: 1990 and 2000 Census
Source: 2009-13 ACS/The Century Foundation

The new middle-class minorities moved to the inner suburbs, while the predominantly whites residents of the same suburbs moved further away, purchasing rapidly built McMansions. The speed of white flight was particularly distressing for Rust Belt cities, that did not experience the boom times of the mid-2000s. Sadly, they watched manufacturing and jobs move overseas.

Rust Belt cities like Detroit experienced continued white flight as more affluent residents moved to Oakland County and deeper into the suburbs, distancing themselves from the urban core.  They took with them their tax dollars, leaving the city with a small tax base, a struggling economy, and no resource to allocate to necessary services.

Rundown Detroit neighborhood
Even if low-income residents wanted to follow the wealthy to the suburbs, they would have had a difficult time.  Ms. Semuels writes, "Many wealthy suburbs passed zoning ordinances that prohibited the construction of affordable-housing units or the construction of apartment buildings in general."  Some of the ordinances went as far as to insist that all houses be detached or a minimum size, essentially making them out of reach for low-income families.

Prof. Paul Jargowsky told Ms. Semuels, It's no longer legal to say, 'We don't want African-Americans to live,' but you can say, I'm going to make sure no one who makes less than two times the median income lives here.  In another aside, Ms. Semuels writes, "Though some affordable-housing developers try to build in the suburbs, many more, especially those in the 'poverty-housing industry' advocate for building more developments in high-poverty areas to stimulate economic growth.  The Local Initiative Support Corporation, which has a goal of investing in distressed neighborhoods, for example, has spent $14.7 billion building affordable housing units since 1980."

Affordable housing in Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York
In some cities in the Midwestern and Northeastern United States, where poverty is very concentrated and thousands of people have found their way to the suburbs, the region is shrinking in population. Case in point, Prof Jargowsky's study found that in 2013, 65 percent of African-Americans lived in high-poverty Syracuse, New York neighborhoods. This was an increase from 43 percent in 2000.  (http://www.tcf.org)   In Detroit, the study revealed that 58 percent of the African-American population lived in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty in 2013, a marked increase from 17 percent in 2000.  Finally, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 43 percent of Latino lived in high-poverty areas in 2013, a huge increase from a minuscule 5 percent in 2000.  (Ibid)

Southwest Detroit neighborhood
If these statistics are not alarming enough, Alana Semuels reports, "The number of high-poverty census tracts is also growing in man of these cities."  For example, Detroit saw its high-poverty census tracts triple from 51 in 2000 to 184 in 2013, as concentrated poverty infiltrated the inner suburbs.  Meanwhile, Syracuse, the high-poverty census tract bloomed from 12 in 2000 to 30 in 2013.  You may wonder what the Federal government is doing to stem the tide.

Federal dollars have occasionally done the opposite, instead of alleviating areas of high-poverty, they have been used in ways to grow them.  Ms. Semuels explains,
Most affordable housing is built with low-income housing tax credits, which are distributed by the states.  States assign the tax credits through a process in which they weigh a number of different factors including the location of proposed developments.  Many states have favored low-income areas, a practice that was the recent subject of of a Supreme Court case know as Inclusive Communities.  The Inclusive Communities project argued, in the case, the way Texas allocated tax credits was discriminatory, since 93 percent of tax credit units in Dallas are located in census tracts that are more than 50 percent minority, and are predominantly poor.

The Supreme Court upheld the argument in June and allowed groups to file lawsuits relating to this type of segregation.

An example of Section 8 housing
Lastly, Housing Choice Vouchers, more commonly known as Section 8, also have contributed to the growth of high-poverty areas.  Like many of the poverty alleviating remedies, Section 8 housing vouchers started out with the very best of intentions.  Originally, they were meant give low-income families better choices about where they live. However, instead giving said families more choices, they are restricting the families to certain neighborhoods where landlords will accept Section 8 vouchers.  This, in turn, increased the racial concentration of poverty, acutely effecting medium-sized American cities.  Alan Semuels quotes from Prof. Jargowsky's study, These policies build a durable architecture of segregation that ensures that racial segregation and the concentration of poverty is entrenched for years to come.  (http://www.tcf.org)

Highest Black Concentration of Poverty
Source: 1990 and 2000 Census
Source: 2009-13 ACS/The Century Foundation

However, there are positive signs amid the gloomy statistics.  The Supreme Court decision and a new Housing and Urban Development rule mandate that region carefully consider segregation.  Nevertheless, Prof Jargowsky told Ms. Semuels,

...deeper policy prescriptions are needed to reduce these depressing trends...federal and state government must ensure that new suburban developments aren't built more quickly than the metropolitan region is growing, so that such developments don't create a population vacuum in cities and inner suburbs...every city and town must ensure that new housing construction reflects the income distribution of the metropolitan area...so that more housing is available to people of all incomes in different parts of town.

Dinkins Gardens
New York
Prof. Paul Jargowsky writes in his study, If we are serious about breaking down spatial inequality...We have to overcome our political gridlock and chart a new course toward a more geographically inclusive society. (http://www.tcf.org) 

This is extremely crucial for the future of American cities and the United States.  His research has demonstrated that children in low-income families are more likely to reside in high-poverty areas than adults-"28 percent of poor black children live in high-poverty areas, for example, compared to 24 percent of poor black adults.  Overall, 16.5 percent of poor children live in high-poverty areas, compared to 13.8 or poor adults."

What does this all mean for for the future of this child?  You do not need a Harvard study, like the one published this and alluded to by Alana Semuels, to tell you that a poor child who moves to a more affluent areas is more likely to do better in school and have a higher income than the same child who stays in the high-poverty area.  The bottom line is this, without drastic changes this vicious cycle of poverty will continue for generations to come.

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