African American Poverty: Concentrated and Multi-Generational

In the current issue of The American Prospect, I review Patrick Sharkey’s Stuck in Place, a 2013 book that helps explain the persistent failure of educational policy to spur the upward mobility of low-income African American youth.

It is now well understood that many characteristics of children from low-income families—poor health, housing instability, inadequate pre-literacy experiences when young and inadequate after-school enrichment opportunities when older—make it difficult to take advantage of even the best classroom instruction. A quarter of a century ago, William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged showed that the harm is magnified when children with these disadvantages are concentrated in urban ghettos where jobs have vanished, violence, drugs, and stress are commonplace, and there are few adult role models of academic success.

Building on Wilson’s work, Sharkey demonstrates that the harm is exacerbated when families live in such low-income neighborhoods for multiple generations. Indeed, a child’s chance of success may be harmed as much or more by having a mother who grew up in a poor neighborhood than by growing up in a poor neighborhood him or herself. And, Sharkey shows, between black and white children who live in poor neighborhoods, blacks are more likely to have done so for multiple generations.

From William Julius Wilson’s and Patrick Sharkey’s work we can only conclude that significant progress towards racial equality requires creating substantial opportunities for low-income black families to live in more income-heterogeneous neighborhoods, as low-income white families are more likely to do.

Just before the Christmas holiday, Paul Jargowsky, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University, added to these understandings by publishing new calculations from census data. In Concentration of Poverty in the New Millenium, a Century Foundation report, Jargowsky finds that poverty has become more concentrated since 2000—the poor are more likely than before to live in high-poverty neighborhoods (where at least 40 percent of the residents are poor). The chances that a poor white family will live in a high poverty neighborhood increased the most, but the chances for poor black and Hispanic families increased as well. In 2011, 7 percent of poor whites lived in high poverty neighborhoods, up from 4 percent in 2000; 15 percent of poor Hispanics lived in high poverty neighborhoods, up from 14 percent in 2000; and a breathtaking 23 percent of poor blacks lived in high poverty neighborhoods, up from 19 percent in 2000.

These numbers understate how poverty has become more concentrated. Neighborhoods where 40 percent of families have incomes below the poverty line are also neighborhoods where many of the remaining 60 percent have low- or very-low incomes, but still above poverty. Jargowsky also shows that the poor who are not now living in high poverty neighborhoods are more likely to live in neighborhoods where poverty is only slightly less concentrated—where, for example, 30 percent of their neighbors are poor.

The public has become aware of growing inequality—in income, wealth, and employment, thanks in part to the Economic Policy Institute’s ongoing State of Working America, which has documented these trends for over two decades. But it seems that the growing variation in the economic circumstances of individuals and families is only part of the story—the growing concentration and geographic isolation of low-income families further exacerbates destruction of opportunity in the United States.

Reading Patrick Sharkey’s Stuck in Place and Paul Jargowsky’s Concentration of Poverty is a sobering way to start 2014. But for deeper insights into the challenges we face in narrowing inequality, I recommend you do so.