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The devastating impacts of concentrated poverty – And what can be done to reverse the trend

Recently published research on concentrated poverty by urban policy professor Paul Jargowsky shows that the number of high-poverty neighborhoods increased by 50 percent between 2000 and 2010. And the number of poor people living in high-poverty neighborhoods grew twice as fast as the overall poor population. A new book by sociology professor Patrick Sharkey documents the multi-generational nature of living in concentrated poverty—that is, the prevalence of two or more generations living in high-poverty neighborhoods, particularly among poor African-Americans. Both researchers emphasize the growing body of research that demonstrates overwhelmingly that residing in high-poverty neighborhoods has significant impacts on health, child development, educational attainment and labor market outcomes. And both researchers stress the same important root cause of concentrated poverty among African-Americans: a long history of exclusionary zoning that was reinforced by institutional discrimination in housing markets through a large share of the last century, and less formal discrimination that continues into the present.

The implications of living in concentrated poverty are well-established and the new data demonstrate that the severity of the problem has increased over the past decade. So, what can be done to reverse the trend? At a recent event sponsored by the Economic Policy Institute and the Century Foundation, Jargowsky and Sharkey were joined by Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic and Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund to talk about how we need to think about poverty, particularly African-American poverty, and what should be done to undo the policies that set the stage for the current pattern of concentrated poverty. Here are some of their solutions:

  • Inclusionary and fair-share housing. Since suburban exclusionary housing is at the heart of the causes of concentrated urban poverty, a necessary solution is to mandate more inclusive housing policies in all jurisdictions and to require localities to provide their fair share of affordable housing. Specifically, all localities should require mixed-income development, explicitly prohibit housing discrimination based on race and income, and actively produce housing that is affordable to the entire income spectrum.
  • Mobility programs with intense counseling. Families living in high-poverty neighborhoods should have the choice to move to places with less poverty, safer streets, better schools, and better services. That choice needs to be accompanied by information about how to find housing in new neighborhoods and support for transitioning from a family’s original neighborhood, where they might have lived for generations, to somewhere new.
  • Transportation investment. As important as it is to have access to affordable housing in neighborhoods with good schools and safer streets, the reality is that a lack of transportation options can make moving to those neighborhoods unrealistic for many families. Investment in transportation, particularly in public transit, is an essential and durable part of making the transition out of high poverty neighborhoods possible.

Living in concentrated poverty, particularly when residence in high-poverty neighborhoods persists over multiple generations, has serious damaging consequences for individuals and families. Throughout the conversation on solutions, all of the speakers talked about the importance of finding “durable” solutions that would live on through business cycles and political change and why we need to focus on policy solutions that redress decades of decisions that have institutionalized the current landscape of poverty.

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