Concentrated poverty isolates, harms children

If you have to be poor, it’s best to do it in a mixed-income neighborhood. That dramatically increases the chances that there will be a supermarket nearby, that your kids can attend good schools and that your family won’t be the victim of crime. Today, however, more American children are growing up in areas of concentrated poverty – places where the basic structures that support good health, safety and upward mobility are overwhelmed or non-existent.

“Concentrated poverty,” meaning 40 percent or more of a neighborhood’s residents live below the federal poverty level, is on the rise, according to demographers from Pennsylvania State University. Between 2000 and now, the number of Americans living in concentrated poverty areas went from 11.4 percent to 14.1 percent.

Concentrated poverty had declined in the 1990s. In its new incarnation, the phenomenon is different – more likely to include residents of all races and more likely to be located in the suburbs. The decline in suburban neighborhoods comes with its own set of problems. These places tend to be farther away from social service agencies and may have less access to public transportation.

How poor is poor?

It’s important to understand what the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) means. It might better be called “The Deep Poverty Level.” For example, FPL is $24,600 for a family of four. Even the most frugal of us could not swing a two-bedroom apartment, transportation, food and medicine on that. Add in a baby who needs diapers and outgrows clothes every month, and you are sinking fast.

So when we say 40 percent of a neighborhood is below FPL, that means that a significant proportion of the population can’t afford the basic necessities of life.

How does this affect kids?

In myriad ways – all day, everyday.

The most obvious is school quality. In most places, schools are supported by property taxes. In a neighborhood where property values are depressed, schools are underfunded. Access to health care is also frighteningly bad as hospitals and individual doctors abandon these neighborhoods.

A poor neighborhood is likely to have badly maintained sidewalks and parks and higher rates of violence. So outside play and exercise is problematic. A recent University of Michigan study found that for every 1 percent decrease in family income status, the chances that a child would be obese went up 1.17 percent.

Lack of exercise is coupled with a poor diet. Low-income census tracts have half as many supermarkets as wealthy tracts. Meanwhile, low-income zip codes have 30 percent more convenience stores, where high calorie, low quality food is readily available. Halloween may be the only time that these children are at a nutritional advantage. They get less candy because it is not safe to trick-or-treat in their neighborhoods.

All of these resource problems are made worse because they are widespread in the neighborhood. A child won’t get to learn about nature by joining a friend on a family camping trip, because families in this community don’t take vacations. There are not sporting goods or bicycles to pick up affordably, because there is no such thing as a neighborhood tag sale. There is no story hour or meet-the-author event at the local library, because it is struggling just to keep the doors open.

How do we change it?

While it does exist in rural and suburban areas, poverty is still concentrated in cities. Budgeting and public discourse may not show it, but suburbanites depend on those cities. Cities are where they go to have surgery, see a play or catch the train. So everyone in the surrounding region uses the city’s resources – and many of those resources are non-profit, providing no tax revenue to the city. Drawing hard budget borders between municipalities does not make sense.

One of the most important public resources for people in areas of concentrated poverty is transportation. Accessible transportation means access to more job opportunities, as well as better choices in education, health care and other essentials. As noted above, everyone has a stake in the cities. So people from every sort of community should be supporting state and national policies that improve transportation in areas of deep poverty.

Many critics say mixed-income housing all too often is a screen for gentrification and ultimately benefits middle-income people and developers more than the low-income residents it is designed to help.

The authors of a fascinating paper published by the Department of Housing and Urban Development say that ultimately we have to address:

“ … the broader structural conditions under which many working people still do not earn enough money to make autonomous choices about important aspects of their lives or to meet basic needs. Poverty is related to housing, and the concentration of poor people in marginalized neighborhoods is deeply problematic. To solve this problem, we need to shape policies that can support workers to earn a living wage …”

They go on to talk about things like a guaranteed income. Their argument is that if you want to do away with areas of concentrated poverty, a good strategy is to do away with poverty itself.

That is ultimately the only way to end concentrated poverty. It may ultimately cost less than a patchwork of programs when the associated economic stimulus effect of a population that can afford to buy the things it needs is considered. I know that it would guarantee that no child grew up in an environment of such scarcity that his or her opportunity to thrive was snuffed out. That should be reason enough to act boldly.

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