Message from the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program Director Bruce Katz
Concentrated poverty—poor people living in very poor places—presents some of the deepest economic and social challenges facing America today. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 reminded us that the severe isolation of very poor communities and their residents can have devastating consequences in the context of a disaster. Yet, as more than 20 years of research from scholars like William Julius Wilson has shown, concentrated poverty exacts a grave day-to-day toll on the people who continue to live in its midst, and threatens to perpetuate disadvantage across generations.
In the past, the problem of concentrated poverty seemed intractable. Paul Jargowsky first showed with data what a trip through many of America’s inner cities in the late 20th century made evident: the population living in very high-poverty communities multiplied rapidly from 1970 to 1990. Economic and demographic changes played a role; so, too, did housing, transportation, and land-use policies that contributed to de facto racial and income segregation in so many metropolitan areas. In these communities, public safety deteriorated, access to jobs narrowed, schools failed to educate children, and wider areas were left without the fiscal or human capacity to meet these stark challenges head-on.
Yet the 1990s proved that concentrated poverty was not an immutable mark on the American landscape. A strong economy, new efforts to promote work and subsidized wages, and new directions in housing policy symbolized by programs like HOPE VI and the Housing Choice Voucher program helped to reduce the incidence of concentrated poverty across the United States. As the example of New Orleans showed, however, progress remains uneven, and may even have stalled during the current decade. Meanwhile, poverty is spreading and may be re-clustering in suburbs, where a majority of America’s metropolitan poor now live.
In that light, this report—a joint effort of the Federal Reserve’s Community Affairs function and the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program—comes at a critical juncture. It shows that concentrated poverty is still very much with us, and that it can be found among a much more diverse set of communities and families than previous research has emphasized. Not only does concentrated poverty affect the big, older inner cities in the North that are the subject of so many classic studies, but it also exists within smaller cities of the South and West, immigrant gateways, struggling areas of Appalachia and the Delta, and Native American lands. While the case studies in this report point to unique factors that accompanied rising poverty in each of these communities, the negative consequences ring familiar across places big and small; urban and rural; industrial and agricultural; African American, white, Latino, and Native American.
We at Brookings have been grateful to partner with the Federal Reserve to produce this report, and hope that it contributes to renewed debate on how our society should confront and alleviate the substantial, pressing, and diverse challenges of concentrated poverty today. The 2008 presidential election presents a unique opportunity to have that discussion. The economic performance of our nation and its regions, the productive potential of our future workforce, and the promise of equal opportunity all depend on our collective response to the enduring problem of concentrated poverty in America.
Vice President, Brookings
Director, Metropolitan Policy Program