Community revitalization must start with persisently poor neighborhoods
The economic and social deterioration of urban neighborhoods over the last several decades has been of particular interest to researchers, politicians, and community activists because of the positive and negative effects of neighborhood conditions on individual outcomes. According to a new study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the level of poverty in a neighborhood is the strongest determinant of a child's future economic stability. The study found that half of black children born between 1955 and 1970 in families with incomes of $62,000 or higher in today's dollars grew up in high-poverty neighborhoods. By contrast, only 1% of white middle-class children grew up in high-poverty communities.
In the United States, neighborhood poverty rates have fluctuated over time in response to population growth, spatial distribution of the poor, and changing economic conditions. Although neighborhoods exist at many different levels, such as in suburban or rural areas, historically American cities and their corresponding neighborhoods have been characterized as highly segregated along racial and class lines that disadvantage women and poor and minority families by limiting their social and economic opportunities. Urban areas have seen dramatic shifts in neighborhood poverty. The flight of white (and middle class blacks) to suburban areas left the poor behind. Where as the social and economic forces behind gentrification has reversed inner-city decline. However, a subset of neighborhoods across urban areas are persistently poor and have endured unfavorable economic and social conditions for decades, often affecting generations of families.
Persistent neighborhood poverty endangers the well-being children, youth, and families. Families and children who live in highly disadvantaged neighborhoods must contend with high levels of crime, violence, and a deteriorating physical and economic infrastructure.
To illustrate persistent neighborhood poverty in the District, I classified neighborhood as persistently poor if their corresponding census tract had a household poverty rate of at least 20 percent or more in 1990 and 2000. Of all the geographic measures available from the U.S. Census, census tracts are considered a decent representation of a neighborhood.
In 2000, there were 59 census tracts that were identified as poor in 1990 and 2000. Persistently poor neighborhoods are not equally distributed across the District; instead, they are clustered in a select number of areas, such as Columbia Heights, Shaw, Trinidad, Deanwood, Barry Farm and Congress Heights (see map). The area around GWU primarily represents students with limited incomes and is not reflective of the typical poor neighborhood.
Children are more likely than adults to live in poor neighborhoods. In 2000, close to 40,000 District children lived in persistently neighborhoods with a poverty rate of 20 percent or more. Persistently poor neighborhoods in DC are also more likely to be majority Black. Thus, Blacks are both economically and racially segregated.
The District went through a tremendous amount of growth over the last decade and it will be interesting to see if the number and location of persistently poor neighborhoods has changed. New income and poverty data will be available from the American Community Survey in early September, but data at the neighborhood level will not be available until 2010.
Tackling problems associated with persistently poor neighborhoods will require both short term and long term solutions. Children and families living in poor communities need access to high quality and better-coordinated social services to meet immediate needs. Policies to improve the long-term health of persistently poor neighborhoods will require a combination of economic, housing, and social solutions.
A number of steps have been taken on the housing front to improve neighborhood conditions. Geographically fixed public housing tends to segregate the poor. Two main approaches have been taken to de-segregate poor neighborhoods. First, Section 8 provides low-income families with a "voucher" to find rental housing in the private housing market. However, research indicates that voucher users often struggle to found housing in the private market and report problems paying rent and utilities. In a tight rental market like DC's, families using a voucher usually end up in other distressed communities, defeating the purpose of the program. Second,
HOPE IV HOPE VI is a program implemented by HUD to replace high-rise public housing buildings with mix-income housing. HOPE IV VI has been criticized for reducing the number of low-income housing units and there is no conclusive evidence that the program has led to measurable neighborhood redevelopment.
Improving neighborhood conditions is vital and can yield positive outcomes for families and children. However, neighborhood conditions will not improve strictly through the use of housing vouchers or mix-income housing, especially in areas with tight housing markets. Schools will have to be improved and viable economic opportunities will need to be created. These are just some of the challenges facing persistently poor neighborhoods.
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