Last Updated: April 2, 2021
Concentration of poverty sounds like a pretty wonky, intellectual term. Well, it is, but those of us who write for this website have really been talking with each other over the last ten years about how the high percentage of low-income people in a relatively compact space creates distressed neighborhoods. If you want a better urban neighborhood, you'll have to get into the details.
Too high a percentage of poor people accelerates neighborhood physical decline as homeowners lack the means to address maintenance issues and never seem to have enough money to upgrade homes to current tastes that would appeal to the housing market. Landlords who rent to people living at or below the poverty level often don't care enough about the quality of the housing either.
Sometimes such neighborhoods then see the growth of really anti-social behavior, including violence, open drug sales, prostitution, tolerance of trash, and destruction of property for the apparent fun of it. These behaviors only accelerate the downward spiral of the neighborhood.
Like many other negative things, we can absorb a few instances, but an overwhelming proportion of poor people, and landlords who prey on them, leads to a tipping point that can't be overcome easily.
If we add a few grains of extra salt, the cake will turn out just fine. But when we put in that tablespoon instead of a teaspoon, the real trouble begins.
Grouping all the low-income households together in one section of a city, whether for racial, ethnic, religious, or social snobbery reasons, means that those people only become poorer because they no longer are able to mingle with people who are able to point them to the way out of poverty.
While we will always have some individual poverty, just as we always have some individual bankruptcy, unemployment, and foreclosure, there's no need for all of the folks suffering from poverty to be huddled together in one little pocket in the metro area. We say this because that pocket likely will become a "sink," where all types of environmentally distasteful activities also will concentrate.
Polluters and undesirable land uses then start feeling free to locate there, creating or aggravating an environmental justice issue, not to mention degrading air quality and exposing residents to various substances bad for their health.
Then the socially marginal activities, such as drug selling and prostitution, will know where to locate as well. Even the rats know where to go.
This condition is what we have been calling the concentration of poverty. To map urban concentration of poverty, see the Windows on Urban Poverty website.
On this page we talk especially about why we cannot allow a concentration of poverty if we want to preserve our housing, our neighborhoods, and our civil society, and if we want the very best outcomes for individuals.
Since this site is most concerned with community development, we take the community development approach to community poverty.
It is incredibly important that the metropolitan area embrace housing affordability as a goal and responsibly attempt to disperse low-income households throughout the region.
How could this approach to eliminating a concentration of poverty happen? A coalition should be created among the public housing authorities, the local government(s), the metropolitan or regional planning council if one exists, the strongest of the nonprofits, community funds and foundations, and faith-based organizations and smaller nonprofits that want to join.
Then they need to engage in a serious anti-poverty planning process, analogous to what happens in physical planning. Social planning has become so rare that we hardly know how to do it.
We were so hopeful that the new Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule that HUD set up in the U.S. in 2015 will lead to new and constructive conversation. Now its implementation has been delayed by the new Administration. The original promise was that the federal government would be creating some new tools for metro areas, including computer geospatial information, to help describe and illustrate where the goals of the Fair Housing Act have failed to be realized. Serious emphasis on fair housing certainly could help with concentrated poverty, but it seems that will have to wait for another day.
Conversations among nonprofits and even local governments too frequently are turf-laden maneuverings, and sometimes you can't help but get the feeling that they wouldn't know what to do with themselves if suddenly there were no more low-income neighborhoods to bemoan.
So that's why local governments and planning councils need to take leadership roles in this entire campaign to wipe out concentration of poverty. Writing a serious social, physical, and economic plan of the type needed to responsibly and humanely disperse poor households across a metropolitan effort is a two or three year effort, but well worth it.
We think this is so because when people are dispersed into suburbs, with each
suburb only absorbing a few such households, as shown in the 1990s
Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program experience in the Chicago area,
outcomes were much better for the families that went to the suburbs than
for those that stayed in community poverty areas of the city. (Note that this was not true in all cities that did similar programs, as discussed in more detail in our solutions to concentrated poverty page, linked at the bottom of this page).
In that instance, the surrounding culture lifted educational achievement and aspiration, as well as income. Even behaviors such as children playing outdoors, certainly a healthy thing, improved for those kids who more or less accidentally ended up in the suburbs.
What's the public interest here? Is this just some do-gooder daydream to do away with community poverty? No, there's a very solid economic interest.
As we argued on our community poverty page, the productivity of the entire metropolitan or micropolitan area will increase when households aren't living solely on welfare and disability payments, but instead are living on a paycheck. Ideally it's a paycheck that contributes to the economic base of the community.
The way I think of this is that there's a piece of the anti-concentrated poverty action for people who like to work with:
That covers almost all of us.
Those who like to work with people actually carry out the one-on-one parts of this overall mission statement. They provide the mental health and substance abuse counseling, they teach people about going to work on time and speaking respectfully to an employer of a different background, and they teach GED courses and in vocational and higher education classrooms. They teach social skills to people who have none because they have been stuck in a neighborhood with a concentration of poverty where almost any behavior is tolerated.
Those who like to work with ideas the lead in this two or three-year planning process we envision, lining up the partnerships with multiple agencies and entities. They figure out how to leverage a federal program with a slight subsidy from a state program, bringing in a community foundation to fill the gaps. They think up the financing. They look for prototypes in other cities or in the same metro area, and they also analyze carefully what makes a particular neighborhood suffering from a concentration of poverty different from any other such neighborhood. They look for subtle sources of discrimination that relegate good people to that particular neighborhood.
Now we speak directly to those who like to work with things, specifically with buildings. You need to go out and find the people who straddle ideas and things and visual thinking. They're called architects. Find some money to hire them, and then hold their feet to the fire until they come up with some practical and pretty ways to adapt your existing housing stock to work in some affordable housing units all over your town or city.
Remember the "big house" or "mansion apartment" concept, where what appears to be a large house (typical of turn-of-the-century, 1920s, or 2000s development) actually is a three-plex or a four-plex. Perhaps and even preferably it's owner-occupied in one section, and the other two or three units are occupied by lower-income individuals or households trying to get on their feet.
This accomplishes two things: (a) You can preserve the architectural integrity of the community, perhaps even making it feasible to preserve some old mansions that otherwise might not be practical to heat and cool, and (b) You can expose lower-income households at close range to higher-income households.
This isn't as tricky as you think, because remember that most college students, graduate students, and senior citizens are "low-income" people too. So in a three-plex, you could have an owner-occupant using half of the space in a big old house, now rehabbed, and one apartment for a grad student and one apartment for a low-income household. Incorporate these architectural ideas into the plan.
Show where this would work, from an architectural and demographic standpoint. Don't tip an area that already has about as many disadvantaged families as it can handle over the edge.
Consider helping folks who are stuck in an area plagued by concentration of poverty move into neighborhoods where employment and education is sound, once they are crime-free and drug-free.
Now when I'm saying you're going to work on a social plan for two
or three years, I mean you're going to really hammer it out. It's not a
writing exercise about some vague principles, goals, or objectives.
You're going to say this specifically is who could organize and
orchestrate which part of the plan, where it will be within a few
blocks, how it could be paid for, and how it could be designed to
There will be plenty of objections when you start scattering poor people around. It's astounding how 10,000 thoroughly middle class and upwardly mobile households calculate that adding two or three households suffering from poverty to their community will certainly spoil the stew instead of adding spice.
Amazingly, many social worker types will argue against relocating struggling families and call it displacement. Many of the families themselves will hate to leave relatives or friends, and you should be sensitive to the need to let some really small groups of households stay together because of strong social ties.
It probably will take some specific programs to prepare those who have been accustomed to living amidst a concentration of poverty to prepare for living in a more diverse setting.
That's why any plan to tackle the concentration of poverty issue must be thorough and redundant.
Let me explain plan redundancy. I don't like to give people the idea that your plan should be flexible. It should be as inflexible as a concrete block wall when it comes to the goal. But it needs to be redundant; it needs to demonstrate many possible ways to travel from Point A to Point B.
But each one needs to be checked for a surface degree of feasibility in advance. Don't let anyone write something into the plan that you know in advance won't work.
Don't let perpetual cynics, skeptics, and pessimists dominate the concentration of poverty planning process or any aspect of it.
But if you know for sure that something can't be done, it isn't part of the Plan, is it? Let's make sure that no one has to live in a neighborhood where everyone they meet and know is having as hard a time economically as they are.
A neighborhood where people are in a mix of circumstances is one that can maintain its housing stock, because people are moving to better housing as their finances improve, or sometimes they are buying the worst of the worst in order to make it their own as they engage in housing rehab and invest in the built environment. They pay property taxes, if that is the way that public infrastructure is financed in your country, and they make the entire neighborhood more attractive, as well as more functional.
When people have a financial investment at stake, all of a sudden it isn't OK for the young people to get involved in drugs and gangs, and to iron out their differences with violence.
Let's spread the wealthy families and the temporarily or chronically poor households around the entire metropolitan area so that no neighborhood has to bear a disproportionate share of disinvestment in the public realm, in the housing stock collectively, and in quality education.
Let's give every child the possibility of meeting good role models in their own community. Now mind you, we're not saying there are no good people in the areas suffering most from concentration of poverty. But we do observe that often the good people in those neighborhoods are forced into a mode of staying to themselves and not trusting themselves to interact even with the youth whose families they don't know.
Some will say this is a utopian dream. We just say that if middle-class people and upper-class people can swallow a little bit of their pride and their suspicion, and let the lower-income families filter in, sooner or later there will be fewer and fewer lower-income households. And most of those will be victims of circumstances who can get back on their feet if they have good social contacts that can help them find resources.
We've put this page in the housing section because this approach would make mixed-income housing a regular occurrence and make the massive expenditures of money and effort in areas with a concentration of poverty less necessary.
We can't think of anything that likely would lead to neighborhood revitalization on a more permanent basis.