Expert Commentary

New views on urban communities and poverty in the United States

2012 roundup of studies on urban poverty and its impact on health, work and well-being, including education, crime levels and access to food.

A new generation of research on urban communities and poverty contains rich material, compelling data and fresh angles for journalists on metro beats. Much of this can be localized, and having a strong understanding of recent scholarship can deepen understanding and coverage.

Research has shown that urban centers in United States have changed considerably over the last decade, and many for the better. The rise of the “new economy” has sparked fresh interest in cities, even as demographic changes have shifted poverty into the suburbs and rural areas. At the same time, however, economic inequality has soared and areas of concentrated poverty remain, particularly northern “rust belt” cities. The Brookings Institution notes that “after declining in the 1990s, the population in extreme-poverty neighborhoods — where at least 40% of individuals live below the poverty line — rose by one-third from 2000 to 2005 to 2009.” In such areas, unemployment, teen births and violence remain troublingly high.

Recent efforts to ameliorate these problems, such as the Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing Demonstration Program, which experimented with vouchers, have produced complex results along a variety of measurements — from impacts on women’s health to outcomes for teens. Outstanding news projects such as National Journal‘s “The Next America” series and The Atlantic‘s “Cities” site are focusing on how changing demographics broadly may reshape the country’s policy agenda, while the New York Times takes a close look at the Obama administration’s approach to poverty issues. But there is a great deal more to be done.

Below is a selection of relevant studies, papers and reports, on a variety of related topics — from changing neighborhood composition and education to crime levels and access to food.



“Global Neighborhoods: New Evidence from Census 2010” Logan, John R.; Zhang, Wenquan. American Communities Project, Brown University, Russell Sage Foundation, 2011.

Abstract: “A process of increasing neighborhood diversity that was ­first identified after the 2000 Census has continued in the last decade. In America’s most multi-ethnic metropolitan regions about half of residents now live in global neighborhoods — community areas where whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians are all represented in substantial numbers, more than twice as many as in 1980. The emergence of this kind of neighborhood contributes to lowering the residential segregation of minorities. But progress is limited by the persistence of large all-minority areas, the reluctance of whites to move into majority-minority neighborhoods, and white flight from some diverse neighborhoods.”


“Poverty Among Minorities in the United States: Explaining the Racial Poverty Gap for Blacks and Latinos”
Grandin, C. Applied Economics, June 2012, Vol. 44, No. 29, 3793-3804. doi: 10.1080/00036846.2011.581219.

Findings: “We analyse the role of demographic and labour-related variables in the current differential of poverty rates among racial and ethnic groups in the United States and its recent evolution. Our results show, first, that these differentials are largely explained by differing family characteristics of the ethnic groups. Furthermore, we show that while labour market activity of family members and a preponderance of single mothers play a more significant role in the higher poverty rates of Blacks, a larger number of dependent children is closely associated with higher poverty among Latinos, who also suffer from a larger educational attainment gap and higher immigration rates.”


“Spatial Variations in U.S. Poverty: Beyond Metropolitan and Non-metropolitan”
Wang, Man; Kleit, Rachel Garshick; Cover, Jane; Fowler, Christopher S. Urban Studies, 2012. doi: 10.1177/0042098011404932

Findings: “Dichotomising rural and urban masks the complexity and diversity of rural and urban places…. In non-metro areas, mixed rural counties are less poor than rural counties. Within metro areas, mixed rural, urban and rural counties are quite different from mixed urban counties with respect to poverty and other major socioeconomic indicators. Mixed urban counties fare the best relative to either the more rural or more urban counties…. The transformation of suburbs into racially and economically diverse geographies has produced uneven development and spatial inequality in metropolitan areas. Among the 100 metro counties with the highest poverty rates, 40 are rural counties and 38 are mixed rural counties.”


“Being Poor, Black and American: The Impact of Political, Economic and Cultural Forces”
Wilson, William J. American Educator, Spring 2011, Vol. 35, No. 1, 10-46.

Findings: “For those committed to fighting inequality, especially those involved in multiracial coalition politics, the lesson of this discussion of key social, political, economic and cultural forces is to fashion an agenda that gives more scrutiny to both racial and non-racial policies. Given our devastating, recent recession and our slow, jobless recovery, it is especially important to scrutinize fiscal, economic and trade policies that may have consequences for our national and regional economies. We must ameliorate the primary problem feeding concentrated poverty: inner-city joblessness. The ideal solution would be economic policies that produce a tight labor market — that is, one in which there are ample jobs for all applicants. More than any other group, low-skilled workers depend upon a strong economy, particularly a sustained tight labor market.”


“Narratives of Failure? Historical Interpretations of Federal Urban Policy”
Katz, Michael B. City & Community, 2010, Vol. 9, Issue 1, 13-22, doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6040.2009.01312.x.

Findings: “Urban policy has borne much of the burden of alleviating poverty and its attendant consequences. Well-designed, affordable housing, for instance, contributes crucially to the well-being of families. But it does not substitute for policies that tackle poverty head on, policies that have been off the public agenda for decades. Conflating urban and social policy serves neither well; instead, it contributes to cynicism about the capacity of government by raising unrealistic expectations that set the stage for failure and diverts needed energy and resources from where they are needed. The process parallels the messianic expectations that have saddled American education with solving the nation’s social and economic problems since the mid-19th century. This diverted attention away from policies that might directly address inequality, racism, and out-of-wedlock births, to take three examples of issues that have been thrown onto the schools to the detriment of their essential educational mission and the issues themselves. Policy, this history suggests, should both be modest and bold, modest in aligning its objectives with its capacities, and bold in finding innovative and effective methods for meeting its goals.”


“End of the Segregated Century: Racial Separation in America’s Neighborhoods, 1890-2010”
Glaeser, Edward; Vigdor, Jacob. Center for State and Local Leadership, Manhattan Institute, 2011.

Findings: The dissimilarity index has declined in all 85 of the nation’s largest cities. In all but one of the nation’s 658 housing markets, the separation of black residents from other races is now lower than the national average in 1970. Segregation continued to drop in the last decade, with 522 out of 658 housing markets recording a decline. The isolation index has declined in the nation’s 30 largest metropolitan areas and 516 of the 658 housing markets. All housing markets have lower racial-isolation rates than the national average in 1970. As recently as 50 years ago, 20% of America’s urban neighborhoods had no black residents. Today, African-Americans can be found in 99.5% of neighborhoods nationwide. In 1960 nearly 50% of the black population lived in neighborhoods with an African-American share above 80%. Today, only 20% of the black population lives in a neighborhood where the African-America population is above 80%.


“The Persistence of Segregation in the Metropolis: New Findings from the 2010 Census”
Logan, John R.; Stults, Brian J. American Communities Project of Brown University, Russell Sage Foundation, 2011.

Abstract: “The 2010 Census offers new information on changes in residential segregation in metropolitan regions across the country as they continue to become more diverse. We take a long view, assessing trends since 1980. There are two main findings: 1) the slow pace of lowering black-white segregation has continued, but there is now some change in the traditional Ghetto Belt cities of the Northeast and Midwest; and 2) the rapidly growing Hispanic and Asian populations are as segregated today as they were thirty years ago, and their growth is creating more intense ethnic enclaves in many parts of the country.”


“The Impact of Migration on Poverty Concentrations in the United States, 1995-2000”
Foulkes, M.; Schafft, K. Rural Sociology, March 2010. Vol. 75, No. 1, 90-110. doi: 10.1111/j.1549-0831.2009.00002.x.

Findings: “Our analysis revealed that the poor were more likely than the nonpoor to move to counties that were poorer than the counties they left, and conversely, were less likely than the nonpoor to move to other counties. These patterns increased poverty rates in high poverty counties while slightly decreasing rates in other counties…. This analysis indicates that the movement of the poor has the greatest impact on poverty rates in micropolitan counties. This finding is consistent with recent research indicating growth in the numbers of suburban poor and shifts in the spatial distribution of poverty (Berube and Kneebone 2006). This is a significant finding given that in the past, poverty has typically concentrated in rural and urban core areas (Jensen, McLaughlin, and Slack 2003). Our results suggest that high poverty micropolitan counties attract poverty migrants from both noncore and metropolitan counties, which increases poverty rates in these areas.”


“Collective Efficacy and Major Depression in Urban Neighborhoods”
Ahern, Jennifer; Galea, Sandro. American Journal of Epidemiology, 2011, 173 (12), 1453-1462. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwr030.

Abstract: “Depression contributes substantially to the global burden of disease and disability. Population-level factors that shape depression may be efficient targets for intervention to decrease the depression burden. The authors aimed to identify the relation between neighborhood collective efficacy and major depression. Analyses were conducted on data from the New York Social Environment Study (n = 4,000), a representative study of residents of New York, New York, conducted in 2005. Neighborhood collective efficacy was measured as the average neighborhood response on a well-established scale. Major depression was assessed with the Patient Health Questionnaire. A marginal modeling approach was applied to present results on the additive scale relevant to public health and intervention. Analyses were adjusted for demographic and socioeconomic characteristics, recent life events that could contribute to both depression and change in residence, and individual perception of collective efficacy. Collective efficacy was related to major depression among older adults; marginal models estimated a 6.2% (95% confidence interval: 0.1, 17.5) lower prevalence of depression if all older adults (65 years and older) had lived in high versus low collective efficacy neighborhoods. Similar results were suggested among younger adults; however, the confidence interval crossed the null. These and other study findings suggest that community-randomized trials targeting collective efficacy merit consideration.”


“Excess Black Mortality in the United States and in Selected Black and White High-Poverty Areas, 1980-2000”
Geronimus, Arline T.; Bound, John; Colen, Cynthia G. American Journal of Public Health, April 2011, Vol. 101, No. 4, 720-729. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2010.195537.

Findings: “Urban men’s mortality rate estimates peaked in 1990 and declined between 1990 and 2000 back to or below 1980 levels. Evidence of excess mortality declines among urban or rural women and among rural men was modest, with some increases. Between 1980 and 2000, there was little decline in chronic disease mortality among men and women in most areas, and in some instances there were increases…. In 2000, despite improved economic conditions, working-age residents of the study areas still died disproportionately of early onset of chronic disease, suggesting an entrenched burden of disease and unmet health care needs. The lack of consistent improvement in death rates among working-age residents of high-poverty areas since 1980 necessitates reflection and concerted action given that sustainable progress has been elusive for this age group.”


“Neighborhood Racial Context and Perceptions of Police-Based Racial Discrimination of Black Youth”
Stewart, Eric A.; Baumer, Eric P.; Brunson, Rod K.; Simons, Ronald L. Criminology, August 2009, Vol. 47, No. 3, 847-887. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2009.00159.x.

Findings: The data show “significantly higher levels of perceived police-based racial discrimination in predominantly white neighborhoods that experience black population growth and in neighborhoods with higher levels of affluence.” After controlling for a variety of variables, the likelihood of racial profiling for black youths living in affluent neighborhoods increased 21%, as compared to those living in less affluent neighborhoods. The findings are “most consistent with a defended neighborhood perspective, which predicts that racial discrimination against blacks will be most prevalent where a black migration into homogeneous white neighborhoods occurs with long-standing racial dominance.… This may occur because racial stereotypes that link blacks to social problems such as crime, violence, disorder and poverty are widespread and have the potential to result in a defensive backlash by whites in an attempt to control a ‘threatening’ population.”


“Juvenile Arrest and Collateral Educational Damage in the Transition to Adulthood”
Kirk, David S.; Sampson, Robert J. Sociology of Education, May 2012, Vol. 85, No. 3, 1-27. doi: 10.1177/0038040712448862.

Findings: “Arrested youth tend to reside in [Chicago] neighborhoods characterized by substantially more poverty and violent crime and substantially less immigration. Arrested youth reside in neighborhoods with more neighborhood organizations (e.g. tenant associations, drug or alcohol treatment programs, or family health services) than do nonarrestees. As expected, collective efficacy is weaker in neighborhoods where arrested youth tend to reside…. Most crimes are not in fact known to the police, and the police arrest proportionally few known suspects of a crime (Black and Reiss 1970). Thus, unlike many other behaviors under the control of an individual (selection), the arrest decision, which we conceptualize analytically as the ‘treatment,’ lies with the police and is based on a host of external and often idiosyncratic factors in addition to the criminal behavior and other characteristics of the individual.”


“Impact of Long-Term Exposure to Concentrated Disadvantage on High School Graduation”
Wodtke, Geoffrey; Harding, David J.; Elwert, Felix. American Sociological Review, October 2011, Vol. 76, No. 5, 713-736. doi: 10.1177/0003122411420816.

Findings: Only about 9% of non-black children spent the majority of their childhoods in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, while 65% of black children were similarly exposed. “Black children, therefore, were about seven times more likely than non-black children to experience long-term residence in the most disadvantaged 20% of American neighborhoods.” More than one in three black children and about one in six non-black children remained in a disadvantaged neighborhood throughout their childhoods. But they did not necessarily remain in the same disadvantaged neighborhood: 30% of black children and 44% of non-black children moved among different disadvantaged neighborhoods at least three times by the time they were 17 years old. Compared with those who experienced a medium-quality neighborhood, long-term residence in a disadvantaged neighborhood reduced a black child’s chance of graduating from high school by about 65%, and a non-black child’s graduation chances by about 40%.


“Explaining Charter School Effectiveness”
Angrist, Joshua D.; Pathak, Parag A.; Walters, Christopher R. National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 17332, August 2011.

Findings: Charter schools in urban areas raised achievement levels well beyond those of other non-charter urban schools and even helped students exceed non-urban achievement levels in math. The data show that urban charter schools are “most effective for minorities, poor students and low baseline achievers, so part of the urban charter advantage can be explained by student demographics.” By contrast, charter schools in non-urban areas did not boost achievement in either English language arts (ELA) or math, and even resulted in lower student achievement than traditional non-urban public schools in some cases.


“Creating ‘No Excuses’ (Traditional) Public Schools: Preliminary Evidence from an Experiment in Houston”
Fryer, Roland G., Jr. National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 17494, October 2011.

Findings: As an experiment, five practices — increased school time, better human capital, more student-level differentiation, frequent use of data to inform instruction and a culture of high expectations — were implemented in nine of the lowest performing non-charter public schools in Houston during the 2010-2011 school year. Middle and high school students improved their math test scores by 28% of a standard deviation on average, and up to 74% of a standard deviation for 9th graders who received two-on-one tutoring. Consistent with other research, reading scores did not improve on par with math scores; in fact, pooled scores for both middle and high school students showed no improvement on average, relative to other Houston public schools.


“Slum Clearance and Urban Renewal in the United States”
Collins, William J; Shester, Katharine L. National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 17458, 2011.

Findings: “To some critics, the urban renewal program was a prima facie failure because it did not prevent or reverse urban economic decline…. [However], on average, cities that were less constrained in their urban renewal participation had larger increases in property values, income and population than similar cities that were more constrained in their participation. This implies a far less dismal legacy than is commonly portrayed…. Targeted local investments may have sizable economic impacts, perhaps due to the strength of externalities and spillovers (cf., Rossi-Hansberg et al. 2010; Greenstone et al. 2010). Arguments along these lines are commonly made in legal and political settings to justify local policy interventions and the use of eminent domain, but causal evidence supporting the claim is still relatively scarce.”


“Disparities and Access to Healthy Food in the United States: A Review of Food Deserts Literature”
Walker, Renee E.; Keane, Christopher R.; Burke, Jessica G. Health and Place, April 2010, Vol. 16, No. 5, 876-884. doi: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2010.04.013.

Findings: “The majority of smaller stores located in urban areas are in low-income areas ([Alwitt and Donley, 1997] and [Hendrickson et al., 2006]). The consequence is that the issue of poverty plays out in economic barriers in accessing food in low-income areas. Hendrickson et al. (2006) found that food prices are higher and food quality is poorer, often inedible, in areas where poverty is the highest, compared to more affluent areas. Furthermore, results from the same study show that there is a smaller quantity and variety offered at stores in impoverished areas. These findings are consistent with other studies that show that residents living in areas that do not have a supermarket pay more for their food ( [Chung and Myers, 1999], [Freedman, 1991], [Hendrickson et al., 2006], [Kaufman et al., 1997] and [United States House of Representatives Select Committee on Hunger, 1990]). In a similar report by the New York’s Consumer Affairs Department in 1991, results from price surveys in 60 stores and 140 interviews with consumers and retailers showed that the poor residing in urban areas paid more for groceries, and received poorer quality foods ( [Chung and Myers, 1999] and [Freedman, 1991]).”


“The Role of Local Food Availability in Explaining Obesity Risk Among Young School-Aged Children”
Lee, H. Social Science & Medicine, April 2012, Vol. 74, No. 8, 1193-1203. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.12.036.

Findings: “Children who live in residentially poor and minority neighborhoods are indeed more likely to have greater access to fast-food outlets and convenience stores. However, these neighborhoods also have greater access to other food establishments that have not been linked to increased obesity risk, including large-scale grocery stores. When examined in a multi-level modeling framework, differential exposure to food outlets does not independently explain weight gain over time in this sample of elementary school-aged children. Variation in residential food outlet availability also does not explain socioeconomic and racial/ethnic differences.”


“Urbanization, Gender and Urban Poverty: Paid Work and Unpaid Carework in the City”
Tacoli, C. International Institute for Environment and Development, 2012, United Nations Population Fund, Urbanization and Emerging Populations Issues Working Paper 7.

Findings: “For women, urbanisation is associated with greater access to employment opportunities, lower fertility levels and increased independence. However, urbanisation does not necessarily result in a more equitable distribution of wealth and wellbeing. In many low and middle income nations, urban poverty is growing compared to rural poverty…. [Urban poverty] puts a disproportionate burden on those members of communities and households who are responsible for unpaid carework such as cleaning, cooking and looking after children, the sick and the elderly. At the same time, cash-based urban economies mean that poor women are compelled, often from a very young age, to also engage in paid activities. In many instances this involves work in the lowest-paid formal and informal sector activities which, at times of economic crises, require increasingly long hours for the same income. Combined with cuts in the public provision of services, higher costs for food, water and transport, efforts to balance paid work and unpaid carework take a growing toll on women.”


Tags: research roundup, poverty, African-American, Hispanic, Latino, municipal, gentrification


About The Author