Head Smacker: Poverty is Rampant in Cities. Where is the Urgent Response?
One in seven Americans is poor. But what if poverty were far more prevalent – say, if one in four were poor. What if the concentration of poverty among children were still higher: at least one in three. At those very high levels, we would expect many things to go wrong. Basic institutions like schools, transit, and health providers would face the bad combination of high need and low resources. People would be less protected from illness and accident, less able to find work or purchase the food they need, less able to live in secure housing. Children would not only be more likely to suffer all the ills associated with poverty, but because they share that fate with so many, public and private institutions will be less equipped to meet their needs.
This is not a hypothetical. In cities across America, poverty is growing more concentrated. Nationwide, the poverty rate is 15.8 percent.* In Fresno, Tucson, Miami, Atlanta, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Memphis, Dallas, and Milwaukee, about a quarter or more of residents are living in poverty. Poverty among children is always grimly higher, as cited in an Annie E. Casey Foundation report in Youth Today. In none of those cities is less than one in three children poor. In Cleveland and Detroit, more than half of the children are poor.
[Note to you: Do you think this is an urgent problem? What kind of investments would help? Please comment below.]
There’s a good analysis by Elizabeth Kneebone at the Brookings Institution showing the increase in high concentrations of poverty in metropolitan areas, including fast growth in suburbs. She found that between 2000 and 2008-2012, the number of people living in neighborhoods in which at least 40 percent of the people are poor grew by 5 million. But even though the suburban share of poor people living in such concentrated poverty grew from 4 percent to 6.3 percent, the share in cities grew from 18.2 percent to 23 percent, and the number of poor people living in highly concentrated poverty in cities was triple the number in suburbs. High concentrations of poverty are a fact of life for huge swaths of our cities.
Why aren’t alarm bells ringing about this; why isn’t every Senate candidate talking up a plan to rebuild our cities? Well – we know the answer. Many candidates compete successfully with winning margins of non-poor voters disproportionately in non-urban areas. But there are a couple of reasons why it’s a very bad idea to ignore the needs of the poor in cities.
First, we’ve already seen how slow recovery is from recessions when we do not do enough to provide opportunities for people to get back to work. Poverty rates were higher in 2013 than they were in 2009, four years after the end of the Great Recession. It wasn’t just the poorest people who suffered losses. Median household income was down over the same period, from $54,389 to $52,250. You cannot wall off one-quarter, one-third or more of a city’s people from opportunity and expect it not to slam the brakes on economic growth for all, including those beyond the city’s borders.
Second, there is a high cost for leaving appallingly large numbers of children in poverty, and growing up in communities where poverty and near-poverty is rampant. Out of a total 49 million school-age children, 21.7 million are in schools where at least half of the children are eligible for free or reduced price lunches (44 percent). These children do not all fall below the federal poverty line, but a great many do. Schools with large numbers of poor children have extra challenges. Fewer children than in middle-income neighborhoods will come to kindergarten with a couple of years of pre-school preparation. In their infant and toddler years, they will have been subject to more chronic health conditions and hospitalizations than children at higher incomes, and more likely to suffer developmental delays, all of which adversely affects school performance later on. It should be so clear that schools need greater investments in order to help children overcome these problems. We are not making these investments. The Nation magazine tells us that 35 states provided less funding per student in 2013-2014 than before the recession and that there were 324,000 fewer K-12 teaching jobs in 2013 than in 2008 (October 13 issue).
President Obama gave a speech about the economy yesterday. He was right about a lot of things. Yes, the economy has improved since he took office. We’ve moved from laying off 800,000 workers a month to hiring more than 200,000 a month. Joblessness is down; high school graduation and college enrollment is up. He is also right to point to what needs to be done so that more people can share in continued growth: investments in early childhood, public transit and other infrastructure repair, in jobs in education, health care and renewable energy. That agenda would help open up opportunities in cities. But looking at the poverty that exists in cities today fills me with a sense of urgency. Congressional candidates need to hear that urgency – are you telling them?