America’s working poor are more concentrated than ever into neighborhoods that sicken bodies, stifle minds, and shred families. That’s not an accident. (More)

Unglued, Part II: Communities Behind Bars

This week Morning Feature considers our segregated nation. Yesterday we began with increasingly homogenous and exclusive white communities. Today we see how policies isolate and impoverish communities of color. Tomorrow we’ll discuss why we must overcome our political and racial segregation to fulfill the Framers’ vision of “a more perfect Union.”

“Stuck in place”

Many Americans proudly declare ours a country where anyone can succeed, no matter how humble their birth, through education and hard work. That was always more myth than reality, but new research shows it has become even more mythical, especially for the working poor in communities of color. Patrick Sharkey’s 2013 book Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality documents the sobering data, as reviewed by Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute:

Young African Americans (from 13 to 28 years old) are now ten times as likely to live in poor neighborhoods as young whites – 66 percent of African Americans, compared to 6 percent of whites. Proceeding to describe neighborhood mobility from the previous generation to this one, Sharkey ranks all neighborhoods from richest to poorest based on average household income, then divides the list into quarters. He finds that 67 percent of African American families hailing from the poorest quarter of neighborhoods a generation ago continue to live in such neighborhoods today. But only 40 percent of white families who lived in the poorest quarter of neighborhoods a generation ago still do so.

Considering all black families, 48 percent have lived in poor neighborhoods over at least two generations, compared to 7 percent of white families. If a child grows up in a poor neighborhood, moving up and out to a middle-class area is typical for whites but an aberration for blacks. Black neighborhood poverty is thus more multigenerational, while white neighborhood poverty is more episodic.

“Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums”

Concentrations of poverty can emerge when a major business closes or a resource is tapped out. They can be part of a broader trend, as neighborhoods clinging to the economic edge slip under during a recession. But they can also be created by deliberate policy choices:

In Baltimore in 1910, a black Yale law school graduate purchased a home in a previously all-white neighborhood. The Baltimore city government reacted by adopting a residential segregation ordinance, restricting African Americans to designated blocks. Explaining the policy, Baltimore’s mayor proclaimed, “Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidence of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority.”

Thus began a century of federal, state, and local policies to quarantine Baltimore’s black population in isolated slums – policies that continue to the present day, as federal housing subsidy policies still disproportionately direct low-income black families to segregated neighborhoods and away from middle class suburbs.

In that essay, Rothstein detailed policies that created and maintained Baltimore’s slums. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Baltimore’s segregation ordinance in 1917, not because it forced black families into slums but because it limited the rights of white property owners. But the city struck back with a Committee on Segregation who coordinated building and health inspectors, real estate firms, and community groups to pressure anyone who considered selling a “white” home to a black family. Restrictive covenants soon followed and, when those were overturned by the Supreme Court, local banks and even the Federal Housing Administration turned to redlining: denying loans in communities with black residents. Instead, black would-be homeowners were forced to accept “contract sales” that were not amortized, accruing no equity unless and until the loans were paid in full.

In the 1950s and 60s, federal public housing bills passed only with poisoned pill amendments that limited construction to already-blighted neighborhoods, to maintain segregation. And in the 2000s, banks set up special units to foist subprime mortgages on black communities and a 2013 Brandeis University report found that the 2007-8 economic collapse stripped away half of the black-owned wealth in the U.S.

“The concentration of poverty has surged once again”

A 2011 report by Paul Jargowsky for The Century Foundation and the Rutgers Center for Urban Research and Education found that poverty is more concentrated now than in any period measured:

Since 2000, the population of high-poverty neighborhoods, based on the 40 percent poverty threshold, increased by a troubling 56 percent. The increase is nearly as rapid if lower, more inclusive thresholds are used: the population of neighborhoods with poverty above 20 percent and above 30 percent increased by 45 percent and 50 percent, respectively. In the same time period, the U.S. population as a whole increased by only 9 percent; in other words, these increases vastly outstrip population growth.

Jargowsky details the personal costs of such neighborhoods:

A variety of studies have found that neighborhoods matter for child and adolescent development across a variety of developmental outcomes. For example, a child’s IQ at thirty-six months of age is related to the presence of affluent families in the child’s neighborhood after controlling for family income, mother’s education, family structure, and race. Girls with fewer affluent neighbors initiated sexual activity earlier and were more likely to have out-of-wedlock birth, again controlling for family characteristics. Children with a high proportion of poor neighbors have more behavioral problems, lower self-esteem, and more symptoms of depression.

The concentration of poverty often makes for an unhealthy environment with few parks and recreational resources, greater pollution, more alcohol outlets, more advertising for alcohol and tobacco, and less availability of healthy foods. Residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods suffer higher rates of communicable diseases like tuberculosis, premature birth, self-report of poor health, diabetes, and obesity. Residence in economically and socially isolated census tracts increases the probability that adolescents will engage in health-risk behaviors.

“Reproduces the very dynamics that sustain crime”

Eric Lotke and Jason Ziedenberg found the advent of ‘zero-tolerance’ and ‘broken windows’ policing strategies added to the stress. Their 2005 paper cites the cold statistics for Baltimore – on any given day, nearly 1-in-5 black men aged 20-30 were in custody – and added:

The overall impact is to depopulate entire communities of young men. In addition to the individuals who are entirely removed, additional others are on probation or parole. While partially able to participate in the life of the community, these individuals remain saddled with restrictions that make it more difficult to live a normal life. The result is communities that bear the mark of the justice system at every turn.

They cite a 2002 study by Todd Clear:

High levels of incarceration concentrated in impoverished communities has a destabilizing effect on community life, so that the most basic underpinnings of informal social control are damaged. This, in turn, reproduces the very dynamics that sustain crime.

A 2004 study by Keith Harries found that, rather than declining as ‘zero tolerance’ and ‘broken windows’ proponents predicted, crime actually increased after such waves of arrests sent more young men to prison:

Harries examined a number of hypotheses for this inversion and he found likely explanations to include residential mobility and what he calls the “missing male” phenomenon. In his study tracts, the male-to-female ratio stayed around eight males to every ten females. In comparison, in affluent Roland Park is the ratio of males to females is roughly equal.

Harries associated this simple gender disparity, in combination with the social stigma and legal burden of a criminal record, with obstacles to the formation of healthy families, stable communities, and ultimately with incarceration and lethal violence.

Yet as we’ll see tomorrow, when Hillary Clinton proposed prison reform, better early education, and other policies to end “the Incarceration Generation,” Republicans like Jeb Bush scoffed at the idea of “spending more on government programs or weakening criminal laws that make communities safer.”

Tomorrow we’ll explore solutions, and why we most overcome political and racial segregation to be “a more perfect Union.”


Happy Friday!