All whites fleeing minorities bought McMansions?

In an article about the reconcentration of poverty, the journalist includes this description of how white residents responded to more minorities moving to the suburbs:

As newly middle-class minorities moved to inner suburbs, though, the mostly white residents of those suburbs moved further away, buying up the McMansions that were being built at a rapid pace. This acceleration of white flight was especially problematic in Rust Belt towns that didn’t experience the economic boom of the mid-2000s. They were watching manufacturing and jobs move overseas.

The use of McMansions is interesting here. It could be doing three things:

1. It could simply be referring to larger houses. The size of new American homes has increased in recent decades and McMansions are often held up as the exemplar of this.

2. It could be shorthand for suburban sprawl. McMansions are often viewed as emblematic of big lots and expensive houses in whiter communities. Using the phrase McMansion here could reinforce the idea that all wealthy suburbanites live in McMansions.

3. This could be more negative as substituting “large homes” for “McMansions” doesn’t carry the same kind of negative connotations.

And for the data on the number of Americans living in neighborhoods where more than 40% of residents are under the poverty line:

The number of people living in high-poverty areas—defined as census tracts where 40 percent or more of families have income levels below the federal poverty threshold—nearly doubled between 2000 and 2013, to 13.8 million from 7.2 million, according to a new analysis of census data by Paul Jargowsky, a public-policy professor at Rutgers University-Camden and a fellow at The Century Foundation. That’s the highest number of Americans living in high-poverty neighborhoods ever recorded.

Not a good trend.

Linking longer commuting times to limited upward economic mobility

A recent study suggests that longer commute times are related to fewer people moving up the economic ladder:

Novara cites “recent research from Harvard University highlighting that commuting time has emerged as the strongest factor in determining whether a person escapes the cycles of poverty.”…

“These results are consistent with the view that the negative impacts of segregation may operate by making it more difficult to reach jobs or other resources that facilitate upward mobility. But any such spatial mismatch explanation must explain why the gradients emerge before children enter the labor market, as shown in Section V.E. A lack of access to nearby jobs cannot directly explain why children from low-income families are also more likely to have teenage births and less likely to attend college in cities with low levels of upward mobility. However, spatial mismatch could produce such patterns if it changes children’s behavior because they have fewer successful role models or reduces their perceived returns to education.”…

By Chetty’s numbers, commute time is up there with the fraction of single parents in terms of correlation. Family structure, is, of course, an age-old social concern; commuting time, not so much. All Chetty and his co-authors do is correlate, though they take a little stab at causation…

It’s not that commuting time is a magic bullet; no one factor Chetty studied is. But among the factors he did study—family structure, race and income segregation, school quality, social capital—it doesn’t get a lot of attention for its effects on social outcomes. And (as Yonah Freemark details) it’s something local governments can play a direct role in addressing.

“Spatial mismatch” is the idea that workers don’t live near the jobs they are likely to get. This happens often in metropolitan areas; cheaper housing is not necessarily near the jobs that those residents have or want to get. And I’m not sure cities and regions can do much about this; residential segregation tends to mean that higher-income and lower-income residents don’t often live near each other. The sort of white-collar jobs that could help people escape poverty may be located in suburban office parks, places that are not easily served by mass transit even if officials were willing to pour the money needed to get them up and running. If affordable housing and where businesses locate are simply left up to the market, they may have little incentive to locate near their workers.

Studying poor neighborhoods alongside “Racially Concentrated Areas of Affluence”

Scholars in recent decades have spent a lot of time studying neighborhoods with concentrated poverty but what about those areas of concentrated wealth?

Cities such as St. Louis, Boston, Baltimore, and Minneapolis have more racially concentrated areas of affluence (RCAAs) than they do racially concentrated areas of poverty (RCAPs). Boston has the most RCAAs of the cities they examined, with 77. St. Louis has 44 RCAAs, and 36 RCAPs. Other cities with a large number of racially concentrated areas of affluence include Philadelphia, with 70, Chicago, with 58, and Minneapolis, with 56.

In Boston, 43.5 percent of the white population lives in census tracts that are 90 percent or more white and have a median income of four times the poverty level. In St. Louis, 54.4 percent of the white population lives in such tracts…

Public policy has “focused on the concentration of poverty and residential segregation. This has problematized non-white and high-poverty neighborhoods,” said Goetz, the director of the Center for Urban and Rural Affairs at the University of Minnesota, when presenting his findings at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. “It’s shielded the other end of the spectrum from scrutiny—to the point where we think segregation of whites is normal.”…

In racially concentrated areas of affluence, federal dollars come in the form of the mortgage-interest deduction. In areas of poverty, they come through vouchers and subsidized housing units. In the Twin Cities, the total federal investment in the form of housing dollars in RCAAs was three times larger than the investment in RCAPs. On a per capita basis, it was about equal.

Federal dollars are now being spent to “subsidize racially concentrated areas of affluence,” Goetz said.

Three quick thoughts:

1. Sociologists studying such topics may not spend enough time studying elites and the wealthy. This could be for a variety of reasons: those with power and money can limit access (hence moving to smaller exclusive communities or compounds or towers of the uber-wealthy); sociologists tend to be middle to upper-class themselves; poverty presents a more visible social problem compared to the shadowy actions of those with money and influence.

2. Suburban scholars have long noted the government support for wealthier areas. The American suburbs came about partially due to certain cultural values (individualism, private property, racism) but may not have been possible on such a grand scale without federal money for mortgages (as the industry was altered in the first half of the early twentieth century), highways (interstates as largely paid for by the federal government), and diverting money away from cities to suburban areas.

3. From a policy perspective, is it easier to move those in poverty to wealthier areas (though programs like Moving to Opportunity) rather than encouraging the wealthy to move to less advantaged areas? Policy sometimes gravitates to solutions that seem doable (as opposed to what might be most effective in the long run) and I imagine the wealthy really don’t want to move to areas with more poverty.


Should tranpsortation also be covered by social services?

With the geographic spread of poverty to the suburbs, should transportation be considered a necessary social service?

“One thing that’s pretty incredible, if we start to think about it, is that transportation has been outside of what we define as a human service,” says Alexandra Murphy, a sociologist who studies poverty at the University of Michigan. “Even though it’s widely acknowledged that transportation creates opportunity and hardship.”

This week, however, saw the launch of one of the U.S.’s largest-ever subsidized bus-fare programs. King County, a Washington State county that includes Seattle, will now allow low-income residents to ride buses, trains, and ferries for $1.50, when standard fares can be more than $3. Other U.S. cities will watching closely to see if the program works, the New York Times reported…

“Transportation agencies don’t often have a poverty mission at their core like health and human services agencies do,” says Scott Allard, a public affairs researcher at the University of Washington. Providing lower-than-average fares “has typically not been in their mandate,” says Howard Chernick, an economist with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute of Research on Poverty.

Human services departments may be reluctant to take on transportation because of liability issues that don’t exist with food and housing, Murphy, the University of Michigan sociologist, thinks. What if someone driving a subsidized car gets into an accident? “It’s the perception that it’s a quagmire that people don’t even want to walk into,” she says.


Owning a car is not cheap and with more jobs and poorer residents in the suburbs, cheap and reliable transportation becomes a bigger necessity. Public transportation options in the suburbs are often limited (hours, perhaps only bus or train) or do not go all the places with jobs. I don’t see why it would be difficult to provide some sort of credit or voucher for public transportation based on income limits. While this might limit employees to living in existing public transportation corridors, it would be a start.

This reminds me of a program I remember hearing about a few years where the state of Wisconsin was piloting a program that provided cheap yet reliable cars for lower-income residents.

Following the ideals of Gautraux to deconcentrate poverty in the Chicago suburbs

The Gautreaux Program in Chicago preceded Moving To Opportunity and now there are more recent efforts to deconconcentrate poverty in the Chicago region:

After all, suburbs are no longer the bastions of privilege they once were (though majority white suburbs still, for the most part, are). Since the recession, it’s the exurbs in Chicago that have had job growth, while affordable housing near those jobs is often hard to find. Poverty is growing in suburbs across the country, including in Chicago, and moving families blindly out of the city may do more harm than good.

That’s why Chicago’s leaders are now focusing on helping low-income people live in mixed-income neighborhoods in both the suburbs and the city that have good access to transit and jobs, high homeownership rates, low commute times, walkable areas and a low percentage of people receiving public-housing assistance, said Robin Snyderman, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who also works as a consultant on housing policy in Chicago.

Nine housing authorities now participate in a regional pool of resources that began more than a decade ago. They include authorities in counties such as DuPage, Lake, and McHenry, using the money to build nearly 30 mixed-income developments in “opportunity areas” that are near transit and job opportunities.

“Just getting rental housing into some of these communities was hard to do for many years,” said Snyderman said.

A pilot program launched in 2011, the Chicago Region Housing Choice Initiative (CRHCI), encourages families to use vouchers to move to some of these locations, giving them counseling to help them do so.

Regional authorities and mayors have “adopted new tools for promoting inclusion and diversity, building on the lessons learned from Gautreaux,” she said. “I feel more hopeful that the historic segregation in the Chicago region can be transformed—because it’s now not all on the shoulders of the public housing authority,” she said.

See this earlier post about some of the results of the Moving To Opportunity program. These programs aren’t immediate panaceas and progress is often slow. It took decades to get Gautreaux into action and more time to assess results from MTO. Additionally, it can be difficult to get wealthier suburbs to buy in – if they do talk about affordable housing, it tends to involve seniors, young college graduates, or civil servants, not actually poorer residents.

In all, residential segregation is a difficult problem to address. If it is all left to the market, wealthier residents will move to nicer suburbs, maintaining or increasing their life chances, and then limit the access of others to move into their communities (even if they need them as workers in that community). Social programs can help but they can be costly, it takes time to assess their effectiveness, and it requires wealthier communities to get on board. This is one of those social problems that requires patience, active efforts, and time to see social change occur.

Structuralists vs. culturalists in explaining poverty

Sociologists may not have the public profile they desire but the discussion about it may have helped. The New Yorker looks at two sociological approaches to poverty and attempts to sum up the culturalist approach:

There is a paradox at the heart of cultural sociology, which both seeks to explain behavior in broad, categorical terms and promises to respect its subjects’ autonomy and intelligence. The results can be deflating, as the researchers find that their subjects are not stupid or crazy or heroic or transcendent—their cultural traditions just don’t seem peculiar enough to answer the questions that motivate the research. Black cultural sociology has always been a project of comparison: the idea is not simply to understand black culture but to understand how it differs from white culture, as part of the broader push to reduce racial disparities that have changed surprisingly little since Du Bois’s time. Fifty years after Moynihan’s report, it’s easy to understand why he was concerned. Even so, it’s getting easier, too, to sympathize with his detractors, who couldn’t understand why he thought new trends might explain old problems. If we want to learn more about black culture, we should study it. But, if we seek to answer the question of racial inequality in America, black culture won’t tell us what we want to know.

Do we have to have an either/or answer? Situations like these are complex and involve a multitude of factors. That doesn’t necessarily lend itself to quick policy making or answers the media can grab and run with. Yet, even sociologists of culture would highlight other structural factors including economics and race in addition to the power of patterns of meaning-making.

New way of measuring poverty gives California highest rate

The Census Bureau tried changing the definition of poverty and it put California at the top of the list for poverty:

California continues to have – by far – the nation’s highest level of poverty under an alternative method devised by the Census Bureau that takes into account both broader measures of income and the cost of living.

Nearly a quarter of the state’s 38 million residents (8.9 million) live in poverty, a new Census Bureau report says, a level virtually unchanged since the agency first began reporting on the method’s effects.

Under the traditional method of gauging poverty, adopted a half-century ago, California’s rate is 16 percent (6.1 million residents), somewhat above the national rate of 14.9 percent but by no means the highest. That dubious honor goes to New Mexico at 21.5 percent.

But under the alternative method, California rises to the top at 23.4 percent while New Mexico drops to 16 percent and other states decline to as low as 8.7 percent in Iowa.

Not surprisingly, the new methodology has become political:

It’s now routinely cited in official reports and legislative documents, and Neel Kashkari, the Republican candidate for governor, has tried to make it an issue in his uphill challenge to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, even spending several days in Fresno posing as a homeless person to dramatize it.

The definition of poverty is an interesting methodological topic that certainly has social and political implications. I assume the Census Bureau argues the new definition is a better one since it accounts for more information and adjusts for regional variation. But, “better” could also mean one that either reduces or increases the official number which then can be used for different ends.

As a suburb, Ferguson is not that unusual

The particular events in Ferguson, Missouri may have been particular but its social context is not that unusual:

Ferguson’s version of the story has several layers. Many of the aviation companies that were once a source of good jobs have shut down or moved away, leaving behind limited employment opportunities, especially for workers without a college degree. The tax base has shriveled, leaving the city dependent on fines and fees — including traffic tickets — for a disproportionate share of its funding. According to the city’s 2014 budget, Ferguson expected to take in $2.7 million in fines and fees in fiscal 2014 — 14 percent of the city’s revenue, up from 8 percent five years earlier.

The recession added to the challenges. Parts of the city were hit hard by the foreclosure crisis; of the 10 Missouri zip codes with the most seriously delinquent mortgages, four are at least partly in Ferguson and three others are in other North County communities. That has turned formerly owner-occupied homes into rentals, often with absentee investors as landlords. The number of Ferguson residents living in poverty has doubled since 2000; its poverty rate, at 24 percent, is one and a half times the national mark.

In all of that, Ferguson is typical of inner-ring suburbs around the country. It isn’t even a particularly extreme example. Ferguson’s schools are struggling, but unlike some surrounding districts, they retain their accreditation. Its foreclosure rate is high by Missouri standards, but is nowhere close to those in Florida, Nevada and Arizona, states that were at the center of the housing crisis. North County has lost much of its manufacturing base, but retains several large employers, including a multinational manufacturer, Emerson Electric Co., and a fast-growing prescription drug provider, Express Scripts.

Ferguson’s experience with poverty is especially typical. St. Louis’s suburbs now have more people living in poverty than St. Louis itself, a pattern repeated across the country. Concentrated poverty of the kind found in southeastern Ferguson is also becoming more common in the suburbs. According to researchers at the Brookings Institution, the number of suburban neighborhoods with poverty rates above 20 percent has more than doubled since 2000.


A familiar story: deindustrialization and a loss of manufacturing jobs, a declining tax base, changing demographics, plenty of suburbanites living in poverty. And a pressing question: what can be done to reverse the fortunes of such communities? These sorts of inner-ring suburbs are not going to be the first choice of many gentrifiers and it can be difficult to switch economic emphases. One possible solution proposed by some is metropolitanization, sharing taxes more across communities in a metropolitan area. However, this requires buy-in from wealthier suburbs who often reject the notion that should provide help to less well-off suburbs.

It will be interesting to return to Ferguson in 5, 10, 20 years to see what has happened. While the shooting of Michael Brown led to a lot of attention, it won’t necessarily alter the course of the community.

Rapidly growing suburban poverty illustrated in Ferguson, Missouri

Communities like Ferguson, Missouri illustrate growing rates of poverty in many American suburbs:

In Ferguson, Missouri, a community of 21,000 where the poverty rate doubled since 2000, the dynamic has bred animosity over racial segregation and economic inequality. Protests over the police killing of an unarmed black teenager on Aug. 9 have drawn international attention to the St. Louis suburb’s growing underclass…

Such challenges aren’t unique to Ferguson, according to a Brookings Institution report July 31 that found the poor population growing twice as fast in U.S. suburbs as in city centers. From Miami to Denver, resurgent downtowns have blossomed even as their recession-weary outskirts struggle with soaring poverty in what amounts to a paradigm shift…

Ferguson, once a majority white community that’s now about two-thirds black, highlights that dynamic. Coinciding with the decline in white population is a rapid rise in poverty since 2000, a period that includes the 18-month recession that ended in June 2009…

“Looking at the neighborhood poverty rates, it’s striking how much has changed over a decade,” Kneebone said. “In Ferguson in 2000, none of the neighborhoods had hit that 20 percent poverty rate. By the end of the 2000s, almost every census tract met or exceeded that poverty rate. That’s a really rapid change in a really short time.”

As the Brookings Institution has pointed out and nicely summarized, there are now more people in poverty in suburbs than cities. Of course, just as in cities, the poor in suburbs aren’t evenly distributed across neighborhoods or communities. The demographic shift in Ferguson is common: a community adjacent to or close to the big city – an inner-ring suburb – that offers more low-skill jobs or cheaper housing experiences an influx of non-white residents. In response, whites in the community leave, just as they tended to do in urban neighborhoods during “white flight” in the decades after World War II. The transition period can be tough: these suburban communities aren’t prepared to provide public services, whites remain in powerful local positions even as they represent a smaller percent of the residents, and less wealthy residents can contribute to a declining tax base. All the while, wealthy suburban communities can isolate themselves through zoning, restricting bike lanes, limiting affordable housing, and other means.

In other words, police violence is still limited in most suburbs but the growing issues of class and race are only going to continue to grow in many suburban communities.

One-quarter of Americans live in areas with over 20% poverty

The Census Bureau recently released updated data showing an increased number of Americans living within poverty areas:

In 2010, the overall U.S. poverty rate was about 15 percent. However, about a quarter of all Americans lived in a so-called “poverty area”—defined as a census tract where more than 20 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. For our purposes, we can just call these places poor neighborhoods, even though the term is a little more accurate in an urban context than a rural one. The problem was especially severe in Appalachia and across the South and Southwest, where in most states 30 percent or more of all residents lived in these communities…

The South may have the greatest share of its population packed into poor neighborhoods, but the growth of concentrated poverty was actually fastest in the Midwest, as shown on the graph below. The poor-neighborhood population also became more suburban and rural compared to 2000, according to the Census…













Researchers have paid more attention to such neighborhoods in recent decades and yet the problem seems to have gotten worse.