Can’t ignore race when discussing poverty in America

Ta-Nehisi Coates cites several sociologists in making the argument that white and black poverty is different in the United States:

In its pervasiveness, concentration, and reach across class lines, black poverty proves itself to be “fundamentally distinct” from white poverty. It would be much more convenient for everyone on the left if this were not true—that is to say if neighborhood poverty, if systemic poverty, menaced all communities equally. In such a world, one would only need to craft universalist solutions for universal problems…This chart by sociologist Patrick Sharkey quantifies the degree to which neighborhood poverty afflicts black and white families. Sociologists like Sharkey typically define a neighborhood with a poverty rate greater than 20 percent as “high poverty.” The majority of black people in this country (56 percent) live in high-poverty neighborhoods. The vast majority of whites (94 percent) do not. The effects of this should concern anyone who believes in a universalist solution to a particular affliction…

But the “fundamental differences” between black communities and white communities do not end with poverty or social mobility.

In the chart above, Sampson plotted the the incarceration rate in Chicago from the onset imprisonment boom to its height. As Sampson notes, the incarceration rate in the most afflicted black neighborhood is 40 times worse than the incarceration rate in the most afflicted white neighborhood. But more tellingly for our purposes, incarceration rates for white neighborhoods bunch at the lower end, while incarceration rates for black neighborhoods bunch at the higher end. There is no gradation, nor overlap between the two. It is almost as if, from the perspective of mass incarceration, black and white people—regardless of neighborhood—inhabit two “fundamentally distinct”worlds.

Coates might also cite Massey and Denton’s classic American Apartheid that convincingly shows residential segregation between whites and blacks is of a different magnitude than residential segregation between other groups. Additionally, there is evidence that whites and blacks with equal characteristics are not treated equally (see a number of audit studies involving mortgages, renting, car loans, and jobs) and even that blacks who are wealthier than whites do not have access to the same opportunities. Ultimately, Coates uses these sociological findings to argue policies intended to float all lower-class boats won’t really work because they ignore the fundamental differences between black and white poverty.

Put another way, given America’s history perhaps we should require scholars and policy makers to show that race doesn’t matter in the issue they are addressing rather than the other way around.

Majority of Americans wrong about the decline in global poverty

Nicholas Kristof discusses the role of the media in contributing to incorrect knowledge about global poverty:

One survey found that two-thirds of Americans believed that the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has almost doubled over the last 20 years. Another 29 percent believed that the proportion had remained roughly the same.

That’s 95 percent of Americans — who are utterly wrong. In fact, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty hasn’t doubled or remained the same. It has fallen by more than half, from 35 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 2011 (the most recent year for which figures are available from the World Bank).

When 95 percent of Americans are completely unaware of a transformation of this magnitude, that reflects a flaw in how we journalists cover the world — and I count myself among the guilty…

The world’s best-kept secret is that we live at a historic inflection point when extreme poverty is retreating. United Nations members have just adopted 17 new Global Goals, of which the centerpiece is the elimination of extreme poverty by 2030. Their goals are historic. There will still be poor people, of course, but very few who are too poor to eat or to send children to school. Young journalists or aid workers starting out today will in their careers see very little of the leprosy, illiteracy, elephantiasis and river blindness that I have seen routinely.

Kristof and a growing number of others have noted that certain aspects of life are getting better for many people – like decreasing violence around the world or lower crime rates in the United States – yet the general public is not aware of this. The media is certainly complicit but they are not the only social forces at work here.

Turning to my own discipline of sociology, several sociologists, including Ulrich Beck, Barry Glassner, and Harvey Molotch, have written books on the topic of fear. Yet, it doesn’t seem to get much attention from the discipline as a whole. Of course, sociologists are regularly pointing out social problems (critics may say even inventing social problems) and often trying to offer arguments for why people and those in power should do something.

If there is positive psychology, how about positive sociology? Here is a rumbling or two

More Americans living on $2 a day

A sociologist finds more Americans suffering extreme poverty:

The number of U.S. residents who are struggling to survive on just $2 a day has more than doubled since 1996, placing 1.5 million households and 3 million children in this desperate economic situation. That’s according to “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America,” a book from publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt that will be released on Sept. 1…

“Most of us would say we would have trouble understanding how families in the county as rich as ours could live on so little,” said author Kathryn Edin, who spoke on a conference call to discuss the book, which she wrote with Luke Shaefer. Edin is the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University. “These families, contrary to what many would expect, are workers, and their slide into poverty is a failure of the labor market and our safety net, as well as their own personal circumstances.”…

“Time and time again, we would constantly see people’s hours cut from week to week,” said Shaefer, associate professor of social work at University of Michigan. “Someone might have 30 hours one week, down to 15 the next and down to 5 after that. We saw people who would remain employed but were down to zero hours. This was incredibly common in this population.”…

Many of the families Edin and Shaefer interviewed saw themselves as workers, the researchers noted. Rather than the negative stereotype of the “welfare queen” created by President Ronald Reagan, the families that are suffering with less than $2 a day want to work and are using self-reliance to get by. That hasn’t stopped the stereotype from proliferating, even though Edin and Shaefer note that extreme poverty in America is an equal-opportunity affliction: It hurts single parents, married couples, white, blacks and Hispanics, as well as rural and urban families.

While this is a small percent of the American population (less than 2% based on the figures cited in this story), Edin is likely right: few Americans could imagine this level of poverty that they would tend to associate with developing countries. And these are often people willing to work but job opportunities are limited.

It will be interesting to see reactions to this. Because of the relatively small numbers as well as the relative powerlessness of poor groups, this could be easy to sweep under the rug. Yet, I would guess many Americans would want something to be done for the poorest members of society even if they vehemently disagree on the means by which to do this. (This article suggests not much is being done in any sector, from government to charities.) I hope I’m not overestimating the compassion of the American people…

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.