Among urban policy-focused academics, few issues today are as distressing and contentious as gentrification. Much of the focus in public debate has been on the newly upscale neighborhoods in major U.S. cities, like New York’s Chelsea, East Village, or Williamsburg; San Francisco’s Portero Hill and Mission District; Chicago’s Wicker Park; or Boston’s South End.
But for all of this ferment, urban poverty remains deep and concentrated. Just how often do high-poverty neighborhoods really transform, with dramatic reductions in poverty rates? The answer will be essential for understanding who benefits from neighborhood change and who is left behind.
The study, released earlier this month, compared neighborhood-level poverty rates in the country’s 51 largest metro areas in 1970 and 2010, focusing on changes in the Census tracts within a 10 mile radius around the urban core. Using data from the U.S. Decennial Census and American Community Survey data compiled by the Brown University Longitudinal Database, the researchers found that very few high-poverty neighborhoods in 1970 dramatically reversed their fortunes over the next four decades.
In 1970, there were 1,119 tracts in their study where more than 30 percent of residents lived below the poverty line, about double the poverty rate for the nation as a whole. These neighborhoods were home to 5 million Americans at the time.
Take a look at the table below, which tracks the fate of these neighborhoods over the past four decades:
Entrenched poverty was just about the most constant thing about these neighborhoods. By 2010, fully two-thirds of these poor neighborhoods, 750 tracts in all, were still beset by chronic and concentrated poverty in 2010. Overall, their populations shrunk 40 percent over those forty years, as many of those who were able to move out did.
On the other hand, only a small fraction of neighborhoods had turned around in a way that approximates what we call gentrification. Just 105 tracts, or about 10 percent, saw their poverty rates fall below 15 percent, meaning a smaller proportion of their residents lived in poverty than in the nation as a whole. The populations of these tracts grew by about 30 percent over this same period.
The authors explain that the prevailing gentrification narrative is likely quite limited, obscuring far more than it exposes:
“It’s undeniable that in these striking cases, the character of the neighborhood has changed sharply: what was once undesirable and affordable, and populated by the poor has become desirable and unaffordable, with few poor people remaining. While highly visible, it’s unclear whether these instances of wholesale transformation are widespread.”
Far more widespread has been the huge decline of many neighborhoods in the urban center. The authors traced the fate of what they call “fallen star” neighborhoods – tracts that had below-average poverty rates in 1970 (less than 15 percent), but more than 30 percent of their residents living below the poverty line by 2010. More than 1,200 of these tracts shifted from low to high poverty during this time, contributing to an overall increase in the number of neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. Today, 10.7 million Americans live in 3,100 extremely poor neighborhoods in and around America’s largest city centers.
In other words, for every single gentrified neighborhood, 12 once-stable neighborhoods have slipped into concentrated disadvantage. The authors write:
“Far more common than gentrification—and far less commented upon—is the overwhelming persistence of high poverty in those neighborhoods where it is established, the steady decay in population that chronic high poverty neighborhoods experience, and the steady and widespread transformation of formerly low poverty neighborhoods into high poverty areas.”
This finding is in line with a recent study from the Cleveland Fed, which found that gentrification (measured as substantial increases in housing values) was limited to a relatively small group of superstar cities like Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Boston.
As Harvard’s Robert Sampson and NYU’s Patrick Sharkey have pointed out, concentrated poverty – with people stuck in disadvantaged neighborhoods for generations – remains a constant of our cities. Such chronic and entrenched poverty can have long-lasting effects on the life chances of those who live there. As classes continue to segment and segregate away from one another, our cities risk becoming a patchwork of concentrated disadvantage juxtaposed with concentrated advantage.
Perhaps the biggest urban policy question of the coming decades will be how to create new pathways for opportunity for those living in places associated with entrenched poverty. While much attention has focused on the plight of those who are displaced by gentrification, the far more pressing issues center on the persistence of poverty and disadvantage in the urban center.