Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A new series of maps tell the grim story of how concentrated poverty persists in the U.S.
Over the past 40 years, most poor neighborhoods in the U.S. have only gotten poorer. Now, a series of new maps by Justin Palmer, a designer at Github, details exactly where these neighborhoods are—and just how much worse off they’ve gotten.
Each map tracks how the poverty rate in census tracts within 10 miles of a major U.S. city has changed between 1970 and 2010. Green arrows represent a decline in poverty; red arrows indicate an increase. Longer arrows show greater change, and thick arrows mean the area has a high population density.
While the results are mesmerizing, the maps tell a grim story about the persistence of concentrated poverty in America. Many of the maps show mere sprinkles of green arrows swimming in a sea of red ones.
Palmer based his maps on data from a recent City Observatory report that tracked the poverty rate in more than 1,100 “high-poverty” census tracts. “High-poverty” is defined here as having 30 percent of more of a given population below the poverty line.
As CityLab previously reported, an astonishing three-quarters of neighborhoods that were poor 40 years ago remain poor today. And poverty continues to spread: There are three times as many high-poverty census tracts in the U.S. today as there were four decades ago. Overall in America, the population below the poverty line has doubled.
In many cities, such as Baltimore, Chicago, and Philadelphia, areas that have had more success pulling themselves out of poverty are clustered around the city center. By contrast, the further out people live, the worse off their neighborhoods have gotten.
While some cities show patches of neighborhood improvements, some saw very minimal change, including Buffalo, New York (the fourth-poorest city in the U.S.) and St. Louis, Missouri (one of the most segregated cities in America).
Then there’s San Francisco, which has seen poverty decline in most of its neighborhoods over this period. This is largely a result of its start-up culture, rising income, and its housing affordability crisis—which has pushed poor people out of neighborhoods entirely. Still, you can very clearly see pockets of concentrated poverty. That’s partly because even with rising income—usually a good sign of a rising middle class—San Francisco has among the largest rate of income inequality, according to the Brookings Institution.
Despite efforts to turn neighborhoods around in cities like Washington, D.C., the authors argue that any good effects of gentrification are actually quite limited when compared to the overall increase in the number of neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. In 1970, there were 5 million people living in more than 1,100 extremely poor neighborhoods across the country. Today, there are 3,100 of these neighborhoods, housing more than 10 million people combined.