Published: December 20, 2009 in the Richmond Times-Dispatch
Poverty is bad enough, but it's even worse when concentrated in a relatively small part of the metropolis. People living in these areas can walk for blocks and not escape the despair, making it more difficult for families to escape to a better life. When poverty is scattered, the social consequences on the community are not as severe, though this is small comfort for a household struggling to survive.
Ever since the onset of suburbanization in the United States, metropolitan poverty was concentrated in the city. Though wealth never left the city entirely, it was much more plentiful in the suburbs. The more far-flung the suburb, the wealthier. Most of our history was defined by this social geography. In other parts of the world, it was just the opposite and remains so today -- wealth is at the center of the metropolis and poverty is on the periphery.
A factor long associated with concentrated poverty in the U.S. is race. While the ghettoes of industrial cities in the North were multicolored and demarcated by nationality, language, and religion, high-density urban poverty in the South was largely one color: black.
Both Northern and Southern ghettoes were built by a confluence of factors including xenophobia and racial bigotry. Racial bigotry confined all blacks, from the wealthiest to the poorest, to their own separate sections of the city. In Richmond, Jackson Ward best illustrates that phenomenon. Racism was so powerful that it led the private real estate industry to operate against its own self-interest in the zeal to preserve segregation.
Over time, however, due largely to federally funded highway construction, slum clearance, and urban renewal projects, black residents in cities such as Richmond were uprooted from their traditional neighborhoods, which led to the emergence of segregation within the black community itself.
More affluent African-Americans moved to other neighborhoods, often white, and purchased homes. When that happened, however, whites fled. Poor blacks had less choice and, consequently, were forced into public housing, most of which was concentrated in the East End of Richmond.
What I have just described characterized Richmond and other cities of the South for generations. Over time, this profile also fit Northern cities as newer generations of immigrant families began to move away from the urban villages of the inner city to working-class city neighborhoods and then on to the suburbs. The ghettoes became increasingly African-American.
What our nation is now experiencing, however, is a wholesale reversal of these historic trends. Richmond is no exception. Wealth is moving back to the cities. Younger professionals are drawn to downtowns and historic, mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods. Rising energy costs and the emphasis on sustainable living have rebounded to the benefit of cities.
Meanwhile, poverty is growing in the suburbs. While the suburbs were never immune from poverty, it was usually low-density poverty with low-income families, most often white, living in working-class and, in some cases, middle-income neighborhoods. Today, suburban poverty is becoming more concentrated and more defined by race and language. In Chesterfield, high-density poverty is increasingly Hispanic. In Henrico, it's largely African-American.
Poor families today seeking affordable housing are increasingly drawn to the older suburbs where housing is less expensive.
Many of these families have been displaced by gentrification or the dismantling of public-housing communities. What once were low-income neighborhoods close to downtown are changing dramatically as wealthier singles and couples purchase historic properties at bargain prices and then restore them or build new architecturally compatible homes on vacant lots.
Meanwhile, in an effort to deconcentrate poverty, public housing in Richmond and throughout the U.S. is being replaced with mixed-use developments. Most commonly, public housing tenants are given Section 8 vouchers to find housing elsewhere, whether in the city or the suburbs.
Even if Section 8 vouchers are sufficiently funded to enable displaced tenants to find alternative housing, and even if voucher holders can find apartments that will accept them, these public housing refugees will find themselves in new places bereft of the social ties and social services that helped to sustain them. Most often, they simply move from one impoverished neighborhood to another.
Urban analyst George Galster from Wayne State University has studied these changes and what can happen if older residential areas adjacent to the city begin to attract too many low-income residents.
His research has shown that if a neighborhood's low-income population exceeds 15 percent or 20 percent, the neighborhood quickly tips and what once was a working-class neighborhood becomes a high-density poverty neighborhood. Moreover, the features long associated with high-density inner-city neighborhoods emerge in the older suburbs -- crime, drug-use, teen pregnancies, and declining property values.
The only way to prevent the re-emergence of concentrated poverty is for more neighborhoods throughout the metropolis to open their doors and welcome our fellow citizens. Failing that, low-income refugees will have limited choice, thus forcing up densities in the few places available.
If we are serious about de-concentrating poverty, then we have to be serious about providing good places for those displaced by gentrification or redevelopment to find housing. We must make mixed-income neighborhoods a cornerstone of all new residential development and also encourage existing neighborhoods to open their door to people with less income and to help newcomers develop networks and access to social services.
De-concentrating poverty without equal attention to job-creation, job-training, job-placement, child-care, and a range of social services will be for naught. Barring these interventions, we will continue to confine the poor to urban reservations. We will have accomplished nothing except to push concentrated poverty from the city to the suburbs.
Christians here in metropolitan Richmond are preparing during the Advent season to celebrate the birth of Jesus. What if Mary and Joseph were alive today and were headed to Chesterfield or Henrico from their former home in Gilpin Court. What if they didn't even have a Section 8 voucher? Would a nice neighborhood someplace, perhaps one with a church close by, greet them and help them settle in a new place to stay -- or would they have to settle for a homeless shelter?
John V. Moeser is a senior fellow at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond and emeritus professor of urban studies and planning at VCU. Contact him at email@example.com .