You Can’t Talk About American Poverty Without Talking About Race and Housing

Picture1
The view from my childhood home. Photo Credit: Jonathan Curtis

Americans like to talk about poverty without talking about race. It’s more comfortable to talk about the generic poor. But the reality is that Americans experience poverty in very different ways, and race is one of the key variables. Even though there are more poor white Americans than poor black or Hispanic Americans, white poverty tends to be more dispersed. Black poverty tends to be more concentrated.

This matters because scholars have found that when it comes to life outcomes, the important thing is not just how poor you are, but how poor your neighbors are. Poor kids in low poverty communities do better than poor kids in high poverty communities. Partly because banks, real estate companies, and the federal government created separate housing markets—a discriminatory one for blacks and a subsidized one for whites—poor African American kids are much more likely to grow up surrounded by poverty than are poor white kids.

Alvin Chang has a good overview of this today, drawing in part of Patrick Sharkey’s important book. As I was reading about how different white and black poverty are, it occurred to me that my own travels illustrate the difference quite well.

I grew up in a white community that was fairly poor. Its unemployment levels were consistently higher than the national average and its income rates were consistently lower. Now I live in a black community that is fairly poor. In fact, according the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey* the per capita income of my childhood neighborhood and my current neighborhood are very similar. But dig a little beneath the surface and you’ll see big differences.

Most obviously, my hometown was a rural area and my current community is an urban one:

This makes the experience of poverty different and indicates that the headline per capita income similarity is misleading because the cost of living is significantly higher in Philadelphia than in my hometown.

It gets more interesting. Consider the chart below. Despite similar incomes, my childhood neighborhood and my current neighborhood are actually dramatically different:

Data Where I grew up Where I live now
Per Capita Income $23,611 $23,435
Poverty Rate 13.4% 30.2%
Owner occupied housing units 73% 33%
Median value of owner occupied units $175,600 $64,600

As you can see, these two communities illustrate the racially distinct poverty dynamic described above. Poverty in my current community is concentrated. Most residents cannot afford to own homes. And there isn’t much value in those homes anyway. In contrast, where I grew up, even though incomes are relatively low, poverty is not particularly high, and most people own their homes and have significant wealth in them.

This, by the way, is part of what people are talking about when they use the word privilege. They’re not trolling you, dear white reader, or telling you you’re a bad person or that you don’t work hard. They’re just telling you facts of life that you didn’t set up or ask for. But you do have a choice to try to keep it this way or work against it.


* The Census data at the tract level comes with a high margin of error. Consider all these numbers rough estimates. They tell us a story in broad outlines but are not suitable for making fine-grained distinctions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s