Donald Trump has appealed to African-Americans and Hispanics to vote for him because their neighborhoods are “a disaster education-wise, jobwise, safety-wise, in every way possible.” The number of very-high-poverty neighborhoods has, in fact, increased dramatically since 2000, especially in small and mid-sized metropolitan areas, and so recognition and discussion of this problem is long overdue. But the implication that, as a rule, minorities live in squalor is an inaccurate and long out-of-date assumption.
Current census data reveal that the vast majority of African-Americans and Hispanics do not live in economically devastated neighborhoods. Nationwide, only 8.3 percent of blacks and 4.8 percent of Hispanics live in neighborhoods with a poverty rate of 45 percent or more—to use the figure Mr. Trump quoted in the second presidential debate. In comparison, about 1 percent of whites live in neighborhoods with that level of poverty.
Put simply, living in extreme poverty is not the common experience for the majority of blacks and Hispanics. And while three-fourths of the residents of such neighborhoods are members of minority groups, it is a mistake to equate minority status with residence in neighborhoods of extreme poverty. It is a logical fallacy akin to jumping from the fact that most players in the NBA are black to the conclusion that most blacks are in the NBA.
In fact, African-Americans live in neighborhoods where poverty averages 23 percent; for Hispanics, the figure is 21 percent. In contrast, whites live in areas where poverty averages 13 percent. This disparity is troubling and has implications for educational quality, health service delivery, and a hundred other things. But the situation is not nearly as dire for these groups as a whole as the recent rhetoric implies.
Looking at poverty in those neighborhoods where African-Americans or Hispanics are the majority, however, does reveal a disturbing truth. Thanks to past and present policy decisions that have ensured the persistence of racial segregation, more than four in ten blacks (42 percent) live in neighborhoods that are majority black and, indeed, many of these neighborhoods are in the “inner city.” The poverty rate in these majority black areas is 29 percent. Hispanic-majority neighborhoods contain 44 percent of Hispanics, and the poverty rate in them is 26 percent. Clearly, these are troubling numbers, but even in these highly segregated neighborhoods the poverty rate is far below the figure cited during the debates.
While we must move beyond the stereotype that most blacks and Hispanics are poor and live in neighborhoods that are drug-infested and jobless, we cannot ignore the seriousness of the problem for those who do suffer in such conditions. Ample research demonstrates that living in extremely poor settings causes significant harm, particularly for children. We need to focus on what needs to be done to reduce the number of neighborhoods with extreme poverty and to help those living in them access educational and economic opportunities. That will require directly addressing the policies that helped to create these neighborhoods in the first place.
Contrary to popular belief, the cause of high-poverty ghettos and barrios is not some flaw in the character of inner-city residents. At any given point in time, the state of the economy determines how many poor people there are. But business cycles come and go; over the long haul, policies regarding housing development are more important in determining how much poverty is concentrated at the neighborhood level. The number and location of high-poverty neighborhoods is largely driven by the policies, practices, and institutions that determine what housing gets built where and how well it is maintained.
One of the most salient of these policies is exclusionary zoning, which, while ostensibly race neutral, disproportionately restricts the housing options of African-American and Hispanic households, who less likely to be able to afford large homes in affluent suburbs. As a result of this and other restrictive land use policies, residential segregation by race has remained high in the nearly fifty years since the passage of the Fair Housing Act and segregation by income is steadily increasing.
Unless and until affordable housing is evenly distributed throughout our nation’s metropolitan areas, we will continue to have too many economically devastated neighborhoods that directly harm those who live in them and serve to perpetuate economic inequality.
Allowing these housing policies to stand is allowing—nay, causing—a re-concentration of poverty in inner cities and, increasingly, in older inner-ring suburbs. Unless and until affordable housing is evenly distributed throughout our nation’s metropolitan areas, we will continue to have too many economically devastated neighborhoods that directly harm those who live in them and serve to perpetuate economic inequality.
The figures cited are calculated by the author, using census tracts as proxies for neighborhoods, from the American Community Survey 5-year data file for 2014.