Poverty Is Now a Regional Problem

Abandoned homes in West Baltimore / Reddit
Abandoned homes in West Baltimore / Reddit

Inequality is only growing across the U.S. as incomes continue to diverge. This disparity is now becoming geographic, as cities and suburbs see a “spatial pulling apart” into rich and poor zones. Poverty is now a regional problem. To close the gap, Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Mayor of Baltimore, and Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library, discussed possible solutions at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas.

According to Kneebone, one impact of the Great Recession was the erosion of incomes at the bottom. “Poor people have become poorer.” This trend is seen even more strongly for people of color. “The income gap for people of color is much greater.” As the poor are further segregated, impacts are seen across many areas. Their communities have lower quality services, including poorer-quality schools and housing, higher crime rates, and worse health outcomes. “The income of a neighborhood is directly connected with their mental and physical health.”

Mayor Rawlings-Blake said income inequality has worsened because our society’s goal is no longer “full, optimal employment” but increasing corporations’ shareholder value, which “doesn’t take into account human capital.” This means the “least of us are cast away.” In West Baltimore, which saw major riots after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore Police custody, there are systemic reasons for poverty. With the end of manufacturing in the Baltimore region, many good jobs disappeared. When young African American men run into trouble with the police and get an arrest record, they find it that much hard to find employment. When they can’t find a job and fall behind on child support payments, they have a double-strike against them with employers. “They feel a sense of anguish and like there is no way out. As a result, there is a lot of anger.”

Kneebone said suburbs now have a poverty problem, too. “We often think of the inner city or rural areas when we think about poverty, but it’s in the suburbs as well.” From 2000-2014, suburbs have seen a 66 percent increase in poverty. “There are now more poor people outside cities than within them.” She pointed to hundreds of suburbs of Chicago with concentrated poverty, as well as places like Ferguson, Missouri, where the poor population has doubled in recent years. These places, she said, are “playing catch-up and have a constrained response to the problem. This is because they have more challenges, but their tax base hasn’t increased.”

Essentially, then, poverty is now a regional problem — “it’s no longer urban or suburban.” To address this systemic problem, Kneebone called for a “scaled approach that addresses the intersected issues that cross jurisdictions: affordable housing, but also access to jobs and child care.” But she added that “just adding affordable housing or public transit alone may not yield equitable outcomes. These tools have to be specifically designed to help the most marginalized, and too often they aren’t. The poor need rides so they can get to work.” Also, greater opportunities for social mobility are needed. People from poorer communities can use “vouchers or subsidies” to move to higher-income communities. Studies have shown these kind of efforts can yield significant results, particularly for children of poor residents who move into wealthier neighborhoods.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake said in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, the Baltimore city government accelerated efforts to spur local hospitals and universities to hire locally. “We must use our collective strength to help everyone in the city. We have to find pathways to employment for more people.” Under her term, she claims, the city has added 20,000 jobs and cut unemployment 33 percent, while winning $1.1 billion in investment for new schools, and pushing through a blight elimination plan that will take down thousands of abandoned, derelict homes.

The city is also moving forward with an aggressive program to reduce food deserts, which she links to diabetes-induced obesity, the leading cause of death in many poor neighborhoods. “The health disparities are terrible — it’s a gap of 20 years in lifespan from one zip code to the next.” So the Mayor has piloted a new program that will bring “mobile food delivery services to senior centers, which will act as hubs, where people can order fresh produce online and pay with EBT or food stamps. It’s a virtual supermarket.” There are additional subsidies that enable people with food stamps to double the value of those stamps when they go to farmer’s markets. Along with this effort, there is a new urban agriculture tax credit to turn some of those empty lots into farms, much like Detroit has done.

Both called for poor, minority Americans to make their voices heard more loudly in the political process, particularly at the local level, where problems are more likely to be addressed. But Mayor Rawlings-Blake admitted that it’s very challenging to persuade people to get involved. “U.S. politics is dominated by the wealthy. How do you get disenfranchised people involved in the process?” In places where there has been recent demographic shifts, like Ferguson, “there is lower political engagement by the people who are new to that community” — the poorer African Americans who have recently moved there. As a result, their voice and needs aren’t heard and they erupt in anger.

And too often, the attitude is “the government is the enemy.” But Mayor Rawlings-Blake said “that’s a barrier we need to get through. Many feel abandoned and are angry about it. But we can’t hate our way to better or demonize people who are different from us. How can we work together? How are people at the national level going to solve this? No one is talking about this.”

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