World and Nation

Study finds big spike in
poorest in the US

WASHINGTON — The number of people living in neighborhoods of extreme poverty grew substantially, by one third, over the past decade, according to a new report, erasing most of the gains from the 1990s when concentrated poverty declined. More than 10 percent of America’s poor now live in such neighborhoods, up from 9.1 percent in the beginning of the decade, an addition of more than 2 million people, according to the report by the Brookings Institution, an independent research group.

Extreme poverty — defined as areas where at least 40 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty line, which in 2010, was $22,300 for a family of four — is still below its 1990 level, when 14 percent of poor people lived in such areas.

The report analyzed Census Bureau income data from 2000 to 2009, the most recent year for which there was comprehensive data.

The measure of concentrated poverty came into broad public use among academics in the 1960s, when civil unrest, the decline of blue-collar jobs and the flight to the suburbs left swaths of U.S. cities stranded in islands of poverty.

In “The Truly Disadvantaged,” William Julius Wilson, a sociologist now at Harvard who pioneered the concept, argued that residents of such areas were more likely to experience joblessness, poor schools, broken families and high crime.

Living in such areas often led to poorer health and educational outcomes for children, creating higher hurdles for success as adults.

“It’s the toughest, most malignant poverty that we have in the United States,” said Peter Edelman, the director of the Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy at Georgetown University. “It’s bad outcomes reinforcing each other.”

The data in the Brookings report captures the first part of the decade most clearly, when growth in concentrated poverty was highest in metropolitan areas in the Midwest. Of the places where poverty concentrated the most, three were Midwestern: Toledo, Ohio, Youngstown, Ohio, and Detroit.

The report estimated that in metropolitan areas, worsening economic conditions in 2010 may have bumped up the portion of those living in concentrated poverty metro areas to 15 percent, a notch below the 1990 level, 16.5 percent. The biggest rises were in Sun Belt areas like Cape Coral, Fla., and Fresno, Calif., where the housing bust was biggest.

The Census Bureau’s traditional measure of poverty tends to overstate poverty for some groups, because it does not take into account noncash government assistance for the poor, like food stamps and the earned income tax credit. Those programs lift millions of people above the poverty line.