New Census data show growing number of residents living in concentrated poverty

Concentrated poverty is a big problem for many urban communities, including a number of the state’s Gateway Cities. Studies show that concentrating poor families in neighborhoods with other extremely low-income residents magnifies the negative effects of poverty. Crime, high school dropout rates, teen pregnancy rates, and substance abuse are all higher than they would otherwise be when poverty is highly concentrated in a neighborhood.

This has real costs, not only for the individuals who suffer as a result, but also for the public. All levels of government pay for the additional services required. And this expense gets passed down to the taxpayer. Research suggests these costs are often disproportionately born by taxpayers in the cities where concentrated poverty is located.

In the past, only the decennial census gave us data at the neighborhood-level to get a sense of whether concentrated poverty was on the rise or in decline. Recently the Census Bureau started to provide neighborhood-level views of data collected for the American Community Survey. Because this survey is relatively small, they combine years to produce estimates for small geographies. Their first neighborhood-level release comes from surveys taken between 2005 and 2009. This is the only indication we have of trends in concentrated poverty since the 2000 Census.

Before we look at the numbers, it’s worth noting that analysis of data from Census 2000 showed that nationally the number of neighborhoods with highly concentrated poverty (over 40 percent of residents with income below the federal poverty line) declined in the 1990s for the first time in two decades. There was a big debate about what drove this reduction in concentrated poverty. Some pointed to changes in housing policy; others thought it had more to do with the exceptionally strong economy in the late-1990s.

The new data shed some light on this question. The 2005 – 2009 numbers capture three years of a fairly strong economy, and two years of deep recession. Compared to 1999, the income year reported in the 2000 Census, concentrated poverty has risen sharply in Massachusetts.

The number of residents living in neighborhoods with highly concentrated poverty (census tracts with poverty rates over 40 percent) rose by 59 percent statewide and 42 percent in the Gateway Cities.

Gateway Cities, which represent just 15 percent of the state’s population, still account for 60 percent of residents living in highly concentrated poverty. Nearly 75,000 Gateway City residents live in areas with concentrated poverty. Seven additional Gateway City neighborhoods have surpassed the 40 percent poverty threshold, bring the total up to 26.

Next year, the Census Bureau will release a file with 2006-2010 data, the following year we’ll get 2007-2011, and following this pattern the data will keep rolling out in five year segments. This information will help identify communities that need attention, and provide an important indicator to measure the success of revitalization efforts.

Our sponsors