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What the Gentrification Debate Always Leaves Out

Stashed in: Awesome, America!, Poverty, Rich people get richer.

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So America is now basically a few cities with economies so vibrant they are squeezing out everyone but the wealthy... and a whole lot of places with cheap housing but no jobs?

That's right, unfortunately.

Researchers Joe Cortright and Dillon Mahmoudi analyzed more than 16,000 small urban areas in America’s 51 largest metros and found that the overwhelming majority of neighborhoods that were poor four decades ago are still poor now. Only 100 out of 1,100 census tracts that were poor in the 1970s saw a significant reduction in poverty rates; there are more than three times as many poor, urban areas today total than there were four decades ago. The number of people living in urban neighborhoods with poverty rates of 30 percent or more (that’s twice the national average) has effectively doubled—from two million to four million.

To put it in perspective, if you lived in a high-poverty census tract in 1970, the chances that your neighborhood has rebounded and is now significantly wealthier is only about five percent. It is far, far more likely that your neighborhood has declined further into poverty since the 1970s.

The social and equity problem deserves attention.

Furthermore, to a huge degree the gentrifying neighborhoods were concentrated in just a few cities; almost half were in just three metro areas—New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, in cities like Houston and Pittsburgh, the number of high-poverty urban neighborhoods has quadrupled or quintupled since the 1970s.

Merely living in a high-poverty neighborhood puts residents at a big disadvantage. All kinds of research points to outcomes like decreased social mobility, inferior school quality, and reduced job access. More Americans are living in those kinds of circumstances today than before, and that is a social and equity problem that deserves far more of our attention than the comparatively much rarer ill of gentrification.

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