Signs of trouble: Study finds concentration of poverty rising in NC

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 22, 2018

Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from a newly released report by researcher Brian Kennedy II at the N.C. Budget and Tax Center entitled “Going Backwards: A growth in concentrated poverty signals increasing levels of economic and racial segregation.”

Every day, families living in poverty face tremendous barriers placed in front of them through no fault of their own. And every day, millions of North Carolinians exude grit and resiliency and navigate those barriers.

That tenacity, however, comes at a steep cost.

Research and experience have shown that living in persistent poverty can cause a toll on individuals. In many cases, poverty is not isolated to an individual or single household, but affects entire neighborhoods and communities. When families already struggling to make ends meet find themselves in communities of concentrated poverty, they face a “double burden.”

This “double burden” limits economic mobility and prosperity not just for those experiencing poverty, but for every community member, and ultimately, for the entire state.

Policy choices

Concentrated poverty did not happen naturally but was created out of policy choices — such as state-supported discriminatory housing markets, poorly executed public housing projects, interstate and highway projects made possible through eminent domain laws, and a lack of investment in public services — that have reinforced barriers.

North Carolinians living in concentrated poverty neighborhoods face unique barriers. Often, residents are physically isolated from important resources such as jobs, access to wealth, quality education, as well as access to valuable social networks. Additionally, there are often environmental and geographical barriers like elevated levels of air pollution and inferior public services.

Researchers have found that when given the chance to move into economically diverse neighborhoods, people are less likely to experience negative mental and physical health. Without intervention, many of these neighborhoods have faced cyclical patterns of neglect, both historically and into the present. The suburbanization of jobs, disinvestment of businesses, and general stigmatization have compounded the barriers to private investment and economic mobility of residents.

Recent years

Since 2000, the number of concentrated poverty neighborhoods, as well as the number of North Carolinians living in those neighborhoods, has more than tripled. In 2000, there were 37 neighborhoods in North Carolina where the poverty rate was 40 percent or higher, with 84,493 people (1.1 percent of the total population) living in those communities. In 2016, there were more than 348,000 (3.6 percent of the total population) North Carolinians living in 109 concentrated-poverty neighborhoods (See Appendix A). In that same time period, the concentrated poverty rate — that is the number of people in poverty living in concentrated poverty neighborhoods— has more than doubled from 4.1 to 10.2 percent. This points to national and state trends of growing poverty as well as growing economic segregation.

Although the total number of North Carolinians living in concentrated poverty neighborhoods has skyrocketed, certain groups have been disproportionally affected by this trend of growing poverty and economic segregation.

From 2012 to 2016, African American North Carolinians were 71 percent more likely than Latinx North Carolinians to live in concentrated-poverty neighborhoods and 434 percent more likely than white North Carolinians.6 Even when income is not a factor,

Black and brown North Carolinians are more likely to live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty.

Between 2012 and 2016, 5.8 percent of poor white North Carolinians lived in concentrated poverty neighborhoods compared to 16.6 and 8.9 percent of poor African Americans and Latinx, respectively.

The change in concentrated poverty trends do not end there. While African American North Carolinians are more likely to live in concentrated poverty, the rate of Latinx and white North Carolinians living in concentrated poverty has risen considerably.

Since 2000, the number of Latinx and whites living in concentrated poverty neighborhoods has increased by more than 900 and 400 percent, respectively. Additionally, the concentrated poverty rate among Latinx and whites have risen by 370 and 211 percent, respectively. What was once almost exclusively a problem facing Black North Carolinians is now impacting non-Blacks at an increasing rate.

Rural areas

The final major change in concentrated poverty is where it is having an impact. Initially considered an urban-exclusive problem, concentrated poverty is affecting an increasing number of rural counties and neighborhoods or areas.

In 2000, only 13 concentrated poverty neighborhoods were located in rural counties. By 2016, that number had grown to 45. As gentrification increasingly renders cities unaffordable and a lack of public transportation makes it difficult to find and access job opportunities, more and more rural communities are experiencing high rates of poverty.

Tools to address

Just as policy choices have created the high levels of concentrated poverty we have today, policy choices can help alleviate it. The first steps policymakers can make are to:

Boost the income of those working to earn poverty level wages. While many people have returned back to work following the Great Recession, the typical worker earns $1,130 less today than they did before the recession, after adjusting for inflation. Raising the minimum wage and ensuring that workers earn a living wage is one of the first steps in reducing concentrated poverty.

Erase the physical barriers to accessing opportunity by improving transportation networks and by locating services and programs in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty.

Leaders must recognize the historic and continuous role of policy in driving inequalities. In turn, they must protect and enforce anti-discriminatory policies as well as proactively seek to advance racial equity through racially conscious decision making.

Brian Kennedy II is a Public Policy Fellow at the N.C. Budget and Tax Center.

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