The Occupy Wall Street movement has – kudos! – drawn overdue national attention to the yawning gulf between the very many and the very few in this country. But let’s hope the necessary focus on the 1 percenters and the 99 percenters doesn’t obscure the plight of the 10 percenters. That’s the percentage (10.5, to be precise) of Americans living in “extreme poverty” neighborhoods, defined as areas where at least four in ten individuals live below the poverty line.
After declining in the 1990s, the number of people crammed in these crumbling neighborhoods grew by one-third from 2000 to 2009, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution. Hardest hit have been suburban and small metropolitan communities in the midwest and south, where, compared to 2000, residents of extreme-poverty neighborhoods are more likely to be white, native-born, high school or college graduates, and not receiving public assistance. (Black residents still make up the bulk (45 percent) of people living in these neighborhoods.)
To state the obvious, living in an extreme-poverty neighborhood is bad news, and in more ways than you might guess. The report lays out some of the main consequences of concentrated poverty, among them:
• Lousy education: Children in high-poverty communities tend to go to neighborhood schools where nearly all the students are poor and at greater risk of failure. Also, teachers in these schools tend to be less experienced and the student body more mobile.
• High crime: especially violent crime
• Poor health: asthma, depression, diabetes, and heart ailments are more prevalent.
• Obstacles to wealth-building: many residents own their homes, but because neighborhoods tend to be in pretty bad shape the value of their properties either fails to appreciate or drops.
• Reduced investment: private investors and employers don’t find these neighborhoods, since residents are low on both disposable income and job skills. Plus, lack of business competition can drive up prices for basic goods and services.
• Higher costs for local governments: policing, welfare caseloads, high rates of poor patients at hospitals and clinics — it all adds up, and local governments often raise taxes for local businesses, making neighborhoods even less attractive to employers.
Grim reading, and a reminder that while many — even most — Americans have it tough right now, an astonishing and growing number have it unbelievably bad.