Foon Rhee

The Numbers Crunch: America’s pockets of extreme poverty are getting worse

Flint residents rally in January to discuss the water crisis, which spotlighted poverty and race.
Flint residents rally in January to discuss the water crisis, which spotlighted poverty and race. The Flint Journal

It’s bad enough that the number of poor Americans is stuck at record levels despite the economic recovery.

Even worse, poverty is becoming more concentrated geographically. That only makes it harder for people to move up the economic ladder, and it makes life worse for everyone in the most distressed neighborhoods, no matter how poor they are.

The Great Recession worsened this trend. The number of Americans living in census tracts with poverty rates of 40 percent or more increased by nearly 60 percent between 2005-09 and 2010-14, according to a new Brookings Institution analysis. About 14 million lived in these extremely poor neighborhoods, 5 million more than before the recession and twice as many as in 2000.

Among the nation’s 100 largest metro areas, concentrated poverty worsened in two-thirds of them. They include Rust Belt cities such as Buffalo, Indianapolis and Flint, where the water crisis spotlighted the issue. They also include Sun Belt cities pummeled by the housing crash, including Bakersfield, Fresno and Stockton.

It’s in these cities where the minimum wage hike signed into law this week by Gov. Jerry Brown will likely give the biggest boost to working families, raising the annual pay for a full-time worker from $20,800 to $31,200. It’s also where it will be the biggest burden for businesses, particularly mom-and-pops running on tighter profit margins.

As the higher wages kick in, residents should shop at these locally owned diners, barbershops and other businesses. For that matter, local and state officials should seek ways to help keep them open.

Without the statewide minimum wage increasing to $15 by 2022 (a year later for small businesses), only higher-cost coastal cities – Los Angeles and San Francisco – were set to raise their local wages that high. It’s highly unlikely that inland cities would have followed suit.

In those places, a dollar goes further, so the higher wage will improve workers’ standard of living. And if the extra cash stays in extremely poor neighborhoods, it could lift them up.

They need all the help they can get. Concentrated poverty tends to bring more crime, worse schools and fewer job opportunities.

As you might expect, concentrated poverty is worse among Hispanics and especially African Americans. Less expected, the Brookings study says it’s growing faster in suburbs.

As part of his anti-poverty agenda, President Barack Obama proposed “promise zones” that get extra help and preference for some federal grants. A swath of Sacramento, from Del Paso Heights through downtown, was chosen last April, but arcane federal rules left out south Sacramento.

The presidential candidates, especially Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, are also talking about tackling poverty. It’s good that they’re bringing attention to this issue because more concentrated poverty means that fewer Americans see it in their daily lives.

But like so many big problems, it’s going to require united and committed lawmakers to make a real dent. In our divided nation, it’s hard to see that happening.

By the numbers

Percentage of poor living in neighborhoods with poverty rates of 20 percent or more, and with rates of 40 percent or more for California metro areas, 2010-14:

  • Fresno: 87%, 44%
  • Bakersfield: 77%, 32%
  • Stockton: 65%, 22%
  • Riverside: 65%, 13%
  • Los Angeles: 61%, 12%
  • Sacramento: 56%, 11%
  • San Diego: 47%, 8%
  • San Francisco: 37%, 4%
  • San Jose: 29%, 0

Source: Brookings Institution