NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Poverty Declining in Nation's Inner Cities

May 19, 2003

In the past decade, things have gotten a lot better in many of the nation's inner cities. Two studies show remarkable declines in the concentration of poverty in urban slums. In Detroit alone, the number of people living in high-poverty neighborhoods declined 74 percent.

A Brookings Institution study defined high-poverty neighborhoods as those where at least 40 percent of the people lived in poverty. In 2000, the federal government defined poverty as a family of four with an annual income of $17,050 or less. Across the nation, the number of people living in such neighborhoods fell from 10.4 million to 7.9 million from 1990 to 2000, a 24 percent drop. The Urban Institute confirmed the pattern in a separate study.

The reasons for the lessening of inner-city poverty are complex. But researchers agree that most important was the strong economy of the 1990s. Other factors in improving the health of inner cities:

  • Pushing people from welfare to jobs was not a disaster for the poor, as some had predicted -- in fact, the researchers say, the studies add to growing evidence that the changes helped reduce poverty.
  • The federal government has moved away from an idea, popular in the 1960s and 1970s, that encouraged construction of huge public housing projects; consequently, about 175 public housing projects have been demolished nationwide.
  • "The industrial base of inner cities -- from cars to steel -- shrank and went away from 1970 to 1990," says economist Stephen Adams, head of the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship in Boston, but that painful process has largely played itself out, allowing inner-city economies to stabilize.

Despite the decline in the concentration of poverty, the level of poverty changed little. Overall, poverty stayed in roughly the 11 percent to 12 percent range (of the total population), according to the Urban Institution. What changed is where the poor live.

Source: Dennis Cauchon, "Poverty begins to lose its grip on some cities Studies show that the poor are less concentrated in urban areas," USA TODAY, May 19, 2003; based on Kathryn L.S. Pettit and G. Thomas Kingsley, "Concentrated Poverty: A Change in Course," Urban Institute, May 19, 2003 and Paul Jargowsky, "Windows on Urban Poverty: A Census 2000 Project," A Work in Progress, Brookings Institution, May 2003.

For Urban Institute study


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