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In promising trend, US poor exit high-poverty areas

The 1990s boom altered map of poverty, boosting opportunities for many.

By Abraham McLaughlin, Anne E. Stein / May 19, 2003



CHICAGO

During the 1970s and '80s, America's poorest citizens lived ever more isolated lives. They were increasingly shunted into ghettoized neighborhoods where basic necessities, like good grocery stores and decent schools, were further and further out of reach.

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The 1990s began to change that. The decade-long economic boom - along with welfare reform and other shifts - helped spur some 2.5 million people to leave poor neighborhoods and begin to connect with the economic and social mainstream, a study released Monday finds.

The movement of America's poor into mixed-income areas was most pronounced in the Midwest and South, and among African-Americans. It has big implications for their ability to get good jobs - and for their kids to go to good schools. Ultimately it means better opportunities to leave poverty behind.

For Chicago resident Latanja Williams it means finally getting some peace, quiet, and elbow room. After years in the notoriously violent and cramped Cabrini-Green housing project, last week this high-energy mother of five moved into a five-bedroom house on a tree-lined street on Chicago's South Side. Her new neighborhood isn't paradise: There's a drug den two blocks away, and she still shops at a distant grocery store because the nearby one is "lacking." But in her new house, she says, "Everyone has his or her space. The kids aren't on top of each other."

Her experience underscores one of the biggest implications of this demographic shift: new hope for America's poorest kids. "Because of our geographically based school system, poor kids were concentrated in bad schools. They brought to school all the reasons why their parents were poor" - such as low literacy skills and lack of good role models - and reinforced those with other kids, says Paul Jargowsky. He is the author of "Stunning Progress, Hidden Problems," the report released Monday by the Brookings Institution in Washington, which uses census data.

Thomas Kingsley, author of a related new study by the Urban Institute, highlights a broader implication: During the 1970s and '80s the "culture of poverty" theory posited that the poor may be fundamentally incapable of connecting with broader society. Now, the idea that they can change - and that they are rational actors who are part of the economic and cultural marketplace - may gain ground.

During the 1990s, the number of poor people living in high-poverty areas fell by 24 percent - or 2.5 million. Among blacks, it dropped from 30.3 percent to 18.6 percent. For Hispanics, it dropped from 21.2 percent to 13.8 percent. Among native Americans, it fell from 30.6 percent to 19.5 percent. This doesn't mean these people necessarily became less poor. But they began living among better-off neighbors. The overall poverty rate declined during the 1990s, from 13.1 percent to 12.4 percent. Child poverty, especially among blacks, has been falling for several years.

The biggest drops in poverty concentration were in Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore, Dallas, Tampa-St. Petersburg, and Houston. A regional exception is the West, where poverty concentration jumped 25 percent. The influx of Hispanic immigrants - many of whom move into densely populated barrios, is a major factor. While these neighborhoods are very poor, experts distinguish between them and chronically poor rust-belt inner cities. Barrios are often filled with more hope - and serve as "gateways" to more-prosperous lives.

No one can define with certainty why poverty-concentration fell. The economy certainly helped. But that alone "has never before produced these kinds of results," says Robert Rector of the the Heritage Foundation.

It was likely a combination of things. Welfare reform encouraged people to get jobs - and sometimes to move closer to their jobs. The abandonment of high-rise public-housing projects tended to disperse the poor into surrounding communities. And the resurgence of America's cities sparked unprecedented gentrification, with wealthy people moving into formerly poor areas.

In 2000, Chicago had 195,000 fewer poor people in high-poverty areas than in 1990. Today Ms. Williams is continuing the trend. The former welfare recipient, who got her GED while living at Cabrini-Green for four years, now works at the city's Department on Aging. She and her fiancé, Roderick Verner, a chef, bought the new house for $79,500. It's even got a cozy backyard.

Williams, who friends say is bright and ambitious, isn't totally content with the neighborhood. She still buses her kids to a better school in another area. But overall, she says, it's a big step up: "It's better for the kids."

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