Living in Poverty, When “Poverty” is a Place

winters boneIn the last decade, concentrated poverty has gotten significantly worse. In some regions of the country, over a third of residents now live in what are called “poor neighborhoods.” A Slate writer took a look at the 2010 Census data:

In 2010, the overall U.S. poverty rate was about 15 percent. However, about a quarter of all Americans lived in a so-called “poverty area”—defined as a census tract where more than 20 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. … The problem was especially severe in Appalachia and across the South and Southwest, where in most states 30 percent or more of all residents lived in these communities. 

As recently as a decade ago, the situation was much less dire: in 2000, around 18% of the total US population lived in “poor neighborhoods.” Now over 25% of us do. 15% of all Americans — and an unconscionable 21.8% of all children — live in poverty (“In 2012, 73.7 million American children represented 23.7% of the total U.S. population, but made up a disquieting 34.6% of Americans in poverty and a full 35% of Americans living in deep poverty”). Increasingly it seems Poverty is an actual place where Americans live, packed together in isolation, forced to cope with fewer resources, fewer services, fewer jobs, more violence, and the kind of high walls that make Poverty difficult to escape. Metaphorically speaking.

An unrelated article by several economists in Slate suggests that, on a local level, at least, people are acting: towns, even or especially less affluent ones, are doing like Denmark

We found that, as inequality rises, American cities and towns have been spending more on the poor and the middle class, funded by higher taxes on these groups. Because most cities don’t have the power to tax income, they usually use property and sales taxes, which tend to hit all residents or fall more heavily on those who are middle class or lower income. As in Scandinavia, people are paying for their own increased services.

Our finding that municipal spending rose alongside inequality runs contrary to the view of many economists, who say that income inequality erodes support for essential public investments. We find that the increase in income inequality experienced by the typical city is associated with an $88 increase in expenditures per resident on top of the $900 per resident on local services spent by the typical city each year. The additional $88 of funds are allocated across the board to cover police services, fire protection, road maintenance, education, and more. … We found that government responses to local inequality are stronger in some parts of the country than in others. The same increase in income inequality is associated with a hike of nearly $200 in spending per resident in Western states, but only $13 per resident in the South.

The Western states, in other words, are more Socialist-y and spendy than the South. That’s no surprise. But the partisan divide isn’t as stark as you might think. According to the economists’ data, mayors across the country, Ds and Rs alike, “spend similar amounts in similar ways.” Everyone, once in office, becomes moderate, at least in their actions, and everyone, regardless of party affiliation, agrees on priorities like police.

We find no evidence of partisan differences in the scale of city government, nor in the composition of its spending. … Partisanship is less intense at the local level. Crime may get a lot of play on the nightly news, but Democrats and Republicans seem to  agree on how much of the city budget should be spent on public safety.

It’s interesting and generally heartening to see that localities are acting more Scandinavian, and that your mayor’s party affiliation doesn’t matter that much. But it seems unlikely that Nebraska is going to become Norway and, in exchange for charging $23 for a burger and fries, offer health care, child care, and the rest of the government goodies citizens over there enjoy. At least not anytime soon.

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