Special Report

Concentrated Poverty

By Lynn Olson & Craig D. Jerald — January 08, 1998 3 min read

The biggest challenge facing U.S. cities and their school systems is concentrated poverty. In poor neighborhoods, the deck is stacked against children from the moment they are born. The odds are higher that they will have lower-than-normal birth weights, lack access to regular medical care, live in a household headed by a single mother, become a victim of crime, have a parent who never finished high school, become pregnant before reaching adulthood, and drop out of school.

“Everyone talks about white flight, but the real issue is that people with money have left,” says Arthur Carter, the deputy superintendent of the Detroit public schools. “It’s not just a question of white flight, but of money with wings.”

Urban schools are different because they are more likely than nonurban ones to have a high percentage of low-income students. Concentrated school poverty is consistently related to lower performance on every educational outcome measured.

The most recent evidence comes from the “Prospects” report, a congressionally mandated, four-year study of about 27,000 students served under Title I, the federal program designed to raise the achievement of disadvantaged youngsters. The report concluded that “school poverty depresses the scores of all students in schools where at least half of the students are eligible for subsidized lunch, and seriously depresses the scores when more than 75 percent of students live in low-income households.”

On the other hand, poor students who attend middle-class schools performed significantly better.

The small but important number of successful schools in poor neighborhoods proves that children in concentrated poverty can excel. But that requires a greater commitment from educators and the public--an effort that, so far, has not been forthcoming.

“The point is that while poverty is not an excuse, thousands of urban children and urban teachers and principals and parents have a tougher time because of it,” say Philadelphia Superintendent David W. Hornbeck. “Any restructuring effort that does not aggressively respond to the impact of poverty is naive.”

Concentrated poverty is an overwhelmingly urban phenomenon, and one that afflicts far more black children than any other racial or ethnic group. The U.S. Census Bureau defines “extreme poverty areas” as census tracts or neighborhoods where at least 40 percent of the residents are poor.

Between 1970 and 1990, concentrated poverty spread like a cancer through America’s cities, writes Myron Orfield, a lawyer and Minnesota state legislator, in his book Metropolitics. The number of people living in neighborhoods of dense poverty swelled from 4.1 million to 8 million, nearly one-third of them children, he found.

Half the children who live in extremely impoverished neighborhoods are in the 75 cities examined by Quality Counts. In eight states--Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nebraska, New York, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin--more than 70 percent of the children in concentrated poverty are found in a single city. It is perhaps not a coincidence that this list includes states that have some of the largest achievement gap between urban and nonurban districts.

Many people suggest that schools are the victims of poor neighborhoods. But, Mr. Orfield argues, bad schools also help create--and perpetuate--bad neighborhoods.

“Local schools become socioeconomically distressed before neighborhoods become poor,” he writes. “When middle-class families and pundits say that cities have bad schools, what they often mean is that cities have schools full of poor children. Middle-class families, the bedrock of stable communities, will not tolerate high concentrations of poverty in their schools.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 1998 edition of Education Week