Urban Poverty Study Disputes Role of ‘Black Flight’

By William Snider — April 11, 1990 2 min read

The increasing concentration of poverty among blacks living in urban areas is due more to continuing patterns of residential segregation by race than to any flight of middle- and upper-income blacks from poor neighborhoods, a new study asserts.

The study directly challenges a widely held notion that middle- and upper-income blacks have “abandoned” inner-city neighborhoods, leaving the poorer residents who remain without role models to emulate.

That theory was popularized by William Julius Wilson, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, in his 1987 book, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. A similar belief underlies many current efforts to encourage successful black adults to serve as mentors to inner-city youths.

But in what is believed to be the first analysis of neighborhoods in 60 cities by both race and income levels, two other University of Chicago sociologists have found that while class segregation among blacks did increase during the period from 1970 to 1980, blacks remain much less segregated by income levels than whites or other minority groups.

And in an absolute sense, using a common measure of segregation, class segregation among blacks generally falls in the low or moderate ranges, their study, published in the March issue of the American Journal of Sociology, asserts.

“It’s not that middle-class blacks don’t try to put distance between themselves and the poor, but that they are less able to do so than the middle classes of other groups,” said Douglas Massey, a professor of sociology at the university who co-authored the study with Mitchell Eggers, a research associate at the university’s Population Research Center.

This is partly due, he said, “to the persistence of prejudice towards blacks as neighbors.”

Chicago, the city upon which Mr. Wilson based his theory, did experience a significant increase in both black poverty and the concentration of that poverty, the researchers found, but class segregation among blacks increased only slightly during the 10-year period studied.

The increasing concentration of8poverty among black urban neighborhoods can instead be explained by a combination of two other factors, the study says: The increase in poverty found among the black population, and the persistence of patterns of residential segregation by race.

“Blacks remain so residentially segregated that their concentrations of poverty change dramatically whenever there is a general rise in black poverty,” Mr. Massey said.

The study’s findings lead to the conclusion that efforts to improve opportunities for urban blacks will have to focus on breaking the barriers to integrated housing as well as traditional class-based remedies, especially education, he said.

“It’s going to be hard to carry off education reform while we still have a segregated housing market,” he said. “The net result of segregated neighborhoods is to concentrate poverty, and create an intensely disadvantaged environment” for children. And this segregation also helps undermine political support for public schooling, he said, adding that “if a city’s schools are seen to benefit mostly blacks, then there is not going to be much political support for investing any kind of money to improve them.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 1990 edition of Education Week as Urban Poverty Study Disputes Role of ‘Black Flight’