Communities & Policy

The New Face of Under-Resourced Communities

ICIC defines under-resourced communities as relatively heavily populated areas of high poverty and low income located in metropolitan areas.  In a report and policy brief, we explain the new geography and demographics of under-resourced communities and recommend a new generation of strategies to reduce concentrated poverty in those communities. 

The problem of concentrated poverty, long neglected by many government and business leaders, is poised to re-emerge as a national priority.  The coronavirus crisis is hitting low-income communities especially hard.  The Black Lives Matter movement has drawn attention not only to police violence against Black people but also to other forms of systemic racism, among which are the forces that create and sustain concentrations of poverty in communities that are disproportionately Black.

A growing body of evidence shows that children who grow up in places of concentrated poverty pay a lifelong income penalty and are likely to live in similar places as adults.  People who live in high-poverty neighborhoods have little access to high-quality schools, grocery stores, parks, health care facilities, and public transportation.  They experience high levels of violence and crime and, especially in communities of color, high rates of arrest, imprisonment, and police violence.  High rates of exposure to environmental hazards are also more common in very poor communities as well as in communities of color.

ICIC’s report The New Face of Under-Resourced Communities examines the current state of concentrated poverty in the U.S. through the lens of under-resourced communities.  It is often thought that these communities are largely Black inner-city neighborhoods located in big cities.  Our report shows that this common perception is incomplete.  A majority of the residents of under-resourced communities are people of color and a disproportionate percentage (compared to the entire U.S population) are Black but a majority are not Black.  The residents of these communities disproportionately live in large cities but there are many under-resourced communities in smaller cities and suburbs.

More than 1400 municipalities and unincorporated places (those without a municipal government) in 183 metropolitan areas include all or part of an under-resourced community as defined in this report.  Analyzing data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for the years 2014 through 2018, we find that:

The residents of under-resourced communities make up 14 percent of the U.S. population but 31 percent of the nation’s poor.

Taken together, the nation’s under-resourced communities have a poverty rate of 29 percent, more than double the 13 percent poverty rate of the nation as a whole.

Taken together, 52 percent of under-resourced community residents are people of color, compared to 27 percent of all U.S. residents.  These communities are 31 percent Black, compared to 13 percent for the nation as a whole.  Overall, Hispanics or Latinos (who may be of any race) are 38 percent of the residents of under-resourced communities, compared to 18 percent for the nation as a whole.

Under-resourced communities in the Midwest, South, and Northeast have high percentages of residents who are Black, while under-resourced communities in the West are majority Hispanic or Latino and have a low percentage of residents who are Black.  Black residents are 43 percent of the under-resourced community population in the Midwest, 37 percent in the South, 34 percent in the Northeast, and 9 percent in the West.  The majority (58 percent) of residents of under-resourced communities in the West are Hispanic or Latino, compared to 17 percent of residents in under-resourced communities in the Midwest.

Of those who live in under-resourced communities, 69 percent live in principal cities and 31 percent live in suburbs.  Principal cities roughly correspond to traditional central cities but also include other population and employment centers.

Both the total population and the poor population of under-resourced communities are split about evenly between cities with populations of 250,000 or more and those with populations below 250,000.  Cities with populations of 250,000 or more are home to 51 percent of poor residents and 48 percent of all residents of under-resourced communities.

For the 450 major cities that have under-resourced communities, the report ranks those communities according to their level of economic disadvantage, measured by their poverty rate and the percentage of all poor residents of the city who live in those communities.  The rankings show that:

Among the 450 ranked cities, the five most disadvantaged under-resourced communities are located in Dearborn, MI; Flint, MI; Youngstown, OH; York, PA; and Detroit, MI, while the five least disadvantaged are located in San Jose, CA; Berkeley, CA; Longmont, CO; Federal Way, WA; and Baldwin Park, CA.  An online appendix provides grouped rankings for all 450 cities.

In general, under-resourced communities are more disadvantaged if they:

  • Are located in the Midwest or Northeast.
  • Are located in principal cities.
  • Have large percentages of residents who are Black. Like the disproportionate percentage of under-resourced community residents who are Black, this is a result, to an important extent, of systemic racism in many institutions, including historic and ongoing discriminatory housing policies that have kept Black people behind in spite of their resistance to those policies. 
  • Are located in cities of 500,000 or more residents.

These geographic and demographic patterns of disadvantage likely result from systemic racism; regional differences in the structure of local government; better public transportation and older, less expensive housing in principal cities; and exclusionary zoning in many suburbs.

We recommend comprehensive community development strategies to reduce concentrated poverty in under-resourced communities in ways that benefit and reflect the priorities of low-income residents and build on the strengths of their communities.  Our policy brief It’s Time for a Comprehensive Approach to Fighting Concentrated Poverty explains five principles those strategies should follow:

  1. Combine people- and place-based efforts. Improving the lives of the low-income people who currently live in under-resourced communities requires combining place-based efforts to encourage investments in assets that are physically located in the community with people-based efforts that make residents better off independently of where they live.
  2. Ensure that strategies reflect community priorities and that residents are involved in decision making. This can be accomplished by requiring the involvement of existing community organizations and local governments in developing and implementing the strategy, using surveys and focus groups, and (where feasible) taking into account more direct democratic expressions of community priorities.
  3. Include public, private, and nonprofit organizations in planning and implementation. In addition to contributing their specialized expertise, public, private, and nonprofit organizations each have unique roles to play in comprehensive community development strategies.
  4. Build on community strengths to address community problems. Even the most under-resourced communities have strengths, both economic and non-economic, that can be leveraged to address community problems.
  5. Include job and business growth in the strategy. More and better jobs for community residents are the best means of making residents better off.  Strong local businesses can also provide accessible shopping options, create wealth for business owners who live in the community, advocate effectively for improvements in community amenities, and provide entrepreneurial role models for young people.

Both the consequences of concentrated poverty and public awareness of those consequences are at levels not seen for decades.  What is lacking is commitment on the part of government, business, and nonprofit leaders.  It’s time for a new generation of comprehensive strategies to fight concentrated poverty.

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