Plus ça change…

Curbed has this interesting little article up, documenting Philly’s poverty problem.

It is absolutely true that Philadelphia has the highest deep poverty rate of America’s 1o largest cities. This is a problem in several directions — first, that other major deep-poverty cities, such as Detroit and St. Louis, have dropped out of the Top 10, some long ago, while Philadelphia should remain in the rankings in perpetuity; and second, that Philadelphia is increasingly developing Chicago-like lines of segregation. Chicago’s South Side may as well not exist for wealthy Chicagoans, as Corner Side Yard’s Pete Saunders points out, and North Philly is developing the same affliction as the gap between it and South Philly continues to widen.

All of these are major issues. Philadelphia is purportedly one of country’s strongest, economically — yet the problem of persistent poverty remains. Indeed, in the analysis Curbed published, we can see trends such as flat population change yet an increase in poverty, or population decline coupled with an increase in poverty:

And a recent report by City Observatory reveals that concentrated poverty in Philly and across the country is spreading. Neighborhoods with a poverty rate double the national average in 1970 stayed poor 75 percent of the time through 2010.

A map highlighting poverty-stricken areas in Philadelphia.
This map reveals poverty pockets in Philadelphia. Purple signifies chronic high poverty areas.
City Observatory

Consider these numbers in North Philly, which was identified as a chronic high poverty area. In 1970, 39 percent lived in poverty. In 2010, population did increase, but poverty rates jumped to 57 percent.

Poverty and population rates in North Philly
City Observatory

Point Breeze is another poverty-stricken area. Only there, numbers revealed that from 1970 to 2010, population decreased, while poverty rates increased by nearly 20 percent.

The Philly numbers are stark, but concentrated poverty is a problem across the country. What’s worse, the report found that the likelihood of a poor neighborhood coming out of poverty is just one in 20.

That is a canary in the coal mine. If population is decreasing but poverty is increasing, that means people who can move are moving, and that in its turn decreases economic access. In short, the reason why America’s poorest places stay poor is because they’re bypassed places; recall the defining characteristic of such places is that they are persistently unable to connect to the broader economic order, and as such become increasingly poor over the long term (cf. Cities and the Wealth of Nations). A bypassed microeconomy within a city or city region with a high degree of economic activity also implies either that (a) the denizens of the bypassed place are experiencing economic lockout — i.e. segregation — or (b) that the economic activity may be more illusory than what appears on the surface.

For places like North Philly, the South Side, and Oakland, it’s fairly evident that the existence of the bypassed microeconomy is an effect of segregation. That is, the people who live within these communities are being systematically deprived of access to the broader economy, largely due to lingering effects of America’s race relations issues.

This leads us to the next issue. A cursory look at some of these bypassed Census tracts reveals that they’re in neighborhoods that have seen intense gentrification recently: Point Breeze, Francisville, Brewerytown. This is where we have to be looking most closely both for potential markers of displacement, and for whether existing residents are being included in redevelopment. Gentrification, in Philadelphia, is being driven by migratory pressure (moving to Point Breeze because you’ve been priced out of Grad Hospital because you’ve been priced out of Fitler Square because you’ve been priced out of Rittenhouse Square is a very small-scale migration and can reveal a lot about how migratory pressures work) and can thus be seen as a wave of succession — and that implies the prior group has become a substrate.

This is a mixed issue. When we don’t cry “displacement!”, we often see this as a blessing — the idea is that the previously-bypassed substrate is connected to the economic milieu — but this also gets wrapped up in thorny realities. There are clear ethnic distinctions between the substrate and successor groups in places like Francisville and Point Breeze, and even in putatively-mixed neighborhoods such as Mt. Airy, these differences often inform social interactions in rather unpleasant ways.

So then what? Calling gentrification the solution goes just as overboard as being afraid of it. It is clearly an important part of the solution, as a middle-class city is able to afford middle-class schools (rather than the other way around), and gentrification does make the city more middle class. Yet at the same time racism is persistent in America, and it’s impossible to ignore the fact that nearly every community that has been locked out of participating in the broader economic milieu is of a very specific ethnic group. Simply relying on a successor group being able to offer opportunities to this substrate is not going to work …

This is a question I can’t even begin to answer, because it’s the core problem of America’s urban woes. And yet, unlocking it is almost certainly the only long-term solution to our persistent poverty problem.

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