White Flight and Concentrated Poverty Still Dominate Most Cities

July 10, 2020

American neighborhoods are rapidly changing—and in our grimly unequal society, the poorest bear the worst of this change. In “American Neighborhood Change in the 21st Century,” the Institute of Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota has published a massive, detailed report with an interactive map examining the twin forces of gentrification and poverty that are crushing urban regions across the United States.

Key takeaways:

  1. White flight hasn’t stopped. In the last two decades, it has greatly accelerated economic disparities in our cities.
  2. Gentrification and displacement in low-income neighborhoods is highly concentrated in a few growing coastal cities. The rest of the country just doesn’t see as much of the specific problems that San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York are facing.
  3. Concentrated poverty and neighborhood decline are by far the most prevalent form of change our cities are experiencing, and the nation’s urban poor are more likely to live in declining urban areas than gentrifying ones.

As the study’s executive summary points out, these problems are related, but they are not the same. When prevailing narratives in media and politics focus on gentrification in coastal cities, poor cities everywhere else may be left out of important policy decisions. Likewise, rapidly gentrifying cities understandably do not have the same priorities for economic development as everywhere else. “If policymakers, philanthropists, and scholars are misperceiving the problems of cities,” the Institute says, “[then] resisting development in a poor neighborhood that is not actually gentrifying, or promoting growth in an area that already has significant displacement, can cause actual harm to residents.” What’s more, the same urban regions may have overlapping areas facing opposite problems.

One pattern does persist, and that’s systemic racism and entrenched white supremacy. The authors observe: “Across the top 50 largest metropolitan areas, the white population of economically expanding areas grew by 44 percent between 2000 and 2016. In economically declining areas, the white population fell by 22 percent over the same span.” That’s classic white flight and disinvestment of communities of color, but we tend to think of this phenomenon as a historical artifact. This study analyzed nationwide data up to 2016.

A more surprising finding: suburbs are a land of contrasts. While suburbs on average have seen less dramatic change than inner cities, more people in suburbs have experienced major decline or growth, simply because more people live in suburbs. “Suburbs are sometimes treated as stable and constant, but data shows they are not,” the Institute declares. Indeed, 45% of all neighborhoods studied were suburban neighborhoods experiencing poverty concentration.

San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C. also provide unique examples in just how drastic the effects of widening urban inequality can be. While these cities are among the few metros experiencing the well-covered phenomenon of gentrification and low-income displacement, they are also among the few cities where low-income residents can find themselves living in neighborhoods with economic growth. “As of 2016,” the report sadly notes, “there was no metropolitan region in the nation where a low income person was more likely to live in an economically expanding neighborhood than an economically declining neighborhood.”

We can observe this pattern in the report for the San Francisco Bay Area, one of 50 exhaustive analyses. “In Oakland, areas with significant displacement include Longfellow; in San Francisco, displacement is occurring in Haight-Ashbury, Tenderloin, and the Mission District,” the researchers observe. “However, Oakland also has a substantial amount of decline, affecting neighborhoods where 18 percent of the city’s residents live, and creating poverty concentration in the city’s southern half.” The region’s suburbs have seen a 62 percent increase in their low income populations.