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America's Biggest Problem Is Concentrated Poverty, Not Inequality

Addressing income inequality is important, but worsening economic segregation has far more compounding effects.
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Thanks to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, economist Thomas Piketty, and, of course, the Occupy Movement, inequality is firmly on the national agenda. While income inequality has worsened considerably over the past couple of decades, America and its cities face a far deeper problem of increasing racial and economic segregation, along with concentrated poverty. Urban sociologists like Harvard’s Robert Sampson and NYU’s Patrick Sharkey have shown how concentrated neighborhood poverty shapes everything from higher crime rates to limited social mobility for the people—and especially the children—who live in these neighborhoods.

As my Atlantic colleague Alana Semuels has detailed, a new Century Foundation study from Paul Jargowsky, director of the Center for Urban Research and Urban Education at Rutgers University, reveals the devastating growth of geographically concentrated poverty and its connection to race across America. To get at this, Jargowsky used detailed data on more than 70,000 Census tracts from the American Community Survey and the decennial Census to track the change in concentrated poverty between 1990 and 2013. Concentrated poverty is defined as neighborhoods or tracts where 40 percent or more of residents fall below the federal poverty threshold (currently $24,000 for a family of four). The study looks at this change across the nation as a whole and within its major metropolitan areas.