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As poverty grows, so does concern about center cities.

Poverty in American cities has become worse in the last decade and cities have reason to be especially concerned.

While cities of all sizes across the country are suffering from growing poverty, central cities have the highest poverty rates in the nation--higher than either rural or suburban populations. A central city is the largest city in a metropolitan area, and the poverty rate is the percent of persons with incomes below $10,000 a year for a family of three.

"The widespread and growing extent of urban poverty in the U.S. struck us forcefully as we examined the statistics," said George Grier of the Greater Washington Research Center and author of the study "Poor Cities: An Analysis of Poverty in U.S. Cities Over 50,000."

"We had fully expected to find high poverty rates in the largest cities. We were appalled to find them in so many others.

"We had thought of above-average poverty as mainly concentrated in the central cities of a few regions--most notably the "Rust Belt." We were dismayed to find such cities to be the majority in all regions of the nation. And we were frightened by the rate at which urban poverty increased in the last decade."

The gap between the poverty rates of inner cities and of suburbs widened during the 1980s. Poverty grew much faster in inner cities than in suburbs; of the 39 largest U.S. metropolitan areas in Grier's study, the poverty rate was over 18 percent for the inner city areas combined, a startling contrast to the 7.3 percent poverty rate for the combined suburban areas.

The costs of urban poverty to a city are high. A high concentration of urban poverty may overwhelm government, resulting in crowded clinics, failing foster care, ineffective law enforcement, and neglected services. High poverty rates in inner cities are related to increased drug problems and rising crime rates. These negative effects of poverty also encourage the movement of middle class residents to the suburbs, thus reducing the tax base of the city. Both increased city crime and deteriorated neighborhoods resulting from poverty drive businesses from the inner city and make it increasingly difficult to provide needed services to poor families in inner cities.

"Once almost any downward trend takes on this kind of momentum, it is hard to reverse," Grier warns. "Unless vigorous intervention is undertaken, poverty in our cities is almost certain to become still worse before it begins to get better."

Who Are The Poor?

The poor are a complex collection of groups. A small percentage are unable to work, some are made poor by sudden changes in personal or economic conditions such as divorce or illness, and some are employed but are paid low wages. Still others are long-term unemployed, displaced and seeking work. Increasingly, many are part of the "underclass," a term recently popular to describe chronically unemployed minority young men and female-headed households in inner-city neighborhoods.

Certain characteristics of the poor have changed in the last decade.

Recent studies show that the poverty rate for the aged is now below the overall poverty rate. Before 1982, the poverty rate for that group was always higher, and often greatly higher, than the overall rate.

Children now make up a larger percentage of the poor than they have previously. Since 1980, the poverty rate for children has stayed above 18 percent and has gone as high as 22 percent.

Poverty is now concentrated in one-parent families, especially female-headed families. The percentage of the poor who live in female-headed households rose from about 26 percent in 1959 to over 53 percent in 1990.

Challenges Facing The Poor

Many poor families face numerous hurdles to escaping poverty. Some of the unemployed move out of poverty after specific economic or personal crises have been solved; others, however, face serious personal or institutional obstacles.

The welfare system itself discourages employment. Benefits begin going down after welfare recipients find employment, and welfare does not sufficiently cover day care as a work-related expense. Rent is cheaper in public housing units for those on welfare than for those who work, making low-wage employment unattractive to recipients.

Situational problems make it difficult for the poor to stay employed. The need for day care is a barrier; besides being unaffordable, it is often unavailable. Cost and unreasonable commuting distances can make public transportation a hurdle to finding or keeping jobs. Personal difficulties, such as an abusive spouse or a sick child, create further obstacles to keeping jobs.

Broader changes in the economy of the United States have left the low-skilled poor behind. In the past, minorities in U.S. cities were employed in large numbers in manufacturing jobs. Now, however, fewer and fewer manufacturing jobs are available as corporations move manufacturing out of cities to the suburbs or overseas.

Norms and standards in the job world make it difficult for the poor to find good jobs. Workplace protocol, including standards of dress and lifestyle, work hours and habits are unfamiliar and must be learned by those poor who grew up in a concentrated culture of poverty.

The Road Out of Poverty

Preparing individuals for the job market means offering job training and education assistance programs for the poor and unemployed.

City officials have a key role to play in leading and coordinating anti-poverty strategies in their cities. One way they can address local poverty is by including an anti-poverty focus in local economic development plans and activities.

Fighting Poverty Through Growth

The National League of Cities is currently developing a proposal under a planning grant from the Ford Foundation to provide assistance to city officials to address urban poverty through local economic development strategies. For more information regarding the project, contact Phyllis Furdell at (202) 626-3030.

For copies of "Poor Cities: An analysis of poverty in U.S. cities over 50,000," send $10 with your request to: The Greater Washington Research Center Suite 204, 1129 20th St., NW Washington, D.C. 20036.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on proposed grants from the National League of Cities
Author:Furdell, Phyllis
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Jun 14, 1993
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