Poverty Surges in Core Cities

Published August 22, 2012

Over the toughest economic decade since the Great Depression, the nation’s core cities continued to gain more than their share of the below-poverty-line population in the 51 metropolitan areas with more than 1,000,000 population, according to the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census.

Between 2000 and 2010, core cities attracted approximately 10 percent of the increase in population while adding 25 percent of the increase in people under the poverty line.

The core city poverty trend was overwhelming. In the core cities of the 51 metropolitan areas with more than 1,000,000 population in 2010, 81 percent of the aggregate population increase was under the poverty line. This compares to the 32 percent of the suburban population increase that was below the poverty line.

Pervasive Poverty Trend

The trend in core city poverty concentration was also pervasive. In 39 of the 51 metropolitan areas, core cities accounted for a greater share of poverty-level population growth than overall population growth. One of the exceptions was Louisville, where the core city expanded to nearly six times its 2000 land area and more than doubled its population. The result was to convert Louisville into a largely suburban city, which masks the high poverty rate in the genuine urban core of the former city.

At the same time, as core city population growth has stalled, much of the numeric increase in the below-poverty-line population has been in the suburbs. In 2010, the Brookings Institution reported a majority of the metropolitan population below poverty was in the suburbs. This is to be expected, since suburban areas account for nearly 75 percent of major metropolitan area population.

Partially in response to the Brookings Institution finding, there has been some misinterpretation as to the relative economic fortunes of the core cities and the suburbs. This is consistent with the continuing drumbeat of a “return to the cities” which results of the last definitive 10-year census only briefly quieted. The “great inversion” cited by Alan Ehrenhalt and others, wherein the affluent “flock” (the recurring term) to the cities, as the suburbs are ghettoized, remains far from a reality. 

Overall, the average major metropolitan area poverty rate rose from 10.9 percent in 2000 to 14.1 percent in 2010. Rather than gentrifying, the core city poverty rate rose from 19.2 percent to 23.3 percent while the suburban rate rose from 8.2 percent to 11.3 percent.

Cities’ Poverty Double Suburbs’

In 2010, core city poverty rates were higher in every major metropolitan area than in the suburbs. Overall, average core city poverty rates were more than double those of the suburbs in most metropolitan areas (27 of 51). Among the 10 largest metropolitan areas, the core cities of New York, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Miami, Washington, and Boston suffered poverty rates more than double those of their suburbs. The cities of Milwaukee and Hartford had the highest poverty rates relative to their suburbs, at four or more times.

On average, 41 percent of metropolitan area populations living below the poverty rate resided in the core cities. San Antonio had the highest share of its metropolitan below-poverty population, at 73 percent, followed closely by Milwaukee, at 72 percent. New York City accounted for 63 percent of its metropolitan below-poverty-line population, and San Jose 61 percent. Even after incorporating suburbs, Louisville contained 57 percent of its metropolitan below poverty level population.

Highlights of 2010 Data

Metropolitan Areas: The highest metropolitan area poverty rates were in Memphis (19.1 percent), New Orleans (17.4 percent), and Riverside-San Bernardino (17.1 percent). The lowest metropolitan area poverty rates were in Washington (8.4 percent), Hartford (10.1 percent), and Boston (10.3 percent).

Core Cities: Detroit had the highest poverty rate, at 37.6 percent. San Bernardino, whose City Council voted to file for bankruptcy on July 10, had the second-highest poverty rate, at 34.6 percent. Cleveland ranked third-highest, at 34.0 percent.

The lowest core city poverty rates were in high-tech centers such as San Jose (12.6 percent) and Seattle (14.7 percent) and in the two core cities of San Francisco-Oakland (15.7 percent). Despite the strong metropolitan area showing (#1) and high suburban ranking (#3), Washington had only the 15th-lowest poverty rate among core cities.

 Suburbs: The highest suburban poverty rates were in Riverside-San Bernardino (16.2 percent), Miami (15.9 percent), and Oklahoma City (15.2 percent).

The lowest suburban poverty rates were in Baltimore (6.7 percent), Milwaukee (6.9 percent), and Washington (7.1 percent), with Baltimore and Washington profiting from strong federal government employment and contracting.

Trends Continuing

The data reflect longer-term trends as wealth losses continue to afflict many core cities and as domestic migrants continue to move away. Core counties, the lowest level at which there is migration data, have predominantly lost domestic migrants, both between 2000 and 2009 and in the latest estimates, between 2010 and 2011.

The problem, however, is much larger. Both the core cities and the suburbs are challenged by heightened poverty rates. The entire urban form, from the exurbs and the suburbs to the core cities, needs a substantial reduction in poverty, although present economic trends are working against this result.

Wendell Cox ([email protected]) is an international public policy consultant, principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy/Demographia, and author of War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life (2006). Used with permission from NewGeography.com, where a longer version appears.