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The Changing Face of Concentrated Poverty

Jennifer Wolch, Nathan J. Sessoms
Recent research by Jargowsky (2003) highlights dramatic changes in the spatial distribution of concentrated poverty throughout the metropolitan U.S. during the 1990s. Yet the traditional definition of concentrated poverty – 40 percent of the tract population living below the federal poverty threshold – remains problematic in light of burgeoning working poor populations, the emergence of inner-suburban poverty, and long-standing problems with the federal poverty threshold itself. Under such circumstances, the common assumption that concentrated poverty areas are ‘underclass’ neighborhoods plagued by social dysfunction and pathology appears open to question. This article assesses the physical environments and social profiles of inner suburban neighborhoods in Los Angeles County characterized by concentrated poverty. Findings reveal that such neighborhoods tend to be relatively clean and well maintained. Moreover, their residents are not disproportionately prone to high levels of unemployment, high school dropout rates, reliance on public assistance, or share of female-headed households – variables traditionally used to define both concentrated poverty and ‘underclass’ areas. Results suggest the need for both quantitative and qualitative research methods in order to better depict emerging poverty patterns, as well as the development of flexible, place-specific policies able to address the multi-faceted needs of both poverty neighborhoods and that of their residents.