Concentrations of poverty lunge deep into suburbs

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter

Concentrations of poverty shown on Myron Orfield’s maps lunge deep into the suburbs, suggesting a dynamic that could leave cities like Brooklyn Center, Columbia Heights and other suburban communities as beleaguered as north Minneapolis, Orfield believes.

“Probably (with) worse problems,” said Orfield, director of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota.

Suburbs are vulnerable, he explained.

“The central city has a certain amount of horsepower,” Orfield said.

“It has a big downtown tax base. It has wealthy neighborhoods. There’s a certain stability in these big cities that these first and second-ring suburbs aren’t going to have,” he said.

Orfield, a former Democratic lawmaker, author and expert on regional growth issues, said changes in Twin Cities’ suburbs have been “really dramatic,” but not unexpected.

Indeed, he’s been talking about them and anticipating them since the early 1990s, he said.

Orfield views a debilitating cycle at work in a growing area of the suburbs, one creating low-opportunity neighborhoods, struggling schools and stressed local government.

He depicts it as fueled to a great extent by a failure at providing affordable housing equitably across the entire metro area, a failure he places at the doorstep of the Metropolitan Council.

It’s a failure of leadership, Orfield argues.

“I think it ought to be elected,” Orfield said of the council, whose members are appointed by the governor.

“It ought to be accountable (to voters),” he said.

Beginning in the late 1980s, the council began to backslide from policies it followed for more than 20 years, such as affordable housing being a prerequisite for gaining regional amenities in outer-ring suburbs, Orfield said.

“They really defeated this (concentration-of-poverty) problem, and then they just dropped the ball,” Orfield said.

“And it wasn’t racists who did it; it was just dumb,” he said.

In their book “Region,” by Orfield and Institute on Race and Poverty researcher Thomas Luce Jr., the men argue that ill-directed federal housing programs have contributed to concentrations of poverty.

For instance, in an analysis of low-income housing under the federal Section 8 program, the authors argue that, as with the Low-Income House Tax Credit Program, Section 8 housing units and vouchers are disproportionately centered in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and “stressed” inner suburbs, where the population of minority and low-income people is already high.

Indeed, more than three-quarters of metro area residents of color live in the central cities and stressed suburbs — suburban cities such as   Crystal, Fridley, Robbinsdale and Coon Rapids — with only two-fifths of the region’s white residents living in “low-opportunity” communities.

Racial diversity, Orfield and Luce argue, is often merely a “temporary stop” on the road to persistent segregation.

According to the authors, the “turnover point” at which a neighborhood is likely to resegregate is low — for white/black or multi-ethnic integrated neighborhoods between 30 and 38 percent nonwhite, they say.

“People may be fleeing increasing concentrations of poverty as much at they’re fleeing black people, or Latino people, or Asian people. I think that’s what people are really choosing against,” said Orfield.

Concentration of poverty — the creation of low-opportunity neighborhoods — has a corrosive affect on the middle-class attitudes and values many people, of all races, strongly feel.

“You live in a community that’s upwardly mobile, it pulls you up,” Orfield said.

“A good kid in a bad neighborhood can get pulled into trouble,” he said.

Public schools reflect the concentration of poverty afflicting the metro, Orfield argues.

Indeed, an unhealthy synergy exists between the two.

Metro schools are segregating, Orfield said.

According to Orfield and Luce, two decades ago just nine elementary schools in the metro were nonwhite segregated. But by 2008, the number had jumped to 108, or 23 percent.

Almost all of these school have high-poverty rates, the men point out.

Over the same time, the number of integrated schools increased, but with a twist.

The increase — a jump from 22 percent to 37 percent — reflects the fact white students were less likely to attend all-white schools.

But in the meantime, the percentage of black and Hispanic students attending non-white segregated schools skyrocketed, almost quadrupling for blacks to 51 percent and bounding for Hispanic students from 3 percent to 43 percent.

In essence, students of color increasingly attend segregated schools with other students of color but not with whites, Orfield and Luce argue.

With good planning, schools should last for generations, said Orfield.

But in the Twin Cites, beginning in the late 1960s and over the next 20 years, 150 schools were closed in the middle of the region and 50 opened at the edge.

Suburban officials say that once schools start to become nonwhite, real estate agents steer white families away from them, families of color toward them, Orfield explained.

It’s a form of discrimination by proxy.

That is, when real estate agents describe the local school as “bad,” in coded language they’re saying the neighborhood is racially diverse.

“That’s illegal,” said Orfield.

“It’s a problem nationally. The places that do the best study it, monitor it,” he said.

Orfield views the same kind of cloaked discrimination being practiced by financial institutions.

He speaks of “pink lining.”

That is, banks not cutting off all loans to diverse or segregated neighborhoods, which is called “red-lining,” but nonetheless being restrictive.

Despite growth in the concentrations of poverty and problems with schools, Orfield is upbeat about reversing current trends.

The Twin Cities remains the second whitest, second most affluent metro area in the country with the smallest percentage of poverty, he said.

“Our challenges are not huge,” Orfield said.

“We have the laws in place to do it. We just don’t use them,” he said.

If the older suburban areas would unite with Minneapolis and St. Paul and insist newer suburbs do their fair share in terms of affordable housing, the tide could be turned, Orfield said.

“(But) I don’t see that happening right now,” he added.

If nothing is done, trends will continue.

“You’ll see a lot of those northern suburbs become poorer, and more disinvested, and have more empty stores,” said Orfield.

The days of traditional “white flight” are over, he explained.

“You don’t really have ‘white flight’ from cities anymore. You have it from suburbs to other suburbs,” he said.

A renewed sense of regionalism, besides being more just, can save money, Orfield explained.

But it takes collective action.

Minnesotans in general are welcoming to new groups of people, Orfield said.

“I think Minnesota people are more hopeful and decent than the rest of the country,” he said.

“It’s polarized (right now), but in general we’re better,” Orfield said.

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