The persistence of Texas ghettos is a problem for us all

Ghetto: a portion of a city in which members of a minority group live especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure.

- Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Data drawn from Paul A. Jargowsky paper for The Brookings Institution

Data drawn from Paul A. Jargowsky paper for The Brookings Institution

Ghetto. The word makes me wince. It should be anachronistic. Yet, as much as we don’t like to hear the word, it describes the reality of the living conditions for almost one million low income families in Texas today.

The “ghettoization” of low income, minority families plays a role in many tragedies such as the shooting of three children at a South Dallas subsidized housing development last week.

Paul Jargowsky, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Texas at Dallas in his book, Poverty and Place: Ghettos, Barrios, and the American City (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1997) defines poverty concentration as a census tract occupied by 40 percent or more poor residents.  Poverty is defined as a family of three earning $17,600 per year or less.  There is no dispute that where forty percent or more of a neighborhood’s residents live in poverty, there is indeed a severely economically distressed community.

Jargowsky found that 39 percent of the residents of such tracts were Black and 29 percent were Hispanic. In a follow-up study using data from the 2000 Census Jargowsky concluded that there had been major progress among both African-Americans in dispersing from ghettos during the 1990-2000 decade.

If we use Professor Jargowsky’s definition of census tracts having 40 percent or more of their population below poverty as a proxy for the ghetto, Texas still has 218 census tracts that qualify as ghettos.  There are 934,772 Texans living in these areas — about one out of every 21 Texas residents. The table below describes these “ghetto” census tracts by MSAs and for the balance of the state.

Jargowsky notes the body of empirical evidence suggests that living in poor neighborhoods has deleterious effects on the people who live there, particularly the children. This produces an increasing economic balkanization of our society in which lower-income persons are spatially isolated and unable to access the resources and opportunities they need to become fully integrated with the larger society.

Which brings me to the following comment that someone posted on this blog regarding my observation that the City of Houston has unfairly ghettoized Katrina evacuees and should take steps to break up this concentration…

This article is moronic. You start putting these thugs into solid neighborhoods, and guess what happens. They bring their thug friends with them, and bingo, there goes the neighborhood. This man is [sic] needs his head examined.

I share this comment because it illustrates that the problem of the ghetto is manifested not only on the ghetto’s residents but on outsiders as well.

George C. Galster of Wayne State University, one of the nation’s leading experts on residential segregation, argues that “the negative behavioral responses to ghettoization of some low-income individuals represent a predictable reaction to the constrained set of markets, institutions, social and administrative systems, and networks that potentially offer resources that affect socioeconomic advancement.” He calls this the metropolitan opportunity structure (MOS). In the end, features of the neighborhood environment are highly correlated with the residents’ decisions made about schooling, substance abuse, fertility, crime, and labor force participation.

This leads me back to the reaction of the commenter to my blog posting. As ghetto residents engage in negative behaviors triggered their perceptions of their opportunity structure, they reinforce the racial prejudices of some whites. Media portrayal of the most sensational of these actions fuels whites’ generalized prejudices of minority inferiority.

Galster argues that white attitudes about ghetto residents spill over to their attitudes of African=Americans in general. The impact of this is huge.

If my claim were correct that ghetto-based behaviors are used to legitimize racial stereotypes of Blacks in general, the ghetto represents a central producer of motivations for at least two types of discrimination. The first is a form of differential treatment known as statistical discrimination. Essentially, it is differential treatment based on the discriminator’s belief that race is highly correlated with one or more valued attributes. So, a landlord may refuse to rent to any Blacks because he thinks that there is a higher probability that a Black tenant may use the apartment to sell drugs. Or, a real estate agent may steer a White homeseeker away from a mixed neighborhood because of a belief that, on average, Whites are unwilling to take a chance of living amid many Blacks. The statistical discriminator does not disfavor minorities because of animus, but rather because experience, media reports, or other evidence “proves” that, on average, minorities are less likely to possess certain desirable traits. Of course, the ghetto goes a long way toward providing the requisite proof to make such statistical discrimination seem perfectly rational and even justifiable in a business or even moral sense.

The second type of discrimination involves policies and practices that cause or perpetuate various forms of adverse racial impacts. Here I am thinking primarily of the creation of suburban municipalities that subsequently adopt exclusionary land use policies and housing codes designed to limit the housing opportunities of all who are of lower socioeconomic standing than those already in the municipality. The concomitant creation of a distinct taxing district and public school district means that the intrametropolitan inequality in public sector opportunity structures will be intensified (The Institute on Race and Poverty, 1998). Restrictions on the in-migration of lower-income households to the suburbs become even more problematic given the continuing patterns of employment decentralization. These issues are well known. My point in reviewing them is to note that the behaviors produced by the ghetto spawn a prime impetus and ban jurisdictional fragmentation and exclusionary practices.

The persistence of the ghetto and its occasional pathologies not only presents a problem for the almost one million Texans who live there, but for us all.

About John Henneberger

I started my commitment to housing justice for people and communities with low incomes in 1975 in Austin's Clarksville community. These years of working side-by-side with dedicated community leaders to find solutions to housing and community development challenges have taught me some things and I’m learning new things every day.

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  1. Poverty comes to the Texas suburbs « Texas housers - August 9, 2008

    […] comes to the Texas suburbs Wednesday’s blog post about the persistence of ghettos in Texas cities led me to do a little more research about the […]

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