Theories of Urban Poverty and Implications for Public Housing Policy

Article excerpt

Urban poverty has been the subject of sociological and political debate for more than a century. In this article I examine theories of urban poverty and their place in American housing policy. I first discuss theories that have arisen out of the sociological and policy discourse on urban poverty and the research that supports and challenges these theories. I then review current public housing initiatives and discuss the impact of these theories on current housing policy.

Keywords: urban poverty, sociological theory, poverty concentration, neighborhood effects, housing policy, HOPE VI


Urban poverty has been the subject of sociological and political debate for more than a century. The debate over the causes, consequences, and solutions to poverty has gained renewed interest and significance in recent decades due to the dramatic concentration of urban poverty. Since the mid-1960's, poverty has become more concentrated in inner-city neighborhoods across the nation and has had the greatest impact on the black urban poor. For example, between 1970 and 1980 alone, the poor black population living in extreme poverty areas increased by 164 percent, while the increase was only 24 percent for poor whites (Wilson, 1987). The increase in poverty concentration has coincided with a dramatic increase in joblessness, female-headed households, welfare dependency, out-of-wedlock births, segregation, and crime.

Early Theories of Urban Poverty

Urban ecological theory, which dominated in the United States in the early 1900s, analyzed cities through a human ecology lens and saw poor urban neighborhoods as transitional and functional zones of larger urban metropolises; places where new immigrant groups would pass through for a temporary period of time (Park & Burgess, 1925). Other ecological theorists examined the disorganized nature of cities and the negative effects of social disorganization in certain poor neighborhoods (Wirth, 1938; Shaw & McKay, 1942). The traditional urban ecological perspective has been denounced for not recognizing the permanent nature of many poor black neighborhoods and for ignoring factors other than market forces that can shape the movement of groups and land use (Sampson & Morenoff, 1997).

Another influential theory was the "culture of poverty", which suggested that the norms and behaviors of the poor can be distinguished as a subculture of larger society and characterized by a distinct way of life, including an atypical worldview and low aspirations (Lewis, 1968; Moynihan, 1965). This culture was said to perpetuate itself from generation to generation. The culture of poverty thesis has been widely criticized for being too deterministic, blaming the victim, and diverting attention away from the structural causes of poverty. Another perspective suggested that welfare policies were to blame for the disintegration of the urban black family by offering disincentives for work and marriage (Murray, 1984). Although influential, this perspective has been discounted with evidence that shows welfare rates rose even when the relative advantage of work at a minimum wage job outweighed that of welfare income (Wilson, 1987).

Social Isolation and Concentration Effects

Perhaps more influential than any other previous work on urban poverty is William Julius Wilson's thesis in The Truly Disadvantaged (1987). Wilson maintains that two key factors best explain why the social conditions of the "urban underclass" deteriorated so rapidly since the mid-1960's: changes in the structure of the economy and changes in the social composition of inner-city neighborhoods. Wilson argues that major shifts in the structure of the American economy, including the suburbanization of jobs and the decreasing demand for low-skilled labor, contributed to a downward spiral for urban blacks (1987, 1996). At the same time jobs were relocating away and the economic base shifted from manufacturing to the service sector, more jobs began requiring formal education and credentials that many inner-city residents lacked. …