Skip to main content

Displacing Poverty

Our metrics of urban neighborhood health fail to capture individual success stories, which is why we see South Central Los Angeles, which has a history of successfully encouraging social mobility, as a place with persistent poverty.
  • Author:
  • Updated:


For the well-to-do, the world is flat. For the poor, geography matters. Who moves changed about 50 years ago. The Immigration Act of 1965 dispensed with racial-based quotas and profoundly impacted domestic migration. However, urban policy today largely ignores this shift. Ben Hecht, CEO of Living Cities, stating the oversight:

America's cities are the engine for national prosperity and individual economic opportunity. Indeed, for generations, low income people from around the country and the world viewed our cities as the best path to a better life. But in recent decades, that has been less true. Despite the tens of billions of dollars being spent to tackle big challenges such as education, jobs, mobility, health, and housing in cities, we are failing to achieve the desired results, at the needed scale.

Why? Because once-in-a-lifetime developments, such as the internet and globalization, have fundamentally transformed the way people live and how the world works and we simply haven’t adapted accordingly. The systems that we always thought were going to produce more opportunities for the next generation than they did for the last, no longer do so. ...

... The geography of opportunity has expanded from neighborhood to city, region and even the globe. Today, few people work, live and learn in a narrowly defined geographic area. Even if opportunities to further one's education, or get a better job, exist in a region, it often takes too long to get to them, costs too much or other barriers, such as lack of child care, get in the way.

A place-based policy lens would work well in the industrial world of 1910. The rural and relatively uneducated poor moved to the city for economic opportunity. On an international scale, that's still true for the United States. Read Arrival City by Doug Saunders. The rural-to-urban migration within Pakistan is happening between the Salvadoran village of El Palón and South Central Los Angeles. As Saunders details, that journey renders our place-based statistics meaningless:

Los Angeles stands out as the premier arrival-city cluster of the United States, with almost half its population born in other countries (and predominantly in rural areas), a position equaled in North America only by Toronto, which plays a similar role in Canada. Los Angeles is described by demographers as a “gateway city,” which is to say that it is a broadly successful arrival city: its poor neighborhoods send out successful middle-class migrants to wealthier neighborhoods at rates similar to their intake of poor villagers. People move through its neighborhoods: L.A. flushes out at least a third of its population each decade, becoming an entirely new city in each generation. A major study of the city’s immigrants shows that they arrive very poor, with poverty rates approaching 25 percent, but that these rates fall sharply, especially during the first decade of residence, generally to less than 10 percent. Nevertheless, the neighborhoods themselves often stay poor or even get poorer. Since about 1990, poverty rates in immigrant-dominated neighborhoods have remained at about 20 percent, despite these gains in the migrant population’s fortunes.

This, as the Los Angeles sociologist Dowell Myers has explained, is actually a result of the American arrival city’s success: Because it is constantly sending its educated second generation into more prosperous neighborhoods and taking in waves of new villagers, in a constantly reiterated cycle of “arrival, upward mobility, and exodus,” the neighborhood itself appears poorer than it really is. “At a given point in time, measurement of residents’ characteristics includes the most disadvantaged newcomers to a city but not the more advantage ‘graduates’ from the place,” Myers says. “When the influx of disadvantaged newcomers is growing or when the departure of upwardly mobile residents is increasing, the city’s average economic status will decline over time. This leads to an odd paradox: The downward trend for the place is the opposite indicator of the upward trend enjoyed by the residents themselves. This paradox has created a sense among outsiders that the city’s immigrant districts are poorer or more desperate than they really are, which leads to a misunderstanding of the forms of government investment they really need-a serious policy problem in many migrant-based cities around the world. Rather than getting the tools of ownership, education, security, business creation, and connection to the wider economy, they are too often treated as destitute places that need non-solutions, such as social workers, public-housing blocks, and urban-planned redevelopments.

“Arrival, upward mobility, and exodus." Our metrics of urban neighborhood health fail to capture these individual success stories. We see a place with persistent poverty. We miss the home ownership boom in El Salvador and the move to improve for African Americans in L.A. We don't understand how places are connected.

We don't understand how places are disconnected. The needle didn't move in South Central Los Angeles. After the Immigration Act of 1965, the needle did move for the people who lived there. People moved in, up, and out. Before the influx of immigrants, people moved in, down, and nowhere. Poverty and residents stayed put. Welcome to apartheid America.

Some poor neighborhoods are connected to opportunity. Others are not. I saw firsthand how Baltimore is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Even "arrival, upward mobility, and exodus" meant something was wrong with the neighborhood. Brain drain is bad. No one would leave a strong neighborhood. Migration is the lesser of two evils.