More than half of Tri-County poor are stuck in 'concentrated poverty'

by Tom Grubisich

More than half of the poor people in metro Charleston - most of them black - live in failing neighborhoods impacted by high levels of "concentrated poverty," a new report from the Washington, DC-based Brookings Institution says.


The chart above, adapted by Beyond Catfish Row from the Brookings report, shows the extent of concentrated poverty in metro Charleston. It compares conditions in the Tri-County area to those in "benchmark" regions against which greater Charleston will be rated in the forthcoming One Region strategy report of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and Charleston Regional Development Alliance that is scheduled to come out in May.

The One Region strategy is being designed to make metro Charleston more economically competitive in global markets. It is especially significant because, for the first time, racial equality and equity would be a cornerstone of economic rejuvenation in the Tri-County area. Eliminating racial disparities - which abound in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty - is called an "economic imperative" in another Brookings report, issued in February. The unfolding One Region strategy dovetails with that report.

Concentrated poverty exists when people who are poor account for at least 20% of a neighborhood. It is getting increasing attention because numerous on-the-ground studies show how it can adversely effect the entire life and structure of a neighborhood, including:

  • Quality of schools.
  • Condition of housing.
  • Rates of violence and other crime.
  • Fairness of law enforcement and criminal justice.
  • Availability of decent-paying jobs.
  • Delivery of basic services like health care.

A neighborhood with a high level of concentrated poverty has, studies document, low levels of the human and social capital it needs not only for the livability of its residents but also to make a positive contribution to its overall region.

The new Brookings report details the extent of concentrated poverty and shows how pervasive it is - in metro Charleston and throughout the nation.  "The number of people living below the federal poverty line...remains stuck at recession-era record levels," the report says. It draws a bold line connecting neighborhoods of concentrated poverty to the health of the overall region, saying:

"The many barriers imposed by living in a poor neighborhood make it that much harder for residents to move up the economic ladder, and their chances of doing so only diminish the longer they live in such neighborhoods. Moreover, in regions where the poor are more segregated into poor places, the dampening effect on mobility extends beyond distressed neighborhoods to lower economic mobility for the region as a whole."


The report has one piece of relatively good news about metro Charleston: The Tri-County suburbs continue to give blacks opportunities - albeit limited ones - to move up and out of poverty (chart above). The black poverty rate in the suburbs of Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester Counties is close to 20% lower than it is in the City of Charleston, maintaining a trend that is holding up with 14 years of statistics put together by the Brookings report. But the trend line has flattened out since the year 2000, indicating that the suburbs aren't providing sufficient opportunities for blacks. 

Poverty, including at its concentrated levels, crosses color lines in metro Charleston, at the new Brookings data shows. But the heaviest burden falls on blacks. Even though the region's white population is three times greater, blacks account for well more than half of those who are poor, especially at concentrated levels that can blight entire neighborhoods.