The structural causes of concentrated urban poverty in the United States

Mitchell Lee Eggers, University of Pennsylvania


We examine three theories proposed to explain the rise in poverty rates and geographically concentrated urban poverty during the 1970s in American cities. Charles Murray (1984) argued that increased welfare benefits during the 1960s and 1970s altered the incentive structure of the poor. The result was an increase in unemployment, unwed child-bearing, and female-headed families. William J. Wilson (1987) argued that an economic transformation of the urban economy reduced male employment opportunities. The result was a reduction in the number of males who were able to support a family and a proliferation of female-headed families. Wilson also argued that a black middle class exodus from the ghetto caused a rise in geographically concentrated urban poverty. Massey (1990) argued that changes in the black class structure within a racially segregated environment caused the rise in concentrated urban poverty. When minority unemployment rises the shock is principally absorbed by a few neighborhoods. Thus, Massey argued that racial segregation, not class-specific migration, was the cause of poverty concentration^ This dissertation evaluated each of these hypotheses by estimating structural equations using data from 60 large U.S. metropolitan areas in 1970 and 1980. Among blacks and Hispanics, we found evidence supporting the poverty theories of both Murray and Wilson. High welfare benefits and the structural transformation of the urban economy increased unemployment rates, female-headed families and poverty. Among whites, we found that neither theory explained poverty rates well. For all three groups we found that general economic conditions were the most important determinants of the poverty rate.^ Turning to the concentration of poverty, we found that middle class out-migration and increasing interclass segregation among blacks were inadequate explanations. Hispanics and Asians experienced higher levels of interclass segregation than blacks and, except for Hispanics in the northeast, did not experience high levels of concentrated poverty. Hispanics in the northeast and blacks everywhere experienced high levels of racial segregation, however, and when racial segregation and rising poverty rates interact, the rise of concentrated urban poverty can be explained. We conclude that racial segregation is the most important determinant of concentrated urban poverty. ^

Subject Area

Sociology, Public and Social Welfare|Sociology, Demography

Recommended Citation

Eggers, Mitchell Lee, "The structural causes of concentrated urban poverty in the United States" (1990). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9112554.