The Enduring Challenge of Concentrated Poverty in America

Case Studies from Communities Across the U.S.

In 2006, the Community Affairs Offices of the Federal Reserve System partnered with the Brookings Institution to examine the issue of concentrated poverty. The resulting report,The Enduring Challenge of Concentrated Poverty in America: Case Studies from Communities Across the U.S., profiles 16 high-poverty communities from across the country, including immigrant gateway, Native American, urban, and rural communities. Through these case studies, the report contributes to our understanding of the dynamics of poor people living in poor communities, and the policies that will be needed to bring both into the economic mainstream.

The case studies include two areas in the Fourth District, Cleveland’s Central neighborhood and Martin County, Kentucky. On the surface, these two communities appear to have little in common apart from their very high rates of poverty. Their geographies, demographies, and histories describe two very different places; one urban and losing jobs and population, the other rural and gaining residents. Despite these differences, the challenges to overcoming poverty in these two disparate places are remarkably similar. Read introductory excerpts from the two Fourth District case studies below.

Central case study opening excerpt:

In its heyday, Cleveland was a major industrial center with more than 900,000 residents. Today, plagued by a steady loss of manufacturing jobs and a subsequent outflow of its central city population, Cleveland is an example of both Rust Belt decline and suburbanization. The city’s economic situation has been deteriorating since the 1950s and was probably most dramatized by the city’s high-profile bankruptcy in 1978—the first time a city has defaulted on its debt since the Great Depression.

While the loss of jobs and people has been a challenge, the city of Cleveland has had some success in diversifying its economy. A number of high-quality institutions—universities, medical centers, corporations, and foundations—have worked collaboratively toward and contributed significantly to revitalizing the city. As former Mayor Michael R. White said, “This is a town of partnerships.”

In Cleveland’s Central neighborhood, the subject of this case study, many community development organizations have tried to turn the neighborhood around. (PDF)

Martin County case study opening excerpt:

On April 24, 1964, the day President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty, he was photographed with Tom Fletcher’s family on the porch of their home in Martin County. That image, which appeared in newspapers across the country, became an icon of the 1960s’ effort to eradicate poverty. In his declaration, Johnson stated that his administration was “just not willing to accept the necessity of poverty.” They would fight poverty, he stated, “in all its forms, in all its causes, and we intend to drive it underground and win that war.”

At the time, Martin County epitomized much of what indigent communities suffered from: isolation, poor education, lack of employment, and, of course, very low incomes. The county’s per capita personal income was about 35 percent of the national average. Today, although its poverty rate is less extreme than it was in the 1960s, Martin County is still one of the poorest in the United States and continues to face many of its historical challenges. (PDF)