High poverty areas in Houston have quadrupled and expanded beyond the city’s Interstate 610 Loop since 1980, according to a new report from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.
“Disparate City: Understanding Rising Levels of Concentrated Poverty and Affluence in Greater Houston” is complementary to the Kinder Institute’s spring 2016 study on the region’s changing racial and ethnic patterns. It examines poverty rates and economic segregation in Harris County since 1980.
“The opportunities for our city’s residents and their perceptions about what is possible are shaped by what they see in their own neighborhoods,” said Heather O’Connell, a postdoctoral research fellow at Rice’s Kinder Institute and the study’s co-author. “This applies equally to people living in low-income and high-income areas, so we wanted to find out more about the full spectrum of economic conditions in Harris County without focusing just on the concentration of poverty.”
The new report found that although the Houston metropolitan area has enjoyed tremendous population and economic growth in recent decades — the population increased by 78 percent between 1980 and 2010 and the economy reached $450 billion gross domestic product by 2010 — the benefits of this growth have not been equally distributed across all communities. And high poverty areas, largely confined to within or just beyond Houston’s Interstate 610 in 1980, have since emerged beyond this area. Today, those high poverty neighborhoods dominate much of the area between Houston’s two beltways, except for a wealthy region to the city’s west.
Other findings from the report include:
- From 1980 to 2010, the percentage of high poverty census tracts in Harris County more than quadrupled to 39 percent.
- Harris County’s percentage of high poverty census tracts is nearly double the national rate of 20 percent.
- The city’s high poverty areas that have emerged beyond the Inner Loop largely supplanted areas that were considered middle class in 1980.
- Nearly a third of Harris County’s census tracts transitioned from having low poverty rates (below 20 percent) to higher poverty rates (above 20 percent) from 1980 to 2010.
- Most Harris County census tracts with high poverty are economically diverse, meaning residents have a range of incomes. But that diversity is on the decline. Historically, high poverty tracts in the Houston area had a greater range of incomes than they do today.
- The county’s upper income census tracts tend to be more homogenous — meaning that individuals with similar levels of income live in the same place. The researchers said this trend has been amplified over time, with Houston’s high-income residents becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the region.
“The increase in neighborhoods with high poverty rates is troubling because under-resourced communities often limit the opportunities available to children growing up in these areas,” said Junia Howell, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Rice and the study’s co-author. “Nevertheless, what is critical to recognize is these communities do not exist in a vacuum. In fact, our report highlights that the more dramatic shift in Houston’s neighborhoods is the increase in the concentration of upper middle class and wealthy residents.”
“The concentration of individuals with the highest incomes in the same place isolates them from other types of people and areas,” O’Connell said. “This means that individuals living in these affluent areas have less exposure to what other people in the city are experiencing, which contributes to more tunnel vision about the city’s needs. In addition, this increased concentration of wealthy and powerful individuals can lead to an unbalanced distribution of resources.”
The study’s authors hope the report will raise awareness about increasing poverty levels of concentrated poverty and wealth in the city of Houston. To download a copy of the report, visit http://kinder.rice.edu/UrbanDisparityandopportunity.