Urban Poverty Essay

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The study of urban poverty attempts to understand the roots of urban dilemmas such as crime and delinquency, single motherhood, unemployment, and low education. The causes and consequences of spatially concentrated poverty and the intergenerational transmission of poverty are core questions.

The sociological study of urban poverty dates back to W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro (1899). Two decades later, Chicago School sociologists viewed urban poverty as a temporary stage in the incorporation of migrants from rural areas and abroad, as immigrant groups moved from poor, central city neighborhoods to better-off areas. The Great Migration, which brought Southern blacks to Northern and Western cities in the early to mid-twentieth century, challenged the Chicago School model, as blacks were blocked from economic advancement experienced by white ethnics. Focus shifted to the intergenerational transmission of poverty. Some scholars emphasized lack of opportunity while others argued for a ”culture of poverty” characterized by intergenerational norms disparaging education and two-parent families and encouraging crime.

The demographics of poverty shifted dramatically during the twentieth century. Improvements in government income supports reduced poverty among the elderly, while the increase in single-parent families increased poverty among unmarried mothers and their children, the ”feminization of poverty.”

With The Truly Disadvantaged (1986), W. J. Wilson refocused attention on the neighborhood context of urban poverty. He argued that the black urban poor were disadvantaged by both family and neighborhood poverty. As middle-class blacks left inner-city neighborhoods in the 1970s, the decline of the manufacturing economy led to joblessness among working-class males, especially blacks. An ”underclass” emerged, a concentrated population characterized by single motherhood, joblessness, school dropout, and participation in the underground economy, socially, culturally, and economically isolated from mainstream society. Massey and Denton (1993) charged Wilson with ignoring racial segregation’s magnification of the consequences of economic segregation.

One current strand of research investigates the consequences of neighborhood disadvantage for individuals, which include exposure to negative peer influences, collective socialization by neighborhood adults, and formal institutions, which distribute material resources and effect contact with non-neighborhood adults. A second strand seeks to understand out-of-wedlock and teenage childbearing among the urban poor. The male marriageable pool hypothesis holds that a shortage of economically attractive mates leads poor women to eschew marriage. Edin and Kefalas (2006) argue that poor urban women hold marriage and childbearing in such high regard that they delay marriage when success is uncertain but have children lest they miss out on motherhood. The peer culture explanation for teenage childbearing holds that early sexual activity and childbearing are sources of status among peers (Anderson 1999).

As research continues, the study of urban poverty faces methodological and theoretical challenges. First, today’s urban poor are heterogeneous. Latinos and other immigrants have become an important understudied segment of the poor. Second, how the urban poor are socially isolated or socially connected to others is poorly understood. Third, studying the dynamics and consequences of high-poverty neighborhoods requires new data and methods for measuring neighborhood social and cultural characteristics.


  1. Anderson, E. (1999) Code of the Street. Norton, New York.
  2. Edin, K. & Kefalas, M. (2006) Promises I Can Keep. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
  3. Jencks, C. & Mayer, S. E. (1990) The social consequences of growing up in a poor neighborhood. In: Lynn, L. E., Jr. & McGreary, M. G. H. (eds.), Inner-City Poverty in the United States. National Academy Press, Washington, DC, pp. 111-86.
  4. Massey, D. & Denton, N. (1993) American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of an Underclass. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

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