The Destructive Legacy of Housing Segregation

Less visible than the rise of income inequality in America is its impact in shaping the country’s urban neighborhoods. Two books—by Matthew Desmond and Mitchell Duneier—could help change that.

During the World War II era, Chicago’s South Side, shown here, and New York’s Harlem were the largest urban black ghettos. (Russell Lee / Library of Congress)

“Poverty is often off the beaten track. It always has been.” Michael Harrington made this observation in 1962, at the start of The Other America, his groundbreaking exploration of the misery hidden from the nation’s middle class. Half a century later, consider the geography of inequality. In 1970, about 15 percent of urban families lived in neighborhoods that were either extremely poor or extremely wealthy. That figure had risen to 34 percent by 2012. Among black Americans, the odds of escaping the poorest enclaves are grim: Four out of five black children growing up in such places have caregivers who were raised in similar neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the number of households within gated communities is up by more than half since 2001.


The rise of economic inequality has become a staple of policy debates and stump speeches. Less visible is the way the rise has altered the landscape of America’s urban neighborhoods. Two books should help change that. Matthew Desmond, an urban sociologist at Harvard, has delivered a jolt with Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, a close-up portrait of life on the lowest end of Milwaukee’s private rental market. In Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea, Mitchell Duneier, a sociologist at Princeton, steps back and turns his attention toward other scholars of poverty, examining how they have changed the way the rest of us understand the ghetto. To begin to explain why upward mobility lags in the United States compared with most other countries in the developed world, Desmond and Duneier agree, we need to think anew about the most isolated neighborhoods—about what keeps those places so separate, and their residents so stuck in them.


For Duneier, two historical iterations of the Jewish ghetto in Europe serve as structural extremes to frame the story he traces of a disadvantaged group—African Americans—cordoned off in the U.S. At one end lies the enclave that gave us the term ghetto: an island in Venice (named for the copper foundry, or geto, once located on it) where Jews were assigned to live in 1516. Gates opened in the morning and closed at night, allowing the Jews to circulate among the general population and take part in economic life by day. Venetian authorities mostly kept out, which meant Jewish community and culture could thrive. At the other end stands Hitler’s ghetto in Warsaw, part of a system designed to ensure complete isolation, control, and, ultimately, annihilation.

Focusing in particular on African American scholars’ portrayals of black ghettos over the past three-quarters of a century, Duneier traces a gradual shift from relative freedom for what he calls “human flourishing” to increasing control, intrusion, and punishment. He turns first to Horace R. Cayton, a co-author, with St. Clair Drake, of Black Metropolis, an account of Chicago’s South Side from the 1840s through the 1930s that remains one of the most comprehensive community studies ever produced. The black ghetto in prewar America was a place of deep poverty and, as Cayton and Drake demonstrated, the product of relentless discrimination in housing and employment, which continued after the war. But it was also a place where African American culture thrived, a “city within a city,” in their words. By the 1960s, when Kenneth Clark focused on youth delinquency in Harlem, northern ghettos had grown, and the departure of middle- and upper-income black Americans—and jobs—had begun. A “tangle of pathology” rooted in a sense of powerlessness, Clark argued, now eclipsed cultural vigor and autonomy. That sense of impotence, he emphasized, was well founded: Forces outside the ghetto had begun to erode the black community. Vibrant neighborhoods were razed to make way for highways and public-housing projects, turning the ghetto into a subject colony.

Duneier’s book culminates with the ascendance of William Julius Wilson, the most celebrated scholar of urban poverty in the past 50 years. In The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), Wilson drew attention to a new form of concentrated poverty and joblessness that had spread across cities of the Northeast and the Midwest. Putting family disarray and violence in the foreground, and bringing macroeconomic and demographic developments into the picture as well, Wilson proposed a theory that connected immediate and more impersonal forces. The migration of the black middle class out of cities in the wake of the civil-rights movement and the deindustrialization of urban economies had left a corroded core, cut off from the social mainstream and reliant on inadequate federal support. Pervasive joblessness and undiluted poverty encouraged a set of self-sabotaging cultural adaptations: Two-parent families became increasingly rare, and youths dropped out of school as early childbearing and drug dealing spread in the absence of other options.

Wilson’s argument was multifaceted, but policy makers on both the left and the right seized on his notion of an “underclass.” Concerns about welfare dependence, teen pregnancy, unemployment, and violent crime dominated policy discussions during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Wilson had called for universal social supports like health care and guaranteed employment. Instead, in the decade that followed, the federal government bolstered police departments, stiffened sentencing for criminal offenders, provided stronger incentives for work through the earned-income tax credit, and imposed time limits and work requirements on all Americans receiving welfare. Whatever the consequences of these policies—and they have been complex—they reflect a clear understanding of persistent ghetto poverty as the product of the culture and behavior of poor people.

Toward the end of Ghetto, Duneier highlights the rise of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a remarkably successful organization built on the idea that the only solution to the intertwined problems of violence, low academic performance, and dysfunctional families was a massive, holistic investment in devastated communities. Its founder, Geoffrey Canada, was heavily influenced by Wilson’s diagnosis, but not by his prescription. Canada turned to billionaires to finance charter schools, a health clinic, after-school programs, and parenting classes for families living on 97 blocks of Harlem. In place of government policy designed to break down the walls of the ghetto, private philanthropy took on the work of fortifying the neighborhood from within.

Like many books on America’s urban neighborhoods, Ghetto ends on a depressing note. Geoffrey Canada’s social experiment served as a guide for some of President Obama’s most ambitious proposals for urban-policy reform, but other national politicians haven’t shown the same enthusiasm for Canada’s vision that the philanthropists who funded his organization did. When my book, Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress Toward Racial Equality, came out in 2013, I, too, had no encouraging answers to the inevitable question of where hope might be found. Three years later, though, my view is different: Something fundamental about the poorest urban places has changed without many people noticing.

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Joblessness still remains disturbingly high in poor urban neighborhoods, but the measures of dysfunction that stirred such alarm in the 1990s have declined noticeably. Welfare receipt has plummeted, the teen birthrate has fallen by half, the percentage of students who drop out of high school has diminished steadily, and the homicide rate is as low as it has been in 50 years. Although voices on the right still blame the poor for their plight, claims that the persistence of urban poverty is primarily a consequence of ghetto behavior and culture have become harder to sustain. The model that has dominated policy discussions for more than two decades no longer makes much sense.

Evicted, which has been deservedly acclaimed for its vivid evocation of inner-city misery, points the way to an alternative model. Desmond’s very timely goal is to force the reader to consider urban poverty as more than the product of bad decisions, deficient culture, or impersonal economic forces. His account suggests that we think about it instead as the result of, in his words, “a kind of robbery”—the product of a system in which profit is derived from poverty, in which there are winners because there are losers. Desmond immersed himself in the lives of eight families living in the black ghetto on the north side of Milwaukee and in a mostly white trailer park on the south side. He also carried out a representative survey of the city’s renters and analyzed every eviction hearing over a period of several years. He makes a strong case that many of the problems plaguing the nation’s poorest urban neighborhoods can be traced to a common source: the near-insurmountable hurdles to finding a decent, stable place to live.

To watch as the families in Evicted churn through the cheapest apartments in Milwaukee, and in and out of shelters, is to understand why steady employment and upward mobility are so unlikely—and why a parent’s struggles so frequently entrap children within the confines of the ghetto. Jori is the teenage son of Arleen, who worked in the past but suffers from depression and now relies entirely on welfare to support him and his 5-year-old brother. (Desmond has changed the names of his subjects.) Jori switches schools five times over the course of seventh and eighth grade as the family is constantly uprooted. After yet another change in both home and school (while the family is also dealing with the death of a relative), Jori acts out in the classroom. Reprimanded, he talks back and kicks his teacher in the shin before running home. The teacher calls the police, who show up at the family’s new apartment. Arleen, who found the place only after calling 90 landlords, is given until the weekend to clear out.

“Children didn’t shield families from eviction,” Desmond writes. “They exposed them to it.” Attention from the authorities is the last thing that a landlord in the ghetto wants, and a tenant like Arleen is vulnerable to eviction for any reason, at any time. That’s partly because she has a trail of evictions—which is because she’s constantly behind on her rent. To keep current would take up just about every dollar of her welfare check, which hasn’t increased in 10 years, and she has to feed and clothe the boys. (At one point, her rent is $600, and she’s living on a stipend of $628.) The last time she visited the housing authority to inquire about the possibility of receiving housing assistance, the wait list—more than 3,500 families long—had been frozen for four years. Even if she made it to the top of the list, Arleen would likely be denied assistance because of her record of evictions. Her situation is not anomalous: About three-quarters of families across the country who are eligible for housing assistance do not receive it.

Tenants with next to no resources remain caught in a precarious, and perversely symbiotic, relationship with landlords offering dilapidated apartments at rents only marginally lower than those in the more affluent parts of the city. (In Milwaukee, the majority of poor renters devote at least half their income to rent, and a third pay at least 80 percent.) Desmond spends as much time with Sherrena Tarver, an “inner-city entrepreneur” who owns dozens of low-rent properties in Milwaukee’s black neighborhoods, as he does with her tenants. In the course of Arleen’s peregrinations (which culminate in Jori’s brother being temporarily removed from her care by Child Protective Services), she lands in one of Sherrena’s properties: a duplex apartment next door to an abandoned house occupied by crack addicts.

The majority of poor renters in Milwaukee spend at least half their income on rent. (Dori / Wikimedia)

Arleen takes pride in the apartment, giving it a fresh coat of paint in her first few weeks there. Then Arleen’s close friend, whom she considered a sister, passes away. With Sherrena’s permission, Arleen uses some of her rent money to contribute to the funeral. She promises to pay back what she owes her landlord over the next couple of months. But then Arleen misses a meeting with her welfare caseworker because the reminder notice is sent to an old address. She is sanctioned, and her benefit gets cut back. Arleen falls further behind on the rent, and once a tenant falls behind, her legal protections vanish. Sherrena no longer has to deal with the broken window in Arleen’s apartment, or the lack of hot water, or any other building-code violations. For landlords like Sherrena, it is less expensive to begin eviction proceedings than it would be to perform basic repairs.

Desmond follows Sherrena to the small-claims court where eviction proceedings are held, “the busiest courtroom in the state.” The vast majority of her tenants don’t show up for their hearings, because they’re unable to get off from work, or because they are too humiliated to sit in a room and have their troubles exposed for all to see, or because they realize they’ll never persuade the judge to let them stay in their home. When a tenant doesn’t show up, and a landlord or a representative does, an eviction ruling enters the books by default. Arleen made it to her appointment, only to lose her case as soon as she acknowledged that she was behind on rent.

Sherrena Tarver is not the reason for the desperate conditions of the people in the apartments she rents out, but her profits require that those conditions don’t change. As Evicted vividly reveals, persistent poverty is a consequence of systematic exploitation of the poor. This exploitation is in turn made possible by residential isolation. Ever since the creation of the 16th-century Venetian ghetto, the physical separation of a dishonored group has served to shield the larger city from the consequences of disinvestment in the marginalized area, and to shift the blame for the conditions in the community onto the dishonored group. The maintenance of segregation—by race or class or religion—permits the cycle of neglect to continue.

Segregation by race has declined gradually since 1970, but separation by income has grown steadily over the same period. Housing discrimination along racial or ethnic lines has been illegal since the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Discrimination by class or income has never been illegal, however, and has remained largely invisible. The types of families Desmond follows in Evicted are often out of view. They are cut off from neighborhoods where homes are paid for with mortgages subsidized by a federal government that has failed to allocate sufficient funds for affordable housing—and where residents elect representatives who go to great lengths to ensure that low-income renters stay where they are.

Desmond calls for making federal housing vouchers available to all low-income Americans. Such a step would certainly help alleviate the crisis among poor renters. But perhaps the time has come to address the top of the real-estate market as well. The most influential, and expensive, housing policies in the United States are currently designed to ensure that well-off Americans can continue to live apart from poor Americans. Until recently, the government hasn’t taken an active role in enforcing antidiscrimination law when it comes to housing. Federal requirements mandating that local jurisdictions develop plans to address segregation and create more-inclusive communities have been ignored for decades. Zoning laws continue to restrict who can live in exclusive towns and neighborhoods.

The Obama administration has gradually begun to push for improvements on those fronts. Even scaling back the long-sacrosanct pillars of American homeownership—the more than $100 billion mortgage-interest and property-tax deductions—shouldn’t be written off as impossible. Whatever else the effects might be, the savings could fund a universal voucher system. Critics across the political spectrum have long found fault with a huge subsidy that fails to serve its supposed beneficiaries (few middle- and working-class homeowners itemize their deductions), and instead delivers a windfall to the country’s wealthiest citizens. Both Duneier and Desmond drive home the crucial point: The problems found in the nation’s poorest neighborhoods can’t be disentangled from the actions and profits taken by people who spend their lives far away from the daily desperation. To truly transform the landscape of urban inequality, intervening in the ghetto is important, but intervening outside the poorest neighborhoods may be even more urgent.