Poverty comes to the Texas suburbs

Wednesday’s blog post about the persistence of ghettos in Texas cities led me to do a little more research about the spacial dynamics of poverty in Texas urban areas.  It is critical that these dynamics be considered in decisions about where to locate new subsidized housing developments.

Fortunately, Texas is home of one of the national experts on the geography of urban poverty.  Working at the University of Texas at Dallas, Professor Paul A. Jargowsky has set up a web site that allows users to generate maps showing the levels of poverty in census tracts within MSAs from 1970 through 2000.

National mega trends in poverty population shifts are mirrored in Texas’ major MSAs.  Nationally there were steady increases in the concentration of poverty households in the poorest census tracts from 1970 through 1990 followed by a dramatic dispersion of the poverty population from these inner city census tracts to the “inner ring” suburban areas.  These are the older suburbs closely hugging the large cities.

Poverty increases in inner city neighborhoods have slowed dramatically in the 1990s while poverty increases in inner ring suburbs increased.
Poverty increases in inner city neighborhoods slowed dramatically in the 1990's while poverty increases in inner ring suburbs increased.

The maps above show this effect in the Dallas areas.  Long term, low-income, inner city Dallas census tracts grew in their percentages of poverty population from 1970 though 1990.  Then, in the decade of 1990-2000, the trend shifted dramatically, with inner city poverty tracts losing poverty population and the inner ring suburbs showing dramatic gains in poverty population. The old, inner-ring Dallas suburbs that experienced dramatic percentage increases in poverty populations include: Garland, Mesquite, Farmer’s Branch, Irving, Grand Prairie, Lancaster, Cedar Hill and Mansfield.  Even such historic white bastions of Richardson and Plano have seen significant poverty rate increases.

Professor Jargowsky offers a fascinating analysis of the dynamic of these changes in the Dallas area.  (Based on some time spent with the mapping web site it appears the same holds true in other larger Texas MSAs).

He points out the extreme political fragmentation in these MSAs (Dallas is surrounded by 154 suburbs).  These suburbs surround the core cities in a series of concentric rings of suburbs.  Each of these suburbs is politically autonomous and looks not to the best interest of the broader region but seeks to promote itself as the most desirable suburb.  This translates into the most expensive housing and exclusion of the poor.

The new suburbs are growing at the expense of older suburbs and central cities.  The poor are consigned to the core city, or when housing wears out in the core city, they more to the older, inner ring suburbs.

Here is how Professor characterized this process in an interview published by the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank in 2006…

If more communities or cities were sharing the responsibility for providing housing for different income levels, then there wouldn’t be as much concern that any one neighborhood would bear a disproportionate amount of the lower-income housing burden. Coordination between jurisdictions could help eliminate the destructive forms of competition so that the rules of the game change.

In the current housing situation, the rules of the game dictate that today’s winners will be tomorrow’s losers. We live in a society where there is a very predictable progression of suburban development. New suburbs will become old suburbs, which start deteriorating. When some people see minorities and poor people moving into their neighborhoods, they start to consider moving out. They are making a sensible choice, given the existing structure of how neighborhoods develop, because they understand what happens to property values.

This pattern of rapid laissez-faire housing development can facilitate segregation and the concentration of poverty and limit poor people’s access to opportunity.

So how should this growth dynamic effect affordable housing programs?  (The following is my analysis and not necessarily Professor Jargowsky’s).

First, it would be mistake to permit subsidized housing to contribute to the over saturation of low income housing in the older ring suburbs that are undergoing this increase in poverty population already.  To do so would contribute to the social and economic tipping of these neighborhoods from desirable to undesirable neighborhoods through an over concentration of poverty.

Second, the real target locations for new subsidized housing should be the new “high opportunity” outer-ring suburbs.  Jargowsky notes that “spatial access to opportunity is the great emerging social challenge of the 21st Century.”

Third, the Texas Legislature needs to craft some sort of regional affordable housing fair share plan so that affordable housing is fairly distributed across all communities.  I discussed this in a blog entry last month.


  1. I’m delighted that you are finding the Urban Poverty web site useful. Unfortunately, it is down temporarily. The server was compromised by hackers. We will try to get it up again shortly.

  2. The older ring suburbs will be gentrified and tied to the gentrification of the inner city. (Happening already in every major city).

    The ‘newer’ outer ring suburbs will become the new slums. There will be no ‘opportunity’ there as transportation for the poor will become increasingly difficult. Without transportation (typically lacking in newer suburbs) the poor will be stranded, cut off from the nexus of jobs and transit.

  3. The “outer suburbs” are currently very safe, clean, nice areas to live….. and you think it’s a good idea to bring in people that will help turn these nice areas into the ghetto? I had to “MOVE” out of my home I have lived in for nearly 30 years because several low-income housing units came in around me in the 75287 zip code. Crime went “way up.” Drug dealers around… gun shots… muggings…. I no longer felt safe and felt that my nice neighborhood was turning ghetto. I think it’s absurd that you think it’s a good idea to also spoil the new, safe, suburbs. Sorry if this sounds harsh, but I suppose you haven’t been in my shoes.

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