I grew up in a low-income, complicated household on a cobblestone street in Brookline. During the early years of my life, my family and I jumped between rentals in the Hilltop and South Pittsburgh. When I was roughly 8 years old, my parents bought their home in the middle of that cobblestone hill.
My mom also grew up in a poor, complicated household on Rochelle Street in Knoxville. She lived there from the 1950s until she married in the 80s. Her mother was widowed shortly after she was born. Her uncle, who moved in with my grandmother to help raise my mother and her siblings, worked in the steel mills until the day they shut down.
My dad, on the other hand, was born into an upper-income family and was raised in a large home off Tennyson Avenue in North Oakland. By the time my dad met my mom, his family had suffered numerous tragedies, including the murder of his father, that resulted in the loss of that family wealth.
I tell you these stories because the neighborhoods where we grow up matter far more than most of us probably believe. While I grew up poor, experienced significant abuse and lived in a house where neither parent had a college degree, I am white and got to grow up in a low-poverty, working-class neighborhood like Brookline. The lowest poverty neighborhoods are typically defined as those with less than 10% of their population living below the federal poverty line, and Brookline has been roughly low-poverty for the past 27 years.
In contrast, most black children in Pittsburgh don’t get to grow up in low-poverty neighborhoods, even when the data is controlled for income.
About 14% of poor white people in Pittsburgh lived in high-poverty neighborhoods (those with 30% poverty or more), but a staggering 59% of poor black people did, according to an analysis I completed using data from 2017 American Community Survey estimates. These trends are alarming. More and more academic research links childhood development in high-poverty neighborhoods to negative long-term socio-economic and health-based adult outcomes.
For example, in Stuck in Place, sociologist Patrick Sharkey of Princeton University showed that growing up in concentrated poverty is linked to generational poverty and impairs verbal and cognitive development. Children raised in high-poverty neighborhoods who were born to parents raised in high-poverty neighborhoods saw a reduction of 8 or 9 points on the standard IQ scale, equivalent to missing two to four years of schooling. Economist Raj Chetty of Harvard University reanalyzed income data for families in the federally funded Moving to Opportunity experiment and found that a childhood move from a high- to low-poverty area had a significant positive effect on adult earnings.
Although violent crime was at an all-time low in 2014 and has dropped by more than half in many urban centers since the 1990s, crime is still disproportionately higher in high-poverty communities, according to Sharkey in The Great Crime Decline. In Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect, Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson found that concentrated poverty has a strong relationship with violent crime; he also found that violent crime tends to have a strong relationship with a host of negative community level health measures. One natural experiment by Sharkey found that child IQ scores were 7 to 8 points below the average if there was a murder in that child’s neighborhood within a week of their taking an IQ test.
I started the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project in early 2019 to examine lasting economic and racial segregation in Pittsburgh neighborhoods. The project includes a mix of data analysis, resident interviews and street-by-street walks of all 90 neighborhoods in the city. My goal is to educate Pittsburghers, policymakers and relevant stakeholders on the reality of lasting segregation and concentrated poverty, as well as the need for people- and place-based policies that more equitably distribute resources, opportunity, and investment to our most disadvantaged neighborhoods and residents.
On the other end of the spectrum, several areas in Pittsburgh are experiencing rapid residential demand and rising rents. Affordable housing and wage policies must be enacted to ensure that longtime residents benefit from investment, improved access and opportunity. However, most of Pittsburgh’s poor and black neighborhoods aren’t dramatically changing. Instead, they are overwhelmingly poor, isolated and disadvantaged.
I want to challenge assumptions about certain neighborhoods because our most disadvantaged neighborhoods are still filled with beautiful things and wonderful people. So far, I’ve completed profiles for Manchester, Knoxville, Garfield, Brookline and California-Kirkbride.
I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know the city intimately since I was a kid. My dad did electrical work for over 40 years and still points out the houses he’s worked on. I joined him on jobs in wealthy, working-class and poor neighborhoods alike, and these experiences showed the stark conditions that existed between neighborhoods. As a child, I remember being astounded at the abandonment and visceral poverty in Garfield compared to affluent Friendship, its immediate neighbor below Penn Avenue.
The contrast also reminds me of the differences between Knoxville and Brookline. My grandma, cousins and uncle lived on Rochelle Street, and I fondly remember gram's rigatonis and the sweet smell of the long-closed Angelo’s Pizza. But I also remember hearing gunshots, and often wondering if my cousins were scared like I was. Brookline rarely had shootings, and I had the privilege of feeling safe on Brookline’s streets. Likewise, Brookline was and is home to a thriving business district that can sponsor a wealth of local community and sports organizations for kids.
The stark differences I saw between communities as a child are still there today, with few exceptions. While national outlets have praised Pittsburgh’s economic transition from a former steel hub to a multifaceted research, health and tech economy, that revitalization has done little to benefit low-skilled workers in the region and the neighborhoods they tend to reside in; studies show that economic growth does not tend to lead to social mobility for low-income individuals.
This is especially true for Pittsburgh’s majority black communities, because race is something that cannot be separated from discussions of concentrated poverty and housing policy.
Increasing suburbanization and white flight emptied out city neighborhoods across the nation after World War II. Deindustrialization disproportionately affected black people and delivered another blow to poor neighborhoods of color, according to renowned sociologist William Julius Wilson in The Truly Disadvantaged.
Additionally, as detailed by Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute in the Color of Law, government-led discriminatory housing practices and discriminatory lending policies that locked out black homeowners (and those who would sell to black people) worked to concentrate black residents in the poorest communities in Pittsburgh and cities across the nation. Racial discrimination was legal until the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
However, research shows that the federal law has done little to change the percentage of black children living in high-poverty areas. As Sharkey also showed in Stuck in Place, from 1955 to 1970, 29% of African American children lived in high-poverty neighborhoods in the United States; this figure increased to 31% from 1985 to 2000. In contrast, only 1% of white children grew up in high-poverty neighborhoods in the United States over both periods.
My street interviews with neighborhood residents showcase the variation in experience between black and white residents.
A black woman in Garfield told me that she loves her neighborhood now that investment, commercial activity and people have started to return. She told me that “most of the white people left,” but that some were coming back as of late. She recalled the decades of intense violence and gang activity that hit her neighborhood hard.
Prolonged poverty, lack of opportunity, the emergence of crack cocaine in the 80s and disproportionately high neighborhood violence were realities that she had to contend with as a kid. And despite her pride in Garfield, she wished that there were more businesses for her and her kids. She can’t “eat art.”
A woman I spoke to off Suncrest Street in Knoxville conveyed the challenge of being black in Pittsburgh and how she doesn’t feel safe around the police. She told me of the multitude of times she’s been harassed by the police just for walking home from work. And she recounted the death of Jonny Gammage at the hands of police in the South Hills suburb of Brentwood. For black Pittsburghers, fear is a reality of life, whether that fear is due to neighborhood violence stemming from extreme poverty and segregation or the reality of police brutality and harassment.
Pittsburgh is a tale of two cities: one where most of its white residents tend to live in low-poverty communities and one where most of its black residents tend to live in high-poverty ones. According to 2017 census estimates that I analyzed, roughly 68% of Pittsburgh neighborhoods were majority white, about 23% were majority black and nearly 9% were racially mixed with no one race holding a simple majority. According to the data, about 88% of neighborhoods with poverty rates upward of 40% were mostly inhabited by black residents. The remaining neighborhoods were racially mixed.
Additionally, 100% of neighborhoods with the lowest poverty were overwhelmingly inhabited by white residents, with less than 10% of residents living below the federal poverty line. Only three out of 17 majority-black areas had a poverty rate of less than 20%: Manchester, East Liberty and the Upper Hill. But 34 out of 50 majority-white neighborhoods experienced rates below 20%.
Most of these poor neighborhoods have been poor for decades. Pittsburgh's industries and population imploded in the decades before 1990, and many of its neighborhoods haven’t changed much since then.
Neighborhood poverty in 1990 has a strong linear relationship with poverty in 2017, according to my regression analysis. With few exceptions, high-poverty neighborhoods stayed poor. Neighborhoods that were slightly better off financially, but still undeniably poor, either remained within their class or experienced further poverty. The city’s more affluent communities, on the other hand, barely budged over nearly three decades.
I faced significant challenges living below the federal poverty line while growing up, and I currently deal with significant health issues that are the result of that long-term poverty and abuse.
But I did move beyond my parents. And while I had to worry about trauma and instability in my home, I didn’t have to worry about them in my neighborhood. My relationship with my parents is incredibly complicated, but they did ensure I had the resources to succeed both economically and occupationally. They were able to move me to a low-poverty neighborhood early on, put me in Catholic school with what little money they had left (and with the aid of financial scholarships), get me in neighborhood groups like the Boy Scouts and baseball, and allow me to grow creatively by letting my feet hit the large playground that was Brookline.
The neighborhoods where we grow up matter in the long term. Growing up in a low-income household presents enough challenges for health and social mobility, but growing up poor in a poor neighborhood offers challenges that most poor whites in metro areas will never have to face. What we aren’t exposed to as kids is just as important as what we are exposed to.
Nick Cotter is a researcher with Allegheny County and the creator of the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this piece are those of the author alone. This piece does not reflect official views of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. You can follow the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project on Twitter @ThePittsburghN1.
The Opportunity Fund has provided funding to PublicSource to pay authors of first-person essays related to social justice issues.
About the data
1. Analysis used American Community Survey 5-year estimates for 2017. The total percentage of poor white residents versus poor black residents living in neighborhoods with 30 percent poverty or more was calculated. ACS estimates have sizeable margin of error and this may impact results. “Poor” defined as individuals living below 100% of the federal poverty line. Census tracts with heavy student populations or those that include a college or university had their poverty rates adjusted by using rates for residents 25 and older.
2. Population data and data for percent of individuals living below the federal poverty were pulled from 2017 ACS 5-year estimates. Neighborhoods were categorized as majority black or white if at least 51% of their population was a given race. Otherwise, they were categorized as racially mixed. ACS estimates have sizeable margin of error and this may impact results. However, most neighborhoods were far above the measured threshold regarding racial composition. Census tracts with heavy student populations or those that include a college or university had their poverty rates adjusted by using rates for residents 25 and older.
3. Map created using ArcGIS Pro. Benchmarks for poverty intervals are based on standards used by urban and poverty researchers (see Wilson, Sampson and Sharkey). Census tracts with heavy student populations or those with a college or university had their poverty rates adjusted by using rates for residents 25 and older. Student-heavy centers include census tracts in the following neighborhoods: The Bluff, Central Oakland, Downtown, North Oakland, Shadyside, South Oakland, Southside Flats, Squirrel Hill North and South and the Terrace Village/West Oakland neighborhood area.
4. Census level poverty data was pulled from the National Historic Geographic Information Systems for 1990 and from the American Community Survey 5-year estimates for 2017. Neighborhoods with more than one census tract were constructed using a weighted average based on population proportions. Because several neighborhoods share a census tract as of the 2010 census and St. Clair Village, South Shore and Chateau have very low populations, 74 neighborhoods and neighborhood areas were used as the basis for the analysis and for all analyses presented in this article and those conducted by the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project. Because student-heavy centers can distort the true poverty rate, known student-heavy centers and those neighborhoods that include a college or university had their poverty rates adjusted by using rates for residents 25 and older. The relationship between neighborhood poverty in 1990 and 2017 was 0.82 (p < .01). ACS estimates have sizeable margin of error and this may impact results (regarding 2017 estimates only).