Where are Chicago’s Poor White Neighborhoods?

Where are Chicago’s poor white neighborhoods?
WBEZ/Logan Jaffe
Where are Chicago’s poor white neighborhoods?
WBEZ/Logan Jaffe

Where are Chicago’s Poor White Neighborhoods?

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Martha Victoria Diaz, a lawyer who grew up in Lake View during the late ‘70s and ‘80s, remembers the Chicago neighborhood as being fairly integrated. She remembers many Latino families like her own living on the block, as well as white households. But once the neighborhood began to gentrify, working class people of all races were displaced.

Martha says that got her thinking: It was easy to identify areas of Chicago where low-income Latinos live and, for that matter, where low-income African-Americans live, too. But where had all the white people gone? She followed up by asking:

Where are all the poor white neighborhoods?

Diaz was especially curious because she knows that nationally, most beneficiaries of some poverty programs are white. (We’re talking Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, aka food stamps.)

So in Chicago, where are all those people living? We found answers in the latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau, which reveal striking differences in concentrated poverty between Chicago’s three largest racial/ethnic groups. We then called experts to explain how the disparate pictures of poverty in Chicago came to be. They also offered some big takeaways about how our attitudes about poverty and race may be shaped by housing patterns — and what that means for public policy.

First, the data. Where are Chicago’s poor white neighborhoods?

We began with U.S. Census data, which allowed us to drill down to individual census tracts across Chicago. After deciding on a methodology, we generated a map showing areas of high-poverty for each of the races.

The data are striking. While it’s easy to identify swaths of African-American poverty, and to a lesser extent Latino poverty, Chicago has just two isolated census tracts of white poverty, both of which are tucked away near the lake in the Rogers Park neighborhood. Looking closer, you might notice that those two tracts are in the area adjoining Loyola University’s lakeshore campus. We might expect to see this in an area populated by college and graduate students!

This is not to say there’s no white poverty in Chicago. Indeed, Census Bureau data from the 2009-2013 American Community Survey show 90,328 white Chicagoans living at or below the federal poverty level. But Martha’s question is about concentrated white poverty. Our conclusion is that — those two North Side census tracts notwithstanding — there really is no concentrated white poverty in Chicago. 

Why doesn’t Chicago have concentrated white poverty?

This follow-up question is a logical one, given that whites represent the largest group of poor people in the United States. For answers, we first spoke with Janet Smith, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning at the University of Illinois Chicago and co-director of the Natalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement.

Janet Smith: If I look back 40 years ago, I might have turned to a few communities that I can think of where you had more working poor people. But even then … Hegwisch for example, you think of the far South Side of Chicago, close to the steel mills. Those were actually good-paying jobs. Even then you had white working class people … but they weren’t poor necessarily. I don’t know if we ever really had concentrated white poverty in Chicago, and part of that is because whites, as opposed to blacks and Latinos, have been able to live just about anywhere. And so part of it is more of a diffusion of poverty among white folks, compared to blacks and Latinos.

What we’ve seen since the 1970s … is a shrinking of the white middle-income and lower-income families in the city of Chicago. So where we think they’ve gone — and this is based on data that we get from the U.S. Census — is that they’ve relocated probably outside the city and are living more in suburban areas.

I think that part of [why Chicago doesn’t have concentrated white poverty] has to get back to a larger history of structural racism in the United States. And what I mean by that is the ability for different races to move to different places. So whites have long had an ability to move around the country and to move to different places. African-Americans have historically just not had as many choices. And Chicago — and I can think of a couple other Midwestern cities — has had a really strong history of race relations that have not been positive for African-Americans. So staying in these neighborhoods is probably a result of having limited opportunities to move elsewhere.

Why does Chicago have so much concentrated black poverty?

It’s clear from the data that different factors are at play within the black and Latino communities. To unpack some of the reasons that have contributed to Chicago’s extensive areas of concentrated black poverty, we spoke with Mary Pattillo, the Harold Washington Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies at Northwestern University.

Mary Pattillo: So the answer to the question of why there isn’t concentrated white poverty in Chicago — and many other cities, Chicago is not alone in this — rests on two big points. One is racial residential segregation, and the other is the different poverty rates in the various race/ethnic groups. So when you combine those two together, you get concentrated black and Latino poverty, and pretty much no concentrated white poverty.

Racial residential segregation … Let’s begin with the fact that Chicago is an old city, much of which was built before the Fair Housing Act of 1968 [and] a lot of which [was] built during a time when we had what were called racial restrictive covenants. [These] were agreements … that white homeowners entered amongst each other to exclude mostly blacks, but in some cities and in some times they also excluded Jewish people. They also excluded Chinese people, depending on what city and what was the marginalized group at the time.

The federal government is not at all innocent in this. The federal government very much underwrote the suburbanization of whites and the concentration of blacks in the city. So the building of the suburbs was very much supported by the federal government’s insuring of mortgages, and that allowed the banks to give a lot more mortgages, but they only insured those mortgages in neighborhoods that, as they said, didn’t house “inharmonious racial groups” … which basically meant if there were any prospect of black people moving in, they wouldn’t support the mortgage. So this very much created residential racial segregation, not just in the city of Chicago but also in the metropolitan area, by supporting the suburbanization of whites and the concentration of blacks in the city in — what the federal government also built — which were public housing projects.

WBEZ: Do any of these factors still play out today, or have new ones crept in?

Mary Pattillo: The research today still finds housing discrimination. Sometimes it’s the blatant discrimination: A black person calls and the realtor says that apartment’s been rented. … So black folks have to work extra hard to see the same number of units as whites. … But there is something to preferences and knowledge. What neighborhoods do people know about? And, how do you know about neighborhoods? You know about the neighborhoods where your friends live. And if our friendship patterns are racially segregated, then we know about the neighborhoods where other black people live if we’re black, or the neighborhoods where other Latinos live if we’re Latino. So there’s knowledge, and there’s preferences and comfort.

WBEZ: Are we seeing higher-income blacks mix up the incomes in some of these high-poverty neighborhoods?

Mary Pattillo: That’s an excellent question. Let’s say you had complete racial residential segregation — which we don’t have, but in Chicago, we almost do — so that if the black poverty rate is 30 percent, that means all black neighborhoods should have a 30 percent poverty rate, if everybody is kind of shuffled around. But that’s not the case. You have class segregation within race. Class segregation among blacks is higher than among both whites and Latinos. So when you measure, as you mentioned, the evenness of the classes within the predominantly black, Latino or white neighborhoods, you find that there is greater pull-away between poor blacks and upper income blacks than there is between poor whites and upper income whites and poor Latinos and upper income Latinos.

Chart: Comparison of Chicago residents living in poverty, by race

WBEZ: Can we account for the psychology, in any way, behind that high level of class segregation among blacks?

Mary Pattillo: It is both that many populations don’t want to live around poor people (it’s a reflection on them, they think) and because what goes along with neighborhoods that have high poverty rates are things like fewer services, schools that are less well invested. … I think for many reasons people see high-poverty neighborhoods as lacking in the kind of resources and amenities that they want for themselves and for their kids.

Why is there concentrated Latino poverty in Chicago?

Our experts told us that some of the factors behind concentrated black poverty in Chicago also apply to the question of why we see some areas of concentrated Latino poverty. Researchers have conducted studies where “testers” of different races and ethnic backgrounds are deployed to inquire about available housing in cities across the U.S. These studies have exposed disparate treatment of Latinos and whites, just as they have found disparate treatment between African-Americans and whites.

However, many Latino neighborhoods are also landing spots for new immigrants, so we spoke with Sylvia Puente, Executive Director of the Latino Policy Forum. We asked her how immigration, and other unique explanations, might lie behind the data.

Sylvia Puente: So Latino poverty, to a large extent, you’re really going to see families, you’re going to see two-parent households — a married mom and dad with kids — but they’re only able to earn a wage which doesn’t take them past the poverty level.

A significant number of adults are working in low-wage labor markets. … That’s among all Latinos, but especially for those who are undocumented or unauthorized in this country. They’re living in a shadow economy that sometimes doesn’t even pay minimum wage. … A significant number of Latinos are low-wage workers for a variety of reasons, and then people choose to live where they have friends and family. Where they go to church and Mass is in the language that they’re most comfortable in, and they can go grocery shopping and know people from their home communities.

It’s always, I think, an interesting question to say, “Are these ethnic enclaves, or are they ghettos?” And I think that a community can be both, and I don’t mean ghetto in a negative way. But [with ghettos], we see large concentrations of poverty. We don’t see a lot of economic activity. We see large concentrations of people in the same ethnic group living there who don’t have a way out. [Whereas] ethnic enclaves have, maybe, a lot of those same characteristics. … Ethnic enclaves are [where] people are choosing to live in these communities, because certainly with Latinos, they can go to the store in Spanish. They can go to the grocery store and find products from their home country, they can cook meals that are familiar to them. A lot of what we’ve seen in terms of Latino concentration are people literally coming from the same village in Mexico or in another country, so you go where you know people. And ethnic enclaves also [are] people choosing to live with people who are like them because it’s home, it’s familiar. There’s a certain comfort in that.

What does it mean if, when we talk about concentrated poverty in Chicago, we really are only talking about communities of color?

Sylvia Puente: One of the concerns that I have around it is that we have two Chicagos. We have a thriving white middle class Chicago who largely lives along the lakefront and on the Northwest Side of the city, and Chicago is big enough that you don’t have to go into a South Side neighborhood ever in your whole life. And I’m certainly of the belief that to have compassion, to really address all the social challenges that we have in our state, you’ve got to get out of your comfort zone and understand how people live.

Mary Pattillo: I think that that contributes to our misunderstanding of poverty in general, our misunderstanding of welfare and social services, and I think it contributes to a kind of political conservatism because we can point to those “other people.” If we’re white, we can point to those other people (and think) “Something’s wrong with black people, something’s wrong with Latinos. White people — look, you don’t see any poor white neighborhoods.” But there are poor white people, there are lots of poor white people. But because they’re not visibly located in a single place, it doesn’t lend itself to our stigmatizing them.

Martha’s conclusions

After hearing input from our three experts, we asked our questioner, Martha Diaz, to reflect on what resonated with her, as a Latina who grew up in a working-class background but attained a college education and lives in today’s gentrified Lake View neighborhood.

Martha Diaz: Well, I suppose much of the outcome of your life depends on circumstances that are really beyond your control. My parents bought the three-flat that we have in Lake View not because they were speculating, not because they thought that Lake View was going to be the next big thing, but because it was cheaper than the house near the brickyard mall that they had originally been scoping out. And as a result of that, they put themselves and our family in the middle of a community that was about to gentrify. And, as a result of that, my brothers and I had access to better schools probably than our peers did in other parts of the city. And it was serendipitous and wonderful in the example of our family because it made everything for us possible, it made my life possible. But that’s obviously not the case for a lot of people in this city.

How we worked with data

To get to the bottom of Martha Diaz’s question, we had to decide whether a geographic area can be associated with a single, predominant race. We also had to define “concentrated poverty.” There are lots of ways that one could slice and dice the data, and we took just one approach.

We started with the 2009-2013 American Community Survey 5-year estimates, and examined racial breakdowns within each census tract in Chicago. We decided on a generous definition, characterizing a census tract as predominantly of a single race — Latino, African-American or white — if a plurality of people in the tract were of that race.

Next, we looked at incomes of the predominant races in those census tracts. We used the commonly-accepted definition of “high-poverty areas,” which are census tracts where the poverty rate (the percentage of people living at or below the federal poverty level) is at or exceeds 40 percent. To find tracts of concentrated white poverty, for example, we looked at the “white tracts” and asked whether more than 40 percent of those whites are living in poverty. We also disqualified tracts with population counts low enough to raise concerns about statistical confidence. (See “Coefficient of variation” and related listings in the Census Bureau’s Glossary of Statistical Quality Standards).  

Odette Yousef is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud. Chris Hagan analyzed Census data and generated maps for this story.

Chris Hagan is a data reporter for WBEZ. Follow him @chrishagan.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story used a graphic that displayed incorrect figures regarding national poverty rates relative to those of Chicago’s. The graphic has been corrected, suggesting a closer alignment between national poverty rates within white, black and Latino communities and their Chicago counterparts.