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Houston, We Have an Inequality Problem

Blogging Our Great Divide
February 03, 2017

by Josh Hoxie

New study shows growing divide in Texas’s most populous county.

The world knows Houston as a major hub for oil and gas and the home of America’s space program. What the world doesn’t know: Rich and poor in Houston are segregating at a phenomenally rapid pace.

A new report from the Rice University Kinder Institute for Urban Research examines this troubling divide in Harris County, the political jurisdiction that covers Houston and its surrounding suburbs. The Rice researchers used Census data to study the years from 1980 to 2010, a three-decade span that saw the county’s population grow by 70 percent.

Houston InequalityThis mushrooming population, the researchers found, have not shared equally in the benefits from Houston’s economic growth. Their report — Disparate City: Understanding Rising Levels of Concentrated Poverty and Affluence in Greater Houston — shows high poverty areas in Harris county quadrupling over the past three decades, rising from about 10 percent to 40 percent of the county.

That’s double the national average of high-poverty neighborhoods.

Neighborhoods must have more than two in five residents living below the poverty line — about $24,000 a year for a family of four — to be considered “high poverty.” The steep rise in the number of Houston’s “high poverty” neighborhoods has gone largely unnoticed. Poor families have been increasingly pushed into the suburbs, literally out of sight — and often out of mind — for Houston’s affluent.

Meanwhile, upper-income neighborhoods have become more homogenous. Only 6 percent of high-income neighborhoods now rate as “economically diverse,” a significant shift away from the cross-class diversity that marked much of the 20th-century urban experience.

Houston’s story has, unfortunately, become familiar in urban America. American cities the nation over are suffering the twin ills of rising inequality and increased gentrification. Rising incomes for those at the top fuel greater real estate speculation and investment, driving out middle-class homebuyers and raising rents for low- and moderate-income households. [pullquote]High poverty neighborhoods  quadrupled in the past three decades.[/pullquote]

A study similar to the new Rice effort, released last year, shows that Boston is experiencing the same sort of income segregation now taking place in Houston. Over the past 40 years, the overall proportion of Americans living in middle-income neighborhoods has dropped from 65 to 42 percent.

Achieving more diverse urban neighborhoods, the Rice researchers note, will be impossible without investment in affordable housing options for low-income residents. No such investments seem forthcoming in Houston’s near term. With this clear new research in hand, maybe community leaders will feel at long last spurred to take action.

Josh Hoxie directs the Project on Taxation and Opportunity at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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