New numbers released by the US Census Bureau are not surprising, but worth noting. Much of the region’s poverty is concentrated in the City and the inner suburbs. The region’s wealth is spread throughout the suburbs and exurbs.
The City has made progress over the past seven years. Our number of households with annual incomes greater than $100,000 has nearly doubled, the percentage of our households in poverty is 9 percent lower than in 2000, and the percentage of our households with annual incomes less than $25,000 is 15 percent lower than in 2000. But even with these changes for the better, more than 22 percent of City residents still live in poverty, and nearly 40 percent of City households must make do with incomes less than $25,000 each year.
Concentrated poverty is bad for everyone. For the people who live in concentrated poverty, it means social disparities of all kinds — more crime, more health issues, less municipal revenue for neighborhood services. Concentrated poverty is also bad for the region. There is not a growing region in the country that does not have a thriving urban core.
All of this has important policy implications.
In the City of St. Louis, we have created the only significant municipal affordable housing trust fund in the state. We invest most of our federal block grant in low-income neighborhoods. We have one of the most successful lead poisoning prevention programs in the country. We have an innovative program to reduce chronic homelessness. We are increasing the size of our police force to reduce crime. We are expanding after school and recreation programs to give kids productive things to do. We have set aside $500,000 to help families caught up in the mortgage crisis. We are aggressively pushing for minority participation in contracts and jobs. We are aggressively working to expand quality educational choices for at-risk children.
But, the City — and a few inner ring municipalities cannot do this (or more than this) alone. We simply do not have the tax base to shoulder all of the region’s social challenges.
That gives the region some choices.
The most reasonable course of action would be to share the challenges. Clayton [fill in whatever municipality you want here, Clayton is not unique] spends little or no money on homeless services, and has few homeless people. The City spends millions of dollars on such services, and serves most of the region’s homeless. Roughly half of the calls to the City’s homeless hotline come from people in the county.
Another direction would be to share the revenue, evening out the burden. But, the political reality is that either of those courses of action make county and suburban elected officials perspire. (As an experiment, try saying “city-county reunification” out loud at a meeting of the county municipal league. The rush for the door could trample you.)
So, the most realistic goals are more modest.
Certainly, there should be a law against wealthy suburbs using state tax incentives to move jobs out of communities with high rates of poverty. And we should do everything we can to attract new private investment to neighborhoods that have seen only disinvestment for decades. (Should those commonsense half-measures seem unreasonable, there is always this alternative: if each St. Louis county municipality had added a couple of beds and served a half dozen meals yesterday, the largest homeless shelter in the City would have been empty last night.)