CUNY Lehman College Urban Social Problems Paper

  • Pick one of the urban social problems discussed in the assigned reading – i.e., racism, poverty, affordable housing, crime, or public health.
  • Find a news article that features the problem you chose (in the context of today’s urban regions);
  • Copy and paste the link of the article you found and provide a summary of it (One Paragraph);
  • Explain how the news article you chose and the problem featured there can be interpreted through the sociospatial approach. In other words, you have to show to the reader the ways in which the configuration of the space impacts the problem, the ways in which the spatial environment plays a role in the situation at stake.

Copyright 2019. Routledge.
All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except fair uses permitted under U.S. or applicable copyright law.
Racism, Poverty, Affordable Housing, Crime, and
Public Health
as there ever a time when America didn’t suffer from urban social problems?
Just like the industrialized capitalist countries of Europe in the 1800s, all but the
wealthy experienced a very low quality of life with the advent of capitalism. Early
photographic images of American cities at the turn of the last century feature
overcrowding: immense traffic jams of primitive Model-T automobiles mixed in
with horse-drawn carts, tenements teeming with immigrants, and crowds of children swarming across city streets. Until after World War II, city life in the
United States was plagued by public health crises such as high rates of tuberculosis and syphilis, cholera outbreaks, high infant mortality rates, alcoholism,
domestic violence, street gang activity, and crime. For much of our history, then,
city life has been virtually synonymous with social problems. Yet we know now
that these same problems—crime, disease, family breakup—are experienced
Until recently, urban problems were city problems. That is no longer the case
as the issues once associated with the large, compact settlement form are found
throughout the metropolitan population. Nevertheless, the association of the city
with social problems is so strong that, despite subsequent research showing that
this perception of the city is inaccurate, people in the United States still rank
small- and medium-size cities or suburbs as providing the highest quality of life
and remain overwhelmingly interested in living in the suburbs, especially for
couples with small children. Indeed, our twenty-first-century social problems of
poverty, unemployment and underemployment, foreclosures and homelessness,
chronic health problems, environmental issues, and racism and gender discrimination are not confined to the city.
This chapter applies the sociospatial approach to social problems. Using sociospatial thinking, the uniquely urban aspects of these problems are the concentrated
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nature of metropolitan space and the range of changes in compositional factors. We
differ from the sociologists of the early Chicago School who believed that the move to
the city was accompanied by social disorganization and how an individual’s fate lay in
the particular combination of adverse life decisions, personal circumstances, and individual encounters with the more structural social factors, such as lack of adequate
education, racism, or poverty. As we shall demonstrate, our approach emphasizes the
lack of power that most people possess over adverse circumstances. One purpose of
our discussion is to explore whether or not large cities in particular and metropolitan
regions in general possess unique features that might propagate specifically “urban”
Social problems are the unwanted conditions that are out of a person’s control and
have negative consequences on their life chances. Personal problems are different
from social problems because personal problems are problems that are caused by
individual actions and decisions. Racism, poverty, the lack of affordable housing,
polluted air, and crime are social problems because individual actions cannot solve
the problem or overcome the social problem’s effect on opportunities throughout
the life course.
Social problems are ubiquitous across the metropolitan areas of the United
States. Cities do not have an exclusive hold on divorce or domestic violence, and
suburbs are now almost as likely as cities to be afflicted with family disorganization, deviant subcultures, drug use, and gang activity (Barbanel, 1992). Many
suburban areas have crime rates comparable to those of the central city. There are
majority black and racially segregated suburbs across the nation. The majority of
poor people live in the suburbs. As the suburban settlement spaces have matured,
differences in poverty levels, crime rates, and other measures of social disorganization between cities and suburbs have declined.
We know from our earlier explorations of the sociospatial approach that the
spatial environment plays an important role in human interaction. The social background factors associated with population groups are also important. The variety of
lifestyles found across urban and suburban settlement spaces result from social factors such as race, class, and gender. Social problems in particular are caused by
poverty, racial exclusion, gender discrimination, and the severe patterns of economic uneven development within settlement space that results in differential
access to resources. Spatial forms exert an independent causal effect on social problems. Environments intensify or dissipate these compositional effects of uneven
development. In short, life chances result from an interaction between social factors and spatial organization.
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Cities are not unique in having acute social problems, but the spatial nature
of large cities and densely populated suburbs makes the uneven development
resulting from the inequities of race, class, gender, and age particularly severe.
According to the sociospatial approach, the following factors are the most
First, the principal effect of the city as a built environment is that it concentrates people and resources (Engels, 1973 [1845]; Lefebvre, 1991). Thus, social
problems such as drugs and poverty have a greater impact in large central cities
and densely populated suburbs than in less dense areas. In confined urban space
under the jurisdiction of a single municipal government or a racially segregated
neighborhood, it is the sheer numbers, such as the frequency of murders and
other forms of violent crime that turn social problems into grave concerns.
Second, over the years urban populations have been disproportionately affected
by the internationalization of the capitalist economies. For example, large metropolitan regions such as Los Angeles or New York or Houston are the destinations
of choice for most immigrants from poorer nations who have left their countries
in search of a better life. With the flow of immigrants come specific problems,
such as the need for bilingual education, which affects these areas more than other
places, such as the need for multilingual teachers in some areas. Changes in the
global cycles of economic investment also affect metropolitan regions because of
the scale of activities in the largest places. For example, the American economy
shed 8.8 million jobs from the start of the Great Recession in December 2007
through February 2010 (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017). Although starting
out like previous recessions in the first nine months, job losses averaged an
astounding 712,000 per month from October 2008 through March 2009. This
was the worst six months of job losses since the end of World War II in 1945.
However, the Great Recession’s effect on the labor market was geographically
uneven. The unemployment rate in Nevada, Florida, and Arizona increased over
10%, while North Dakota and Alaska actually saw their unemployed level
decrease (Connaughton and Madsen, 2012).
Finally, social problems are caused by the spatial distribution of resources,
which may be accentuated in dense, built environments. For example, large cities
are major centers of the global economy. Extreme wealth is created within their
boundaries, and the signs of that money are highly visible in the city, such as
expensive restaurants, upscale department stores, luxury housing, and limousines.
Close by and within the same concentrated space within the city are people who
suffer the most terrible consequences of abject poverty, such as homelessness, malnutrition, and chronic unemployment. Because this contrast is so visible in the
public spaces of large cities, the issue of uneven development is particularly
oppressive to inhabitants.
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The most powerful indicator of systemic racism in the United States is residential
segregation. Systemic racism explains the central role of racial oppression in maintaining the racial and wealth hierarchy in America (Feagin, 2006). In the sociospatial framework, residential segregation involves the concentration of population
and resources within a specific settlement space. This leads to high levels of social
isolation, as well as creates pockets of crime and police violence. African Americans, who have been systemically discriminated against in employment and in the
housing market, have felt the most extreme and continuing effects of racism.
Homeownership is the primary mechanism for ordinary Americans to build
wealth and transfer wealth from one generation to the next. As a consequence,
racism constrains black social mobility more than social class. Middle-class blacks
are more likely to live in a bad neighborhood than are poor whites (Eligon and
Gebeloff, 2016).
The classic study of segregation is by the Taeubers (1965). They compiled
statistics on American cities with regard to the relative locations of whites and
blacks. To measure segregation, they constructed a very useful concept, an “index
of segregation.” If a city had a 30% African American population as a whole, they
expected, in the absence of segregation, that the black population would be
evenly distributed across space. The index of segregation refers to the percentage
of African Americans who would have to move in order for all neighborhoods to
reflect the 30% black composition of the entire city. If a neighborhood were 90%
black, 67% of the black population would have to move, resulting in an index
of 0.67.
On the basis of the Taeubers’ study, all US cities were discovered to be highly
segregated, that is, with indexes above 0.50 for African Americans. The Taeubers
replicated their study in the 1970s and found little change in the degree of black
population clustering. Some of the most segregated cities during the 1970s were
Detroit, Chicago, Buffalo, New York, Cleveland, and Birmingham, Alabama.
Some have argued that not all of the segregation observed in American cities
is the consequence of involuntary segregation. Yet, voluntary segregation accompanies class segregation in the black community, as upper-class blacks tend to
live on the periphery of black neighborhoods. Nevertheless, we know that the
urban ghettos were created by a form of racism and violence designed to prevent
blacks from moving into “white” settlement spaces, including federal housing policies that concentrated public housing in the inner city while subsidizing “white
flight” to the suburbs through construction of the interstate highway system and
discrimination in home mortgage loans.
Real estate agents and property managers are just two social actors perpetuating
residential segregation. Bullard and Feagin (1991) discussed various techniques
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used by housing-related institutions to prevent blacks from locating where they
prefer, thereby fostering involuntary segregation. Rental and real estate agents used
a variety of methods to prevent blacks from locating in white-owned areas. One
mechanism is called “steering.” When an African American couple comes to a
rental or real estate agent, the agent will steer the couple to areas of the city populated by blacks. Agents may also simply refuse to divulge the existence of housing
opportunities in white areas. Despite gains in family income earnings by a growing
number of middle-class blacks, racial segregation remains a fact of life for the
majority of African Americans.
Banking has played an important part in maintaining racial segregation since
the civil rights era. When it comes to lending money, banks generally divide the
population into the prime or subprime market. The subprime market pays a
higher interest rate based on the greater likelihood of defaulting on the loan. Up
until 1980s, black-owned banks specialized in lending money to blacks that
white-owned banks defined as too risky. White-owned banks refused to lend
money in areas that were predominately black or likely to deteriorate. Because of
banking deregulation in the early 1980s that eliminated federal usury caps and
Ronald Reagan’s racist move to eliminate race as a criteria for federal Small Business Administration (SBA) support, many black-owned banks became loan servicing centers and real estate loan associations specializing in subprime lending.
By 1998, 51% of the total dollar amount of subprime loans and 58% of subprime
refinancing were in predominately black neighborhoods. Subsequent financial
deregulation stemming from the 2000 Financial Modernization Act tacked on
predatory lending practices to subprime lending. Predatory lending refers to the
loan center securing the first lien on a home as part of the refinancing and tacking
on high refinancing fees, and in many cases, unnecessary fees, like credit insurance, to the value of the loan. Unsurprisingly, the Great Recession in 2007 hit
blacks the hardest, as black median net worth was $11,000 in 2014. It was
$141,900 for whites (see Hohle, 2018:97–103).
Since the time of the Taeubers’ study, researchers of spatial segregation have developed more precise measures of population clustering. The most sophisticated of
these studies combine several different measures to arrive at overall estimates of segregation. They found that black people not only continue to be segregated in significant numbers within central cities, but their exclusion is now extreme. Those
that remain ghettoized are extremely isolated because for decades all Americans—
black, white, Hispanic—with the means and opportunity to move away from such
areas have done so. Consequently, rather than social conditions improving for poor
African Americans, their extreme segregation in our nation’s cities is now described
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as “hypersegregation.” Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton (1993), for example,
used five different measures of population clustering in their study of the causes and
consequences of racial segregation in Chicago and other cities while discovering the
deteriorating conditions of hypersegregation.
1. Unevenness: African Americans may be distributed so that they are overrepresented in some areas and underrepresented in other areas.
2. Isolation: African Americans may be distributed so that they have little
interaction with other groups.
3. Clustered: Black neighborhoods may be tightly clustered to form one contiguous enclave, or they may be scattered about in checkerboard fashion.
4. Concentrated: Black neighborhoods may be concentrated within a very small
area, or they may be settled sparsely throughout the urban environment.
5. Centralized: Black neighborhoods may be spatially centralized around the
urban core or spread out along the periphery.
These five dimensions define geographic traits that social scientists think of
when they consider segregation. A high score on any single dimension is serious
because it removes African Americans from full participation in urban society and
limits their access to benefits. As segregation accumulates across multiple dimensions, however, its effects intensify. Economic downturns have historically been
“confined to poor black neighborhoods” where the negative effects stemming from
the loss of businesses and rising unemployment are “amplified” relative to white
neighborhoods (Massey and Denton, 1993:126). The indices of unevenness and
isolation alone we have discussed so far cannot capture this multidimensional
layering of segregation and therefore understates its severity in American society.
Not only are African Americans more segregated than other groups on any single
dimension of segregation, but they are also more segregated on all dimensions
simultaneously, and as an important subset of US metropolitan areas, African
Americans are highly segregated on at least four of the five dimensions at once,
an extreme isolating pattern that they call hypersegregation.
In 2010, about one-third of all black people in the United States lived under
conditions of intense racial segregation. Although the number of hypersegregated
metropolitan areas declined between 1970 and 2010, the degree of hypersegregation within the multicentered region barely changed at all (Massey and Tannen,
2015). African Americans are unambiguously among the nation’s most spatially
isolated and geographically secluded people, suffering extreme segregation across
multiple dimensions simultaneously. No other group in the contemporary United
States comes close to this level of isolation within urban society. US Hispanics,
for example, are never highly segregated on more than three dimensions simultaneously, and in forty-five of the sixty metropolitan areas examined, they were
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highly segregated on only one dimension. Moreover, the large Hispanic community in Miami (the third largest in the country) is not highly segregated on any
dimension at all. Despite their immigrant origins, Spanish language, and high
poverty rates, Hispanics are considerably more integrated in American society
than are blacks (Massey and Denton, 1993:74–77).
African Americans in metropolitan areas live within large, contiguous settlements of densely inhabited neighborhoods that are packed tightly around the urban
core. In plain terms, they live in ghettos. Since the 1980s, changes in the capitalist
economy and the spatial concentration of resources have produced a rising black
middle class and transformed the black ghetto. Wilson (1996) defined the original
black ghetto as the communal ghetto because it was one race and a mixture of
social classes. The communal ghetto gave way to the one race/one class hyperghetto
(Wacquant, 1999). In today’s hypersegregated ghetto, blacks are not only unlikely
to come into contact with whites within the particular neighborhood where they
live, they are unlikely to see a white face if they went over to the next neighborhood. This is segregation to an extreme and it characterizes American cities.
Today’s suburbs are more racially diverse than ever before, and yet, they are still
racially segregated. In 2010, suburbia was about as diverse as central cities were
in 1980. The good news is that they are not as segregated as central cities. The
average black suburbanite lives in a neighborhood that is about 36% black and
45% white, while the average black city resident lived in a neighborhood that is
about 60% black in 2010 (Lichter et al., 2016). The bad news is that the suburbs
are still racially segregated in spite of increased diversity and a rising black and
Hispanic middle classes. The interesting thing about suburban segregation is that
it shows how social class matters much less than skin color in determining where
we live. Blacks and Hispanics with incomes above $75,000 a year are more likely
to live in a higher poverty neighborhood than whites who earn less than $40,000
a year (Logan, 2014). Lower-income whites live in neighborhoods with a lower
poverty level (7%) than affluent blacks (11.4%) and Hispanics (12%) do. This
challenged much of what urban sociologists have historically understood about
isolation, in that the income levels for whites, blacks, and Asians do not explain
where we live. In fact, the probability of a suburban Asian, black, or Hispanic
resident coming into contact with their white suburban counterparts has actually
declined since 1980. The question is why? And what does this tell us about the
significance of racism in the multicentric region?
The image of the all-white suburbs was something developers cultivated to
sell houses to the growing white middle-class families in the late 1940s and early
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1950s. Developers insisted that these suburban developments remained all white
to protect property values. Abraham Levitt, the main developer behind the first
mass suburban developments, called “Levittowns” on Long Island and outside
Philadelphia, had a clause in the purchasing agreement that the house could not
be sold to or rented to non-whites. The Myers were the first black family to move
into a Levittown house in 1957. The racial covenant clause was indicative of the
myriad of government regulations and strategies used by real estate agents to prevent blacks from moving outside the large city even if they can afford to do so.
The initial strategy to maintain racial segregation was how planners and developers embedded racism in “exclusionary zoning.” Exclusionary zoning means expanding low-density land use by increasing the minimum square footage for a new
house, banning multi-family homes, and specifying minimum lot sizes for singlefamily homes to inflate the costs (Gottdiener, 1977; Ihlanfeldt, 2004:255). However, the relationship between social class and isolation fell apart during the
2000s. In turn, the “place stratification” perspective (Crowder et al., 2012; Lichter
et al., 2015), a hypothesis that states that when whites share social space with
African Americans that whites will develop strategies to reinforce segregated
settlement spaces across the metropolitan region, has replaced the assimilation
models that predicted a decrease in segregation as blacks and Hispanics achieved
middle-class status. In other words, how whites define spaces as “white spaces” is
the primary variable explaining segregation. Therefore, exclusionary zoning
becomes more important because, as Ihlanfeldt explained, “It has been found that
neighborhood median income increases property value while racial diversity
reduces property value. The evidence provided demonstrates that there is a cash
payoff to suburban property owners from excluding from their community lowincome and minority households” (2004:255). The privatization of white spaces
through homeowners associations and the gated communities are examples of
exclusionary zoning to reproduce racial segregation across the multicentric metropolitan region.
Racial segregation in the suburbs is stratified by their inner versus outer location within the metropolitan region. The outer suburbs are almost exclusively
comprised of affluent whites. Not only do the older inner location suburbs have
smaller houses and lot sizes, and thus tend to be less expensive, they also butt up
against the exurban fringe, which are predominantly white neighborhoods, and
act as a buffer between differential white groups. As a result, an overall locational
pattern has emerged with minority communities fragmenting into irregular
enclaves throughout the area rather than being confined to specific ghettos. While
affordable housing and mixed communities are not increasingly present, strict
ghettoization is giving way to a more dispersed, regional array. Thus research
shows that there is an exclusionary and discriminatory dynamic operating at the
multicentered metro regional scale rather than the simple dichotomy of city
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versus suburb that characterized earlier perspectives on race and income segregation. This distinction, the regional metro dynamic rather than the city/suburb
dichotomy, is critically important for understanding contemporary social problems
and their inherent spatial dimensions.
Hispanic suburbanization has primarily taken place in the Sun Belt. In contrast to African Americans, Hispanics have used socioeconomic gains in the 2000s
to indirectly desegregate the low status suburban white neighborhoods (Massey
and Tannen, 2018). Hispanic suburbanization is driven by the availability of low
cost housing, especially in the Sun Belt, and specifically areas with cheap land,
housing, and rents (Howell and Timberlake, 2014). Whereas the second circuit of
capital combined with exclusionary zoning kept minorities out of the suburbs,
now areas outside the historical central city have all matured and display similar
patterns of spatial segregation while real estate continues to operate in a discriminatory fashion regionally. For this reason Hispanics in periphery suburbs are segregated away from affluent whites, however, they still live close enough to more
affluent communities in order to provide low paying service sector workers. Thus,
suburbanization is also a case of the production of space, only in this instance it
represents the reproduction of ethnic segregation while maintaining a low-wage
labor force. Hispanic isolation, racism, and discrimination remains region wide
(Feagin and Cobas, 2014).
Although Asians are less likely to be segregated from whites than other racial
groups, Asians are still likely to cluster in suburban ethnic settlement space. Wei
Li (2008) dubbed the rise of ethnic settlement spaces in suburbia as “ethnoburbs.”
Ethnoburbs are areas where there is a sizable concentration of a minority group in
a residential location or business district, but not enough to comprise a majority
of residents in a given settlement space. By 2000, the majority of all immigrants,
that is 52% of those living in metropolitan areas, lived in the suburbs. For
example, in the San Gabriel Valley, a suburb of Los Angeles, Monterey Park
became a majority Asian suburb in 1990 while Rosemead (29.2%), Alhambra
(31.9%), and South Pasadena (15.7%) became Asian ethnoburbs in 2000
(Li, 2008; Oh and Chung, 2014). The Asian ethnoburb represents a historical
shift in settlement space away from “Chinatowns.” While this has been mainly
due to the socioeconomic gains, it should be noted that the old Chinatowns
within historical inner cities were predominately made up of immigrants while
Asian ethnoburbs are comprised of US-born Asian Americans.
At the end of the last century, a growing number of black people have
returned to the south, thereby reversing decades of movement north. Among all
ethnic-racial groups, blacks were more likely than any other to move to the south.
According to a report by the Brookings Institution (2004), the south outscored
net gains of African American migrants from all three of the other regions of the
United States during the late 1990s, reversing a thirty-five-year trend. Of the ten
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states that suffered the greatest net loss of blacks between 1965 and 1970, five
ranked among the top ten states for attracting African Americans between 1995
and 2000. Southern metropolitan areas, particularly Atlanta, have been the main
destination for black out-migration from the northern and western United States.
Between 2005 and 2010, the New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco,
Philadelphia, and Detroit experienced the greatest out-migration of African
Americans, while Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Miami, and Washington, DC experienced black population gains (USA Today, 2015). Most importantly, college-educated individuals led the new African American immigration into the south.
In sum, it is clear that the major determinant of racial segregation is not a
person’s income, social class, or length of time spent in the United States (as suggested by the assimilation model) but rather racial background. African Americans
confront the highest levels of segregation while Asian Americans have the lowest
levels. We should never underestimate the impact of systemic racism on the
metropolitan region. Over the past 150 years, elite whites have applied a litany of
du jure and de facto practices to ensure that whites live separately from blacks: Jim
Crow Laws, racial zoning ordinances, redlining, redrawing school district boundaries, the subprime lending market, predatory lending, discrimination in hiring,
and the withdrawal of the labor market from black areas. Since neighborhoods
and settlement spaces are segregated by race, ethnicity, and class, and the history
of American racism created a concentration of black and poor within a defined
geographic space, social problems of inadequate housing, and police brutality have
become disproportionately African American urban problems.
Poverty can be considered an urban problem because of its concentration in specific settlement spaces, as the sociospatial perspective suggests, although the range
of poverty rates for metropolitan regions in the United States is quite broad. In
2016 the federal government issued guidelines that defined poverty for a family of
four as living at or below $24,492 in yearly income. It was $12,228 for an individual (US Bureau of the Census, 2017). It is difficult to figure how a family of
four can manage living $5,000 above the poverty line let alone below the poverty
line, particularly for those living in urban areas with high rents and food costs. In
the aftermath of the Great Recession in the early twenty-first century and a long
and uneven recovery continuing in 2019, the percentage of Americans living in
poverty fell from 15.3% in 2010 to 12.7% in 2016. Poverty is caused by the
uneven development of the economy. In the 1950s, despite growing affluence and
the greatest economic expansion in history, large numbers, virtually one out of
five or 20%, of Americans were poor, with some living in appalling conditions
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(Harrington, 1962). At the time, it was recognized that there were poor people in
rural areas as well as urban places. As a result of government antipoverty programs such as the War on Poverty, the poverty rate declined to about 12.1% in
the early 1970s. Beginning in the mid-1970s and continuing throughout the
1980s, however, the rate rose again unevenly and reached levels comparable to
Depression-era statistics. Once again, in the 1980s, it was noted that roughly
20% of the total population was living at or below the poverty line (Wilson,
1987), which is the same percentage that Harrington found in the 1960s.
The demographic profile of the poor is cause for alarm. The percentage of all
children under eighteen years old living in poverty was 18% in 2016, down from
21.8% in 2012. This high figure is astounding for an affluent, developed country
like the United States. Furthermore, poverty is not randomly distributed throughout the population. In 2016, whites (8.8%) were far less likely to live in poverty
than blacks (22%), Asians (10.1%), and Hispanics (19.4%). The concentration of
minority populations in urban settlement spaces confounds the social problems
caused by poverty.
The Deconcentration of Poverty and Suburbia
Poverty has never been an exclusive feature of cities. Up until the mid-1960s, the
rural family dominated our public image of the person or family living in poverty.
What caused that change? The mechanization of agriculture and introduction of
industrial grade pesticides drastically reduced the need for agricultural labor starting in the 1940s, prompting a mass migration from rural to urban areas, mainly
rural to suburban. Today, the majority of all persons living in poverty reside in
the suburbs (Allard and Paisner, 2016; Raphael and Stoll, 2010). But so do the
majority of non-poor. This should not be surprising for two reasons. First, the
vast majority of Americans live in the suburbs, so there will be an obvious uptick
in the number and proportion of suburban residents living in poverty over time.
However, the proportion of suburban poor has outpaced the growth of the suburbs. Suburban poverty increased by a whopping 96.3% from 1990 to 2014
(Allard and Paisner, 2016). The second is that poor people have always lived in
the suburbs. In 1970, 27% of the poor lived in cities and 24% of the poor lived
in suburbs of major metropolitan areas. By 2000, it was 30% city and 30%
suburb (Kneebone and Berube, 2014). The salient power of racism makes suburban poverty invisible because suburban poverty is increasingly white poverty. As
we discussed above, developers pitched suburbia as white spaces free of racial
minorities and the poor, and threaten racial integration as something that will
drive down property values. But, growth in the suburban areas of the MCMR has
done nothing to alleviate white poverty there.
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The rise of suburban poverty illustrates the deconcentration of poverty across
the MCMR. One question we need to answer is why has poverty spread across
metropolitan regions? This is primarily due to the economic effects of global
capitalism and the second circuit of real estate investing that have both helped
to create region-wide uneven spatial development and usher in unprecedented
levels of social and economic inequality. The rise of suburban corporate office
complexes has created an accompanied set of low-skilled and low paying jobs,
such as secretaries, file clerks, baristas, fast food workers, janitors, and receptionists, in and around the developments. The older suburbs closest to the historical
inner city are the closest and cheapest places to the suburban labor markets.
Wherever the influx of affluent residents has taken over inner city neighborhoods, they have driven up rents beyond the means of ordinary Americans, causing members of the working class living around the poverty line to congregate
either in the inner ring suburbs or in rural areas.
The longer term economic restructuring associated with neoliberal austerity policies dismantling the welfare state has ushered in the highest levels of economic
inequality since 1917 (Saez, 2009). Whereas the mechanization of agriculture
decreased the need for manual farm labor, economic restructuring via automation
and computation, combined with the lack of unions, has decreased wages for working people. In turn, the burden of the housing crisis and Great Recession of 2007
has fallen most heavily on the working class, not on corporate executives or fully
employed professionals. Consequently, the income inequality gap has widened considerably. On the eve of the Great Recession, “income inequality in the United
States [was] at an all-time high, surpassing even levels seen during the Great
Depression” (Saez, 2009). Since 2000, the top 1% of American wage earners has
doubled its share of wages. The top 10% of employed people pulled in almost 50%
of all earned wages in 2007. The median net worth of upper income families grew
from $740,100 in 2007 to $810,800 in 2016—the highest levels since the Federal
Reserve started collecting this data (Kochhar and Cilluffo, 2017). In contrast, lowerincome families’ net worth fell from $18,500 in 2007 to $10,800 in 2016. According
to the World Bank, 3.2 million Americans live in a state of absolute poverty, below
$1.90 a day, and 5.3 million Americans live below $4 a day (Deaton, 2018). The pattern is global. In 2017, 82% of all wealth in the world went to the top 1%.
The restructuring of the American economy due to the present phase of global
capitalism has created what many economists call a jobless recovery. It has especially hit middle-aged men and women without college degrees the hardest. Furthermore, statistics on job loss indicate that the phenomenon is greater in many of
our largest multicentered metropolitan regions (not just cities). For example, much
has been made of the decline in the official unemployment rate since 2008, but
structural employment remained essentially the same. Whereas the unemployment
rate, also referred to as cyclical unemployment, captures the number of people
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actively looking for work, structural unemployment captures the long-term
unemployment due to the disappearance of entire job sectors or outdated skills.
Structural unemployment has a spatial component, as occupations that were clustered in regions, such as automotive work in Michigan or textiles in Massachusetts,
did not return. Whereas economic growth accompanies the creation of low-wage
jobs, job loss has negative ripple effects on the economy that bring other jobs into
jeopardy within communities. Thus economic crises are amplified in settlement
spaces with an existing concentration of the poor and unemployed.
The deconcentration of poverty has created a series of new urban problems.
Residents living in poverty in the suburbs face a different set of problems than
their impoverished city counterparts. One problem is the lack of available social
services. Even though the state and county governments administer social services,
these government offices are centralized in the city centers. This requires poor
suburban residents to travel much greater distances—a problem exacerbated by
the inadequate public transportation options in suburban areas. Another negative
effect of the deconcentration of and increase in poverty and unemployment is that
it affects the housing market making it less attractive for second circuit entrepreneurs to invest in unevenly developed poorer areas. Consequently, the issues of
poverty, income inequality, and unemployment are compounded and mixed in
with the country’s equally large problem of affordable housing.
Family well-being in the United States depends to a great extent on where one’s
home is located. Differences in wealth and the location of the family home determine the opportunities available to individuals. Where one lives determines the
quality of the school one attends, the safety of the local streets, and how much
one’s property will increase in value. Over the years, the cost of well-situated
housing, either owned or rented, has increased substantially as a percentage of
income. Consequently, attractive neighborhoods have become beyond the reach of
many people.
As Lefebvre has argued, the second circuit of investing, namely real estate, is
as likely to go through boom-and-bust cycles as any other aspect of capitalism,
although, as he maintained, the two circuits are not always in sync. Since the
1980s, real estate and banking interests in the United States pushed the development of housing for the affluent to unprecedented levels. Although little affordable housing was constructed, banks found new ways of placing people into units
when they could not afford the expensive housing that was being built. Subprime,
i.e, below the prevailing interest rate, and adjustable rate mortgages were the
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principal tools used to keep profits up by tapping into a new market consisting of
poorer people who could not afford new housing, but were sold it anyway due to
relaxed government regulations that passed into policy during the turn of the last
century. Investment banks cleverly engineered entirely new ways of packaging
risky home loans into “assets” commonly called “mortgage backed derivatives”
that were bought and sold on the global market. The value of these “subprime”
derivatives was assured only for as long as the prices of housing continued to rise.
When the speculative bubble—the nation’s housing market—began to burst
in 2007, mortgage performance, especially on subprime loans with adjustable
rates, eroded badly. An increasing number of owners had difficulty keeping current on their payments. Lenders responded by tightening underwriting standards
and demanding a higher risk premium, accelerating the ongoing slide in sales and
starts (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2008). The national median singlefamily home price fell in nominal terms for the first time in forty years of record
keeping, leaving several million homeowners with properties worth less than their
mortgages. Thus, creating the threat of personal bankruptcy. Compounding this
problem of excess supply, current foreclosure rates were so high that banks
retained excess liabilities (called “toxic assets”) and they remained in crisis facing
business bankruptcy as well. In short, when the bubble burst, due to the absence
of effective banking and real estate regulation, American capitalism was threatened with failure because dollar value was, itself, in such decline.
There was ample time for a suitable correction, in 2008, if the government
under President George W. Bush had paid any attention. It seems astounding
now that no one in authority, either in the United States or other industrialized
countries, exercised their power to offset such housing speculation. It is even more
astounding that no effective oversight was initiated when not long ago the United
States, under President Ronald Reagan during the 1980s, lost billions of dollars
in a similar real estate banking speculation—the Savings and Loan scandal. The
warning signs were already there over a decade ago, when bank mortgage lending
was deregulated by the federal government and all the watchdogs of land and
bank investing somehow went to sleep while obscene profits and bonuses were
being made and paid in these industries. By 2009, in response to the crisis, the
US government provided trillions of dollars funded by taxes as a means of preventing the collapse of these same businesses, who were judged “too big to fail,”
but when repeated appeals had been made to provide adequate housing for all
Americans over the years, the response was always indifference. Thus, it is
extremely important to note that the Great Recession of the early twenty-first
century derived from society’s failure over many decades to provide for affordable
housing, instead of allowing real estate interests to be de-regulated so that finance
and banking profits could go out of control until the bubble burst.
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Affordable Housing
The affordable housing crisis refers to the inability of lower and middle-income
people to secure market rate rents, flats, or homes that they can afford. The US government defines spending 30% of your monthly income on housing as the threshold
of affordability. Affordable housing should not be confused with the conditions of
absolute poverty, defined as living on a dollar a day, that leaves one homeless or
living in dilapidated housing in slums. The problem of affordable housing is also
different from living below the poverty line in developed nations that grants one
access to public or subsidized housing. In this regard, affordable housing is a relative term that varies by location, but is a growing problem of all metropolitan
regions across the globe.
Since 1965, the cost of housing has risen more rapidly than income. As a
result, millions of people either could not afford single-family homeownership or
were forced to devote a major part of their income to housing. In the mid-1950s,
an average thirty-year-old worker could purchase a median-priced house for just
14% of his or her gross earnings. Thirty years later, it would take 44% of that
worker’s income to purchase the same house (Levy, 1987). Shannon et al. (1991)
illustrated the rapid increase in housing prices. In 1970, the median monthly rent
in the United States was $108; by 1985, it was three times as high ($350). The
median sales price of new homes increased by a factor of four, from $23,000 in
1970 to more than $92,000 in 1986, and more than doubling again to $236,000
in 2017. Price increases were most rapid on both the East and West Coasts,
becoming almost prohibitively high in coastal cities like New York, Seattle, and
San Francisco.
The United States has always had an affordable housing crisis because the
country has persisted in relying on the private market to supply most of its housing needs, which it can never do. Although the state has the capacity to fund
public housing, there is not the willingness at the federal or state level to invest
in it or to force the real estate industry to take less profits and build places that
people can afford. The historical reliance on the private market to supply the
nation’s housing needs has led to ill advised policy, like housing vouchers. Housing vouchers are public subsidies given to private landlords to subsidize rather
than cover the costs of rent. What they have done is actually drive up the costs of
rents, as landlords willing to take vouchers increase the rent above the value of
the vouchers, to the highest amounts that they can squeeze from poor tenants. As
Desmond noted in Evicted (2017), the difference in rent in the worst and best
neighborhoods in Milwaukee, Wisconsin was $270 a month. The realities of residential segregation leave even fewer available housing options for people of color,
so that they have little choice but to accept any form of shelter where elites allow
them to live. In contrast, whites are more likely to face a problem known as
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down renting: when people rent cheaper units that they can afford, in turn, leaving even few affordable housing units available for middle and working-class
Homelessness is a term that captures a wide range of individuals and families who
are without a place to live for many different reasons. When we think of homelessness, we tend to think of the visible homeless who live on the streets, bounce from
shelter to shelter, and rely on various charities for food and clothing. Some days or
nights they may have enough money for a room in a single-room-occupancy (SRO)
hotel. The visible homeless stick out because many suffer from mental illness or
some form of addiction and reflect the stereotype of “the bum.” However, children
are more likely than any other demographic to be homeless. These children are
homeless because they ran away from an abusive home or they live with their
mother, who may have also fled from an abusive home, or because of the combination of the time and affordability of childcare and gender discrimination in the
workplace regarding wages, so single parents cannot afford rent and also work.
There are also the “couch homeless”: individuals and families who temporarily stay
at the homes of family members and friends. They are part of the invisible homeless. They are invisible because they are not on the streets. They are also invisible
because they don’t appear on official Point in Time homeless counts, taken each
year during the last week of January, which allow communities to receive the paltry
amount of available federal money to deal with the problem of homelessness. The
official homeless count for 2017 was 553,742 individuals, 65% of which were staying in temporary and emergency shelters (US Department of Housing and Urban
Development, 2017), but many agree the number is much higher.
While homelessness is related to the issue of affordable housing, it is not directly related (Flanagan, 1990; Leshner, 1992). Economic restructuring has caused
job loss and community decline. In many cases, a loss of income results in an
inability to afford housing, and for some families, even rental housing can be hard
to obtain with limited financial means, especially when landlords also demand
two months security in order to move in. But declines in welfare funding have
been a principal cause of homelessness. Fiscal austerity and cutbacks in the federal
budget have limited the ability of local communities to support people in need.
Thus, because of cutbacks to federal and state social welfare programs, under neoliberal federal policies, that have become worse during the Trump administration,
combined with the current high rates of inequality, the continual problem of
housing foreclosures, homelessness will remain an urban social problem. This terrible plight has put an immense strain on school districts that struggle with a
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government mandated requirement that all American children, whether living in
a home or not, are entitled to an education.
Homelessness is also caused by the inequities of the second circuit of capital, a
matter of land-use issues connected with gentrification, displacement, and the cultural imaginings of what the city should be. Because the real estate market functions both to drive up the cost of shelter and to foster speculation, units may
either be too expensive to rent or own or simply be held vacant as a tax loss. The
urbanist Carolyn Adams terms this condition one of “maladjustment” in a real
estate market that favors the owners of property, rather than a shortage of housing, because in the United States many housing units remain available. As she
noted, “large numbers of housing units stand vacant, awaiting demolition or renovation” (1986:528). Talmadge Wright noted that the “problem” of homelessness
in American cities is especially challenging because the homeless, city officials,
and other groups have very different visions of how urban space should be used.
For low-income persons who cannot afford housing, vacant buildings may be seen
as squatter properties. But for most people—including public officials and developers—urban space does not include a place for the homeless (Wright, 1998).
This attitude has resulted in the “militarization” of urban space, including such
things as concertina wire around dumpsters behind grocery stores and restaurants
to prevent homeless persons from obtaining leftover food; park benches with
spikes specifically designed to prevent people from sleeping; and sprinkler systems
in public parks that are turned on during evening hours to prevent homeless persons from sleeping on the ground (Davis, 1990).
In sum, our housing problems represent the fundamental contradictions of our
capitalist system that Friedrich Engels noted in the large cities of England as far
back as the late 1800s. Homelessness combines aspects of economic crisis, poverty,
and the failures of US health and housing policies. One factor is the country’s
inability to provide an adequate supply of affordable housing to all workers. Like
the proverbial butterfly that flaps its wings in the equatorial tropics and triggers a
world ecological crisis through a series of globally linked events, the scarcity of
affordable housing contributes to the economic turmoil and the current situation
of an unaffordable urban life, when minimally regulated banks and the second circuit of capital remain solely devoted to maximizing profit.
The affordable housing crisis in America is its most pressing economic problem. Under the stage of competitive capitalism, businesses that failed were swallowed up by better endowed companies or disappeared, thereby making
capitalism, itself, more efficient. Exemplified by President Trump, the second circuit of capital in real estate, under present business and bankruptcy laws, allows
companies to fail, go bankrupt and return again, just as present laws enable
owners of capital to spin off myriad shell corporations to cover their tax obligations. Trump’s real estate businesses are exclusively located in luxury properties
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and, indeed, their symbol is “gold.” If we consider this President’s money interests alone, we could never imagine developers building affordable housing for
more modest profits. Yet, we have a severe rent and ownership crisis in this sector
that was responsible for the Great Recession of the early twenty-first century
which cost the American taxpayers trillions of dollars to rescue “too big to fail”
banks and financial brokers. People put up with this insanity, despite paying
much too much for housing themselves. Yet, if the amount of their budgets for
shelter could be reduced, citizens of the US would be able to have more household
income to pay off their debt and also buy consumer goods. In a global economy,
when transnational corporations can find locations around the world with the
cheapest labor costs and the best tax climate for manufacturing, there is absolutely
no incentive to invest in industry and jobs in America. Thus, there is also no
incentive to solve the affordable housing crisis and citizens will continue to pay
too much for rent and homes.
News stories give the impression that crime is rampant in cities and that cities
are unsafe as human environments. When people speak of crime, they usually
mean violent crime, which includes murder, assault, rape, and robbery. However,
a large amount of property crime—burglary, larceny, and auto theft—occurs every
year in both cities and suburbs. White-collar criminals, for example, such as
insider traders on Wall Street and the bankers involved in the Savings and Loan
scandal, are responsible for the theft of billions of dollars. But these white-collar
crimes are not usually considered when people discuss criminal activity or describe
dangerous criminals. For the most part, the crimes associated with metropolitan
areas are of the violent variety such as rape and murder—the stuff of television
shows and movies that continue to fascinate the American public. These crimes
affect our view of public safety and the safety of our homes.
The public’s fascination with crime does not always capture the reality of
crime. In 2016, Americans aged twelve or older had less than a 1% chance of
being a victim of a violent crime, and less than a half of 1% chance of being a
victim of a serious violent crime (Morgan and Kena, 2017). According to the
Department of Justice, overall rates of violent crimes—murder, rape, robbery, robbery with gun, assault, and assault with gun—declined from 1997 to 2016 by
37%. The overall rates of property crime—burglary and motor vehicle theft—
declined by 43% from 1997 to 2016. According to victimization surveys, the rate
of violent and property crime dropped from 79.8 to 18.6 victimizations per 1,000
residents from 1993 to 2015 (US Department of Justice, 2015). To put the drop
in crime in perspective, the poorest urban residents today have the same chance of
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being a victim of a crime as a rich urban resident did in 1993 (Sharkey, 2018).
Despite the drop in crime, the United States continues to be more crime-ridden
than the societies of Western Europe, Canada, and Japan.
To understand the nature of urban crime, it is necessary to view it as a spatial
as well as a social phenomenon. The spatial effect of concentrating the poor and
racial minorities in a few neighborhoods explains why crime is not randomly disbursed throughout the metropolitan area. Crime in the city is still higher than
that of the suburbs, but the gap narrowed from 1990–2008 (Kneebone and Raphael, 2011). Why the disparities between the city and the surrounding suburbs?
There is a distinct spatial component to suburban crime that differs from crime in
the city. For one, the high-crime areas in cities are associated with the spatial concentration of poverty and racial groups in the urban ghettos. While suburbs have
ghettos, they are not all high-crime areas. Instead, according to one study of a
mature suburban region outside of Los Angeles (Gottdiener, 1982), police in
Orange County, California, associate high crime rates with apartment buildings.
These stand out because most residential dwellings in suburbia are single-family
homes. According to this study, police in the suburbs pay particular attention to
apartment dwellings and monitor the activities of their residents. Because of the
lower density of suburban areas, surveillance of populations is an easier task than
in the large city (Davis, 1990). Aside from the above features, however, suburban
crime seems very much like crime in large cities, just not at the same per-capita
rate. But given the diversity of suburban communities, ranging from declining
industrial suburbs to communities with spillover from adjacent urban ghettos, it
is likely that many suburban communities are less safe than many city
The spatial component of crime also explains why the incidence of crimes
varies within any given city by neighborhood. Typically, criminal incidents follow
the lines of class and racial segregation. Indeed, between 2012 and 2015, 51% of
crime was intra-racial. The black–black crime rate was 63% while the white–
white crime rate was 57%. Blacks are more likely to be the perpetrators and victims of crime because they share the same social space within hypersegregated
settlement areas. For example in 1990, “The typical New York City murder
victim is a black man in his late teens or twenties, killed by an acquaintance of
the same race with a hand gun during a dispute—most likely over drug-dealing”
(Greenberg, 1990:26). This has not changed over the past twenty-eight years.
Nationwide, the fourth leading cause of death for black men is homicide, higher
than stroke, diabetes, and influenza, and homicide is the #1 leading cause of
death for black men between the ages of 15–34 (CDC, 2014).
In spite of the falling crime rates, the continued fight against crime has led to
more exclusion and racial segregation through the development and administration of oppressive and racist policing practices that disproportionately target the
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poor and racial minorities. For example, former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani implemented what is known as “Zero Tolerance” and “Broken Windows” police strategies that targeted minor crimes committed by primarily black residents on the
basis that it would prevent future and more serious crimes. Under Giuliani and
police chief William Bratton’s reign, New York City hired 12,000 additional
police officers and made about 1,000 arrests per week for minor drug offenses by
1996. These racist penal practices were exported to other cities in the United
States and countries around the world starting in the 1990s (Wacquant, 2009).
Furthermore, there is another significant change in urban policing. In 1990, the
federal government created the 1033 program that began giving civilian police
departments’ surplus military equipment. The militarization of the police can
readily be seen in the police response to the Black Lives Matter protests when the
cops rolled out their armored vehicles, SWAT teams, and shot tear gas into the
crowds of protesters.
The most significant and predictable outcome of the increased fight against
the decline in crime has been the mass imprisonment of blacks and Hispanics and
the rise of police brutality. In 2014, a staggering 2.3 million inmates were African Americans, accounting for 34% of the entire inmate population. Combined,
Hispanics and blacks account for 56% of all incarcerated individuals, despite only
being 32% of the entire US population. According to,
African Americans are three times more likely to be killed by the police; 30% of
blacks killed by the police were unarmed; thirteen of the largest 100 police
departments kill black men at a higher rate than the US murder rate. Thus,
police brutality and the police killings of citizens are unrelated to the city’s crime
rate and have to do with the location of the urban area, itself.
The sociospatial approach explains how crime is related to the concentration of
the poor and marginalized populations into specific settlement spaces. Following
the logic of the sociospatial approach, the decline in crime since the 1990s can be
attributed to the deconcentration of poverty and increased suburbanization over
the same time period. Indeed, some of the thinning out of the crime-ridden population was due to the wholesale imprisoning of black men over this time period.
Furthermore, the largely privatized continued growth of the Prison Industrial
Complex has linked a large portion of the economy to security services, whether
they are needed or not. The persisting, comparative population increases in suburbia have also led to an increase in some crimes, such as auto theft. Nevertheless,
the overall crime rate in the US continues to decline. Of the core spatial issues
that urban sociology addresses—social networking and the strength of community
ties that provide informal social control—most explain the drop in crime. Sharkey
et al. (2017) found that an increase in ten community organizations that target
violence in cities for more than 100,000 people accounts for a 9% reduction in
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crime. Society will find success at combating crime by re-establishing social bonds
in communities—not by hiring more police officers and building more prisons.
The Costs of Crime
What effect does crime have on everyday urban life? Perhaps the greatest effect
has to do with the use of city space. In less crime-ridden eras, parks were used by
a diverse group of people at all hours of the day and evening. During summer
heat waves, families would sleep on the public beaches in Chicago and other
cities. Today the use of public space is limited. Some people are afraid to venture
into parks without friends nearby, and children must be supervised and kept away
from strangers. The evening use of public spaces and facilities, such as streets and
mass transit systems, has also been negatively affected. People leaving their offices
late at night now take cabs or cars rather than public transportation.
Crime increases the security budgets of private companies as well as public
expenditures for security in schools and court buildings. The national criminal
justice system supports the largest prison population in the world with its
immense costs to taxpayers. Violent crime causes billions of dollars in unnecessary
medical expenses. It can also devastate property values. In areas of the city with
high crime rates, the value of property remains low and does not rise during
times of prosperity (Taylor, 1991). As a result, innocent households suffer doubly
in crime-infested sections because they are victims of crime and because the value
of their housing declines. Poor areas remain mired in poverty because high crime
levels chase away prospective investment.
Finally, crime makes the city an unattractive place to live, especially for families with small children. Crime repels families from the city, which compounds
the problem of population loss and the inability of the city to increase its tax
base. There are terrible costs to society from white-collar crime as well—criminologists maintain that the monetary cost of white-collar crime is many times that
of other property crimes—but it is not associated with the quality of urban life.
Rather, it is violent crime that scares people away from the city. Ultimately, the
cost of crime is not borne simply by individuals, public budgets, and private
security expenditures. The cost of crime is borne by the larger society in ways
that are often hidden from view, even though it threatens the well-being of our
families and communities.
The probability that you or I will suffer from a chronic or acute health problem
depends on where we live, hence the spatial dimension of MCMR is important for
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public health as well. Cities are not exactly the healthiest places to live, despite the
fact that they house the best medical facilities and attract the best talent in the
medical profession money can buy. But the suburbs are not exactly the healthiest
places to live, either. Poorly planned metropolitan regions encourage sprawl, which
encourages a sedentary lifestyle and a diet of quick meals. In America, sprawl has
accompanied increases in type two diabetes, depression, and addiction—social problems rooted in the problem of isolation and eating disorders. The developing world
has also seen a rise of urban health problems, including cancer, heart disease, and
strokes, as they have become more urbanized (WHO, 2010) with a daily diet similar to that in America—reliance on fast and processed foods, high intake of salt and
saturated fats, and the like—in contrast to earlier periods based on eating locally
grown vegetables, fruits, and protein.
The current theoretical models being used in urban public health are ill
equipped to understand and address problems of modern health issues. Urban
public health scholars continue to draw from the ecological model and understand
space as a container alone. To illustrate the limitations of the ecological approach
in urban public health, let’s consider the problem of asthma. A recent study on
asthma that used an ecological framework and measured exposure to poor air via
the quality of housing in bad census tracts, defined as more than 20% of residents
living in poverty, argued that asthma is largely explained by demographics and
not by living in an “inner city” neighborhood—what the authors called an “urban
neighborhood” (Keet et al., 2015). This type of analysis treats space as a container
by extracting demographics—race, ethnicity, and social class—from the broader
spatial context and changes in residential segregation due to the deconcentration
of poverty since 2000. It misses completely how factories and industrial waste
facilities have been historically concentrated and zoned for areas specifically adjacent to poor neighborhoods. This research also ignores how exposure types are
spatial, meaning, that exposure type varies by climate, such as in the case of toxic
mold that is a relatively bigger problem in damp versus aired regions, and varies
by proximity to bridges with high volume, especially heavy use of commercial
trucks entering a global city and/or crossing an international border. Urban areas
are responsible for 60% of the total greenhouse gas emissions, and these gases
don’t just hover over poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods, or stop at census
tract, state, or national boundaries. Following this line of research, in order for
there to be a demographic cause to asthma rates, you would have to provide 1)
the genetic sequence found in people from African or Southern European backgrounds that makes them more susceptible to asthma than other racial or ethnic
groups; 2) a location analysis that tracks exactly where people suffering from
asthma live, especially the spatial placement of local and regional traffic patterns.
The theoretical limitation of viewing urban public health through an ecological lens is also dangerous because it shifts resources away from addressing
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urban poverty, the main cause of many urban health problems, to research investigating “genetic” causes for things like asthma. County and state health departments are moving, and some have already moved, toward a “social determinants”
model of public health. According to this approach variables such as income, education, unemployment, food insecurity, early childhood development, and
adequate housing work together to create unwanted health outcomes. Asthma is
an urban public health problem that has a mutually reinforcing relationship with
other urban social problems and they all have a spatial or locational component
(Cohen and Schuchter, 2012).
Drug addiction is also an urban health problem that is no longer confined to poor
neighborhoods. Drug addiction often goes in waves and is spatially clustered. Crack
cocaine afflicted poor neighborhoods in the 1980s, especially poor black neighborhoods, at a time when the federal government cut funding to social services, the labor
market drastically declined in urban areas, and states began the era of mass imprisonment. Crystal meth afflicted west coast and rural white areas throughout the 1990s
and early 2000s. Today’s main drug problem is opiates, a problem that has found a
home in the suburbs of large cities, such as Long Island, NY, as well as hitting hard
deindustrialized Rust Belt cities like Youngstown, Ohio. Unlike heroin addition in
the past, today’s opioid addict can also obtain drugs legally through prescription pain
pills. Indeed, the mass production of opioids by the pharmaceutical industry has cast
a big tent over the spatial patterns of addiction. As an example of this legal/illegal
opiod crisis complexity, from 2006 and 2016, drug companies shipped 20.8 million
prescription backed painkillers, primarily oxycodone and hydrocodone, to only two
pharmacies in the sparsely settled town of Williamson, West Virginia, with a population of 2,900 (Eyre, 2018). Yet, the spatial concentration of destitution—what
scholars are calling “places of despair”—means that increasingly more Americans
depressed by their declining quality of life, who are principally white, have turned to
opioids as a cheap way of using drugs that has also led to a spike in the number of
deaths within these regions, such as West Virginia, and a declining life expectancy
for white males across the US.
Sociology has traditionally analyzed social problems in terms of their material and
symbolic properties. The material causes of social problems include the economic
dimensions of inequality—income, wealth, and housing—while symbolic inequality looks at these problems through the lens of inclusion and exclusion. Spatial
inequality is the third axis of social problems. Some forms of inequality have a
direct spatial component. This includes the lack of affordable housing, residential
segregation causing disparities in essentials like education and medical care, and a
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lack of transportation options. Other forms of spatial inequality are indirect, such
as income inequality tied to the absence of job markets in so-called undesirable
locations or the failure of our society to service adequately the basic needs of poor
and minority communities, as in the case of Flint, Michigan, for example. Our
pressing social problems are not typically “urban” anymore. We now possess
national crises throughout our expanding metro regions that continue to play a
role specific to their social as well as spatial attributes.
It often seems that each month brings new challenges to urban areas in the
United States. Part of the problem is that our society hangs its solutions of pressing
social issues, like poverty, health care, and affordable housing, on some variation of
mixed private and public interventions. There is no universal health care in our country, as there is in other Western developed societies. Our large demand for affordable
housing, once dealt with inadequately by public subsidization, was absorbed by profit
making capitalists in the 1990s as subprime mortgage derivative investing and
yielded cataclysmic results. Although violent crime has been reduced in our cities,
the overall level remains abnormally high compared to countries in Western Europe
and Japan, and we seem to enjoy its media representations because crime and law
shows are so popular on TV or in films. More frightening are the mass shootings that
characterize our society with its gun rights culture. Now, children in America are
afraid to go to public schools. The repeated killing events across the country are, in a
way, the saddest aspect of our society, especially when it is the young that protest
against indifference by older, and mainly, white males belonging to organizations like
the National Rifle Association, or, whose wishes for greater regulation of guns, such
as assault rifles, are ignored by conservative judges, such as the judicial opinion of
recently appointed Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh, who has affirmed the
right of citizens to own these killing machine assault rifles that have been used by
children against other children at public schools.
In sum, our society fails the need of its citizens completely in addressing
many issues that other countries, especially Canada, Japan, and Western Europe,
have successfully faced through government regulation of obviously dangerous
social practices. For this reason, the study of Social Problems, in the American
curriculum of colleges remains a significant topic with little hope of implementing solutions that might also be taught.
• Explain the difference between personal problems, social problems, and
urban social problems. How are these three types of problems related to
one another?
EBSCOhost – printed on 3/21/2022 12:30 PM via CUNY LEHMAN COLLEGE. All use subject to
24 9
• According to the sociospatial approach, what are the three defining features
of urban social problems? How does the sociospatial approach differ from
the early Chicago School’s approach to the study of urban social problems?
• Why are racism and segregation urban social problems and not just general social problems?
• Why is violent crime patterned by social space? What does this tell you
about the probability of an individual being the victim of a violent crime?
• Why does the space of the city create more problems than the rest of the
metro region? Should this result justify an anti-urban attitude in choosing
a place to live?
• Use the sociospatial approach to explain why poverty is found throughout
the multicentric metropolitan region. What does the spatial distribution of
poverty tell us about the relationship between business cycles, unemployment, and social space?
• What are the limits of using an ecological approach to explain and solve
urban public health problems? How can the sociospatial approach provide us
a better explanation on why urban public health problems exist in some areas
but not in others?
EBSCOhost – printed on 3/21/2022 12:30 PM via CUNY LEHMAN COLLEGE. All use subject to
EBSCOhost – printed on 3/21/2022 12:30 PM via CUNY LEHMAN COLLEGE. All use subject to

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