Study takes measure of Boston poverty

Boston Foundation report tells tale of two cities

A study released last month by The Boston Foundation delivered grim news about the state of racial inequality in the Hub, depicting alarmingly high levels of poverty within black and Latino neighborhoods across the city. 

The report highlights the ever widening wealth gap between the rich and the poor, which has thousands of black and Latino children in Boston persisting in conditions of abject poverty, surrounded by increasing white wealth and privilege.

Titled “The Measure of Poverty,” the report documents continued economic regression among Boston’s inner city residents, where poverty dovetails with low educational achievement, high crime rates, poor health, and anemic civic life. Between 1990 to 2010, the study reports, poverty became concentrated in Boston’s predominantly black and Latino neighbors to an extraordinary degree, as wages stagnated and the region lost its traditional jobs base.  “National policies and economic trends have not been kind to families on the lower end of the ladder of opportunity,” says the report in muted understatement.  

The study details the chasm dividing Boston residents, with those on the lower end caught in unforgiving cycles of generational deprivation.

  • Within Boston’s core black neighborhoods (Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan), 42 percent of children live in abject poverty, accounting for the state’s largest concentration of child poverty.
  • Prices for basic necessities in Boston in the last two decades have increased at a pace beyond the poverty level, resulting in the fact that the official “poor” are now worse off than they were 20 years ago. 
  • In Boston, more than 80 percent of all families living in poverty are headed by women.

Culled mainly from the 2010 Census statistics, the report sets in stark relief an economic tale of two cities:  While approximately 5 percent of Boston income earners account for 25 percent of the city’s total wages, the bottom 20 percent earned just 2 percent of total income.  

The crisis among the city’s poor has been exacerbated by the dramatic changes in the region’s economy and the emergence of a robust technology and innovation sector.  Boston has transformed itself into a knowledge-based economy, rewarding individuals who have educated themselves to compete. Labor markets now demand workers with advanced degrees and new skills sets and capacities. 

The report raises grave concerns about the continued sluggish national economy. It also laments the impact of recent state cuts to important safety net programs.

Offering some solutions, the report points to suggested changes by recalibrating aspects of the health care system that might yield new state revenues for the poor.  It also suggests changes to the state’s regressive tax system.

Given the dire nature of the report, perhaps more immediate steps are necessary to stem the current misery being experienced among the black and Latino children in Boston. A $100 million Economic Opportunity Bill could be directly targeted at reducing poverty in Boston and other major cities such as Springfield, Brockton, Lowell, and Worcester. 

Meet the Author

The Boston Foundation’s report highlights the need for leadership to engage on behalf of a significant segment of Boston’s most vulnerable citizens. 

Kevin Peterson is executive director of the New Democracy Coalition, a Boston-based organization focusing on civic literacy, civic policy, and electoral justice, and co-chair of the Massachusetts Black Empowerment Coalition.