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Where Do Chicago's Poor White People Live?

In August 2005, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell posed the question, "Where do poor white people live?" While the question may sound simple, it leads to complex issues about race, class, and how we think about social space. For many decades, being poor in a metropolitan area has been synonymous with being black, just as being poor in a rural areas has mostly meant being white. Of course, this cannot be wholly true. Poor blacks live in the country, too. Rich blacks live in the city. Rich whites live in the country. Mitchell's question is perhaps the most obscure of these combinations: Where do poor white people in the Chicago area live?

See the maps: Where Chicago's poor blacks and whites live.
The simple answer is pretty much all over the region. The only exception is those areas concentrated with poor African Americans, who generally have fewer housing options. While much of this confinement of poor African American households may be attributable to historical discrimination by both individuals and institutions, there are social scientists and policymakers who question whether they intentionally choose to live close to one another just as immigrant enclaves were formed for familiarity and convenience.

As of 2000, there were 120,800 non-Hispanic African American households living below the poverty line in Chicago's nine-county area, or 23.3 percent of all Chicago area black households. The number for non-Hispanic whites was 98,176, only 5 percent of the area's non-Hispanic white households. Close to 40 percent of poor blacks in the area are under age 16, a statistic relatively well known to researchers. This has become a persistent problem as ghettoized neighborhoods consistently reproduce generations of impovershed African Americans.

Less well known, however, is that more than half of those of Bulgarian (84.5 percent), Lithuanian (57.3 percent), Irish (56.2 percent), and German (54.5 percent) descent in the area below the poverty line are between the ages of 18 and 54, the age range believed to be the most productive years with highest level of earning potential. Also close to a third (31.5 percent) of the poor Ukrainian population in the region is over 65 years old.

Still, there are not many social agencies and institutions in areas where poor whites reside. One reason is that poor whites' living patterns are dispersed. Another is the diversity in circumstances within poor whites - from recent immigrants to trailer park residents. The degree of diversity, in fact, is unknown because researchers and policymakers have paid little attention to metropolitan poor whites.

The fact that poor whites are assumed to have more choice in housing than poor blacks is significant because where people live determines their access to schools, stores, and public facilities such as parks and recreation, and the likelihood of crime. One important difference in the current dispersal patterns of poor whites and poor blacks is their proximity to those who are not poor. Poor whites are far more likely than poor blacks to live close to - and to interact with - those of different social classes.

Close to 30 years after then-University of Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson published a controversial book, The Declining Significance of Race, which argued that public policy programs should be geared toward class not race, this country has yet to resolve its race issues. Regardless of whether poor whites choose to live away from blacks or poor blacks choose to live among themselves, residential patterns place these two groups so far apart that exposure to each other comes mostly through indirect communication such as television or movies, where stereotypes are still the rule. Our racial issues exemplify the range of consequences when social interaction is limited and confined. The victims are not always one color or one class.

Kiljoong Kim is Research Director with the Egan Urban Center and a lecturer of sociology at DePaul University.


Posted on September 11, 2006

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