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Politics & Government

Dallas’ Poverty Problem Is a Segregation Problem

Why Dallas, one of the most segregated cities in the country, needs a comprehensive housing policy.

Widening income inequality and tightening economic mobility have eaten away at the American Dream. And in Dallas, the dwindling land of opportunity is geographically limited to the predominantly white residents of the city’s northern census tracts. For others, poverty is a trap sprung at birth, with little hope of escape.

That’s just one of several disheartening takeaways from a presentation given Monday to the city’s human and social needs committee by Mike Koprowski, the executive director of Opportunity Dallas, a nonprofit formed earlier this year to take on issues of poverty and segregation.

Koprowski made clear that the problems are closely intertwined, calling segregation “ground zero in the fight against poverty.” To make his case, he cited some depressingly familiar statistics about Dallas’ “obscene” poverty level, as well as one data point that highlights just how isolated the city’s most impoverished residents are: half of the city’s census tracts are home to 90 percent of Dallas’ children in poverty. In other words, “half of the city houses almost all of the poor children in Dallas.”

Segregation, reinforced by years of racist housing policies and other discriminatory actions, remains the biggest barrier to economic mobility, Koprowski says. We’re all products of our environments. Where we live dictates our opportunities for education and work, it shapes our quality of life, it determines our access to grocery stores and doctors and banks.

Dallas is, on paper and from a distance, a diverse city. But at ground level, it’s more segregated along racial and economic lines than Chicago and Los Angeles, according to the Pew Research Center.

To illustrate how “opportunity has been racialized in Dallas,” Koprowski and his team developed what they’re calling an “Opportunity Index,” charting neighborhood inequality in the city. Their criteria include economics (median household income, poverty rate), education (school performance, percent of residents with a bachelor’s degree), environment (neighborhood crime, property appraisals), and access (average commute time, nearby jobs, number of quality restaurants in a neighborhood).

Using that system, the city can be broken up into four distinct “opportunity zones.”

Click image to enlarge. Via Opportunity Dallas.

Here’s another graph comparing the “high opportunity” areas with the impoverished “focus areas.”

Click image to enlarge. Via Opportunity Dallas

So how do we change this, making Dallas more integrated and equitable?

Programs to address poverty can only do so much unless the city grapples with structural segregation in schools and housing. “We cannot program our way out of this one,” Koprowski says. To that end, Opportunity Dallas has made suggestions. To integrate schools, Koprowski encouraged open enrollment, new attendance boundaries not drawn along neighborhood lines, and a “diversity-by-design” admissions process.

First off, Koprowski says, Dallas needs a comprehensive housing policy, one that will, according to a resolution released by Opportunity Dallas, take a “holistic approach” to revitalizing neighborhoods, one that includes public investment in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, a focus on developing mixed-income housing, and “guardrails” against gentrification. Residents of “focus areas” should be given access to higher-opportunity areas while working to improve improve the neighborhoods that need it. If you’ve got the time to read it, the nonprofit put together a longer proposed “framework” for such a policy.

At the very least, a housing policy would help guide and coordinate the many public and private agencies working to curb poverty in Dallas. The city is indeed working on such a policy. There also needs to be discussion of some of the other factors driving poverty — transportation, for example. But if Koprowski is right (and he has the numbers to back it up) than any serious effort to alleviate poverty needs to start with housing and segregation.

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