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Cities and the Poor

As many central cities lost population and employment in the second half of the twentieth century, their populations also became poorer relative to that of the nation as a whole. In the 1950s, central cities had somewhat less than their proportionate share of the nation's poor. By the 1980s, they had more than twice their proportionate share.

One reason for the urbanization of poverty was simply selective migration. It was, by and large, the city's more prosperous residents who had the income to make the move to the suburbs, often at the same time making the switch from being renters to being homeowners. Another reason was the suburbanization of jobs and thus of income. These factors are closely related. Many firms followed their workers and customers out to the suburbs or beyond. Conversely, many residents of the central city followed their employers out of the central city.

Another factor, and a very important one, was the extremely rapid mechanization of agriculture and the huge increase in agricultural productivity (output per worker) that occurred after World War II. In 1945, the year World War II ended, U.S. farm employment was 10 million, and the U.S. farm population was 25 million. By 1970, farm employment was under 4 million, and total farm population was under 10 million. This decrease occurred despite the fact that the U.S. population had grown from 140 million to 203 million. The agricultural labor force had shrunk by more than half but was able to feed an additional 63 million people and produce a considerable surplus for export. Since 1970, the decline in farm employment and population has continued, but necessarily at a much slower pace.

The effect of this increase in agricultural productivity was to force enormous numbers of farmers off the land and set in motion a great internal migration toward the cities. For the most part, the more prosperous farmers were the ones who could mechanize, acquire more land, and stay in farming. It was the poorer farmers who were rendered surplus and had little choice but to head for the cities.12 A displaced rural and small-town population, much of it without nonagricultural job skills and often with little formal education, poured into many of the nation's central cities during the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. Unfortunately, this was the very time that the central cities were losing large amounts of manufacturing and goods- handling work, the kind of employment that might have sustained many of these rural-to-urban migrants. Thus in some ways the situation for these internal migrants was more difficult than that which had faced the wave of European immigrants who had arrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although social services were not nearly as good at the turn of the century as they were five decades later, the European immigrants of that earlier time were arriving when urban labor markets were expanding and before automation and other modern technologies were decimating the demand for relatively low-skilled manual labor.13

Today we take it for granted that in the older and more run-down sections of most central cities, the population will be largely black or other minority. This situation, too, results largely from the mechanization of agriculture. In, say, 1940, most U.S. blacks lived in the states of the old Confederacy and were a largely rural and small-town population. The mechanization of agriculture and the concurrent increases in agricultural productivity hit black farmers especially hard because they were often the poorest of the poor. Many were tenant farmers or sharecroppers rather than owners of the land that they farmed. If the farmer who owned the land could cut costs by replacing manual labor with machinery, the tenant farmers had no choice but to move. And that move, more often than not, was to the central cities. Thus to the problems that any large, rapid rural-to-urban migration would create were added a host of other problems relating to racial discrimination, the legacy of three centuries of slavery, and some decades of Jim Crow.

Few, if any, nations have been able to deal well with mass rural-to- urban migration, but the great migration just described is now several decades behind us and progress has been made. Many of the children and grandchildren of those who migrated to the cities now have the skills to function in a modern economy, and many are now firmly ensconced in the middle class. In a general sort of way it may be that the stabilizing of urban populations and the revival of many urban areas is partly due to the resolution of much of the trauma of the great migration.

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