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How Indiana Could Reverse The Trend Of Segregated Poverty

Poverty is becoming more concentrated in Indiana and across the nation, which is making it more difficult for children to break the cycle of poverty.

A girl waits for a bus

Photo: Jashin Lin

A girl waits for a bus on the east side of Indianapolis.

Poverty is prevalent in Indiana. Sixteen percent of Hoosiers live below the federal poverty level, and recent data shows lower-income people are becoming more segregated from the general population.

Take Cynthia Nelson’s case for example.

Right now, she considers herself fortunate. She and her 11-year-old daughter Sierra live in Indianapolis in a house that was built through the Fuller Center for Housing—a program similar to Habitat for Humanity.

Nelson says most of the people on her street are employed and the crime rate is relatively low, creating a stable environment for her daughter to grow up in, and Nelson has a job working at Fletcher Place Community Center’s thrift store.

But she wasn’t always so fortunate. Two decades, she lived in Pontiac, Michigan, just outside of Detroit.

“It was nothing but chaos and turmoil. I had no direction. I just didn’t have a need or want to do anything,” she says. “I just followed what everyone else was doing.”

When Nelson moved to Indianapolis from Detroit more than 20 years ago, she lived first in shelters, then in area with a high crime rate because it’s all she could afford.

Many Hoosiers are in similar situations.

One In Ten Children In Poverty Areas

sierra nelson

Photo: Gretchen Frazee

Eleven-year-old Sierra Nelson helps her mom organize groceries at their home in Indianapolis.

Recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows the number of Indiana residents who live in areas of concentrated poverty has more than doubled in the last decade. Twenty-three percent of Hoosiers lived in concentrated poverty areas in 2010 compared to 9 percent in 2000.

And children are being impacted particularly hard. Eleven percent of kids in Indiana now live in concentrated poverty areas, according to data out this week from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. That’s nearly quadruple the number there were in 2000.

Indiana Youth Institute President Bill Stanczykiewicz says when large numbers of low-income people live together, there are inherent problems.

“There can be difficulty of accessing information in a neighborhood that is economically segregated,” he says. “Physically, it can be hard if transportation does not exist, to the resources or to the places where the jobs are, or if it’s not easy to get to the community college to get the education you need to start moving up the economic ladder.”

For parents and their children, there’s also a lack of basic amenities such as grocery stores, internet, and playgrounds.

“[Kids are] not being able to play in parks and have that kind of fun,” says Rev. Jessi Langlie, the executive director of Fletcher Place Community Center on the southeast side of Indianapolis. “There isn’t a soccer club here so you don’t have that opportunity. There’s the safety issue too. You’re safer if you stay at home than if you go out and play.”

Fletcher Place has a food pantry, a pre-k program and the thrift store where Nelson works. Langlie says during the two decades she’s been in charge of these programs, she’s seen poverty become more segregated and it’s taken a toll on the people she serves.

The Cultural Trail is great, and we’re not that far from Fountain Square which was listed in the New York Times as one of the 52 places to see this year,” Langlie says. “As that happens, you have folks that start moving into that neighborhood that have money and landlords sell houses. The  folks that used to live in those houses have to move somewhere else and usually further outside the city center and away from services that they really could use.”

But some experts say that shouldn’t stop city and town officials from improving run-down areas.

“One of the techniques of trying to use that is the codes for the community actually looking at having affordable housing written in, so if a developer comes in, a certain number of units have to be affordable housing,” says Frank Nierzwicki, a lecturer at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

He says that policy of creating a type of affordable housing quota can be used in large and small towns alike.

What’s Causing Rural Poverty

That’s important because concentrated poverty isn’t just a city problem.


Percent of People In Concentrated Poverty Areas

Note: Some counties with large student populations such as Bloomington (Indiana University) and Munice (Ball State) have inflated concentrations of poverty because students typically report having no or little income.

Source: U.S. Census Data- Click here for larger map

The U.S. Census Bureau defines concentrated poverty areas as places where more than 20 percent of residents are below the poverty level. That is different from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s threshold of 30 percent.


As can be seen from the map above, many of the counties with high concentrated poverty rates are largely rural.

“We have issues going back to the 1980s,” says Nierzwicki says, referring to the state’s more rural areas.

He explains that as manufacturing began declining in the Midwest and larger companies moved out of small towns, so did many residents in search of other jobs.

“That affects the tax base, and when people are leaving it also affects the school system,” Nierwzicki says. “Schools actually have a major impact on economic development.”

More Than Physical Needs

That is where, Indiana Youth Institute’s Stanczykiewicz says education mentors come in because he says poverty can’t be eliminated by just meeting people’s physical needs.

“Even if we somehow magically solved all of those challenges, there’s something that’s maybe even stronger and more insidious, and that’s the emotional destitution that kids feel,” he says. “The utter hopelessness that just really sinks into their lives. Not that they had hope and they lost it, but they never had hope in the first place. And without that belief that success if for them, that possibility is for them, that opportunity is for them, that their work will matter and that there’s a reward at the end of the process in terms of economic self-sufficiency, even meeting the physical needs of those children will only go so far.”

That’s what Cynthia Nelson says was her game-changer.

“I realized I could do a lot better if I stayed around people who had backbones instead of wishbones,” she says.

So Nelson started interacting more with people at Fletcher Place, where people are encouraged to as Rev. Jessi Langlie says “keep moving forward.”

“On my walk to work, I’ll run into teen and adults that stop and know me first from Fletcher Place. The first thing they’ll do is let me know they were in my preschool and whether they finished high school or not,” Langlie says. “I don’t ask them those questions. The immediate is ‘I need to let her know how I’m doing, where I’m going’ because that’s the expectation here.”

That’s the attitude Nelson says she’s trying to pass on to her daughter, and, so far, it seems to be working. Sierra has her eyes set on becoming a veterinarian.

“I’m going to try and do good in school and try and get good enough test scores on the ISTEP and different tests so I can get a 21st century scholarship,” she says.

The 21st Century scholarship Sierra mentioned is a need and performance based scholarship that’s funded by community organizations.

A few years ago, the Indiana Commission for Higher education and the Indiana Youth Institute recently started a new program that provides students who receive the scholarship with a mentor in hopes of increasing the college graduate rates of low-income students.

Gretchen Frazee

Gretchen Frazee is a reporter/producer for WFIU and WTIU news. Prior to her current role, Frazee worked as the associate online content coordinator for WFIU/WTIU. She graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia where she studied multimedia journalism and anthropology. You can follow her on Twitter @gretchenfrazee.

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