Low-income communities suffer from a plethora of problems that are largely absent in more affluent areas. Among these are high crime rates, lack of employment opportunities, crowded, underfunded schools, substandard infrastructure and transportation and lack of access to essential services. These factors mean that the residents of these communities must struggle with many additional burdens that other Americans live without.
One of the more insidious of these burdens is the disproportionate exposure to harmful environmental substances. In the United States, low income neighborhoods experience more of all forms of pollution (air and water pollution, as well as toxic waste) than do neighborhoods that maintain higher levels of income.
A report entitled by William Nichols entitled, “Social Stratification of Pollution Across America: Analysis and Economic Perspectives” posits that "much of the evidence points to a pattern of disproportionate exposure to toxics and associated health risks among communities of color and the poor, with racial differences often persisting across economic strata".
Kinds of Toxic Exposure
The three main forms of pollution these communities face are air pollution, water pollution and hazardous waste.These come from industrial sites as well as transportation corridors. These neighborhoods also assume a disproportionately large part of the solid and liquid waste treatment facilities and landfills which serve the community at large.
Why Low-Income Communities?
There are a whole host of reasons that polluting facilities and toxic sites tend to be present in poor neighborhoods. Some factors to consider include job location, household income, discriminatory housing and development policies, and a dearth of political power.
Many of the poor residents who live near polluting facilities include the low-income employees who work there. As William Nichols points out, "the minority and low income families that experience the brunt of the pollution in this country have become economically dependent on the industries that pollute their neighborhoods because many rely on the income to support their families." Low-income workers do not have the resources to relocate as do many of the white-collar workers and management who make a living at these facilities.
With the mass exodus of industry from many American communities in recent decades, many former producers of pollution have shut down. While unused sites in more prosperous communities are generally quickly cleaned up and redeveloped, many toxic sites in poor communities are simply abandoned — and left to continue contaminating the surrounding area.
While low-income communities seem to be disproportionately selected to house site polluting and noxious facilities, there also seems to be a tendency for the poor to move in around these sites. Since hazardous sites tend to cause property values to go down and drive away those who can afford to move their families elsewhere, many poor people find that the only place in their city or town where they can actually afford to live are those devalued, at least in part, by neighboring toxic sites.
A report released by Physicians for Social Responsibility points out that the bodegas and corner stores that often supplement the lack of supermarkets in many urban centers can be problematic as well. According to the report,
"They stock baby bottles and canned foods manufactured or lined with Bisphenol A (BPA), and carry little fresh food. BPA has been associated with obesity, cancer, and many other health conditions. Canned foods are a major source of nutrition and often the only source of vegetables in low-income neighborhoods. Urban residents are therefore disproportionately exposed to this ubiquitous packaging additive."
These small stores also sell more lead-laden toys and jewelry containing cadmium, a known carcinogen that causes kidney and immune system damage, than stores in more affluent communities, according to the report.
In addition to exposure to industrial and commercial pollution and hazardous waste, poor communities generally have an older housing stock, which makes them far more likely to come into contact with toxic substances such as lead paint and asbestos at home, in school or on the playground.
Effects on Health
The disproportionate exposure to hazardous materials and pollution that residents of poor communities face can be seen most readily in the health of their children. Asthma, a condition which hits children particularly hard, is seen at higher rates in low-income communities. (Department of Health and Human Services).
In New York City children age 4 and younger who lived in low-income neighborhoods were found to be more than four times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than those in wealthier areas (Gotham Gazette).
Disparities can also be seen in the case of lead poisoning. Childhood lead poisoning can come from a number of sources including exposure to lead dust, lead in water from lead pipes, lead in soil from decades of leaded gasoline use and ingestion of lead paint from peeling or chipped surfaces. Exposure to lead causes irreversible brain damage at very low levels.
In some communities, the problem is especially pronounced. In Detroit, where the poverty rate is a striking 36.4 percent, 58 percent of Detroit Public School students tested were found to have a history of lead poisoning. (Detroit Free Press).
These are just a few of the measurable effects of the increased exposure to harmful substances and pollution that many families in low-income and minority communities can not escape. The long term impacts of living next door to power plants, sewer overflow sites and industrial sites is harder to grasp.
While most everyone in America will surely be exposed to things that they would rather not be, low-income folks are much more likely to live and work in areas in which harmful environmental exposures are highly concentrated. And they lack the resources that would enable mobility and flexibility to seek more appealing alternatives.
Find out how you can support Here's Life Inner City, while serving America's poor. Research and reporting for this piece was conducted by Shannon Hughes, a former intern with Here’s Life Inner City.