Access to Social Services: The Changing Urban Geography of Poverty and Service Provision

August 1, 2004


An examination of neighborhood variation in access to social services in three metropolitan areas—Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.—finds that:

  • On average, poor populations in urban centers have greater spatial access to social services than poor populations living in suburban areas. In all three metropolitan areas, tracts with higher poverty rates are located in closer proximity to social service providers than tracts with lower poverty rates. On average, tracts with low poverty rates are within 1.5 miles of one-third, one-fifth, and one-quarter as many providers in metropolitan Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles respectively, as tracts with high poverty rates.

  • While spatial access to social service providers is greatest in central city areas, potential demand for services is also much greater in central city areas than in suburban areas. Service providers in the city of Chicago are in proximity to ten times as many poor households as providers in suburban Chicago. Social service providers located in the District of Columbia are proximate to about six times more poor households than service providers in suburban Washington, depending on the particular service area. Because poverty is less centralized in Los Angeles, however, potential demand facing social service providers in central city is only about twice that of the potential demand in suburban areas.

  • The location of social service providers does not always match well to the changing demographic compositions of cities. Central city tracts that transitioned to a higher poverty status between 1990 and 2000 generally have less access to providers than tracts where poverty rates remained high over the past decade. In all three cities, suburban tracts experiencing significant increases in poverty rates between 1990 and 2000 were proximate to far fewer service providers than central city tracts experiencing such increases in the poverty rate.

  • High poverty central city tracts with large percentages of Hispanics are located within the greatest proximity to service providers. Access disparities also exist between whites and African-Americans in Los Angeles and Washington. These findings appear in large part to be a product of the patterns and degree of racial and ethnic segregation in each city.

Governmental and non-governmental social service providers offering assistance to low-income populations locate in urban centers, near where disadvantaged populations are most concentrated and where services can be delivered most efficiently. However, the shifting geography of concentrated poverty, and the transformation of governmental assistance from cash to services, increases the importance of the location of these facilities, requiring greater attention from policymakers and service providers.