Social Problems: Chapter 6 - Urban Problems

Social Problems

Chapter 6
Urban Problems

Summary by Russ Long
October 25, 2017

I.     Changes in U.S. Cities

A.     Early Urban Growth and Social Problems

Weeks (1996:392) points out that cities are not an entirely new phenomenon. The explosive growth currently taking place is a unique feature. Weeks (1996:392), in fact, calls urbanization "the most significant demographic movement in world history."

Large scale urbanization is, historically, a very recent phenomena. In the year 1800, over 97 percent of the world's population was rural. By 1900, only 5.5 percent of the world's population lived in cities. By 1980 nearly half of the world's population lives in cities.

1.     Urbanization

Urbanization is the process by which an increasing proportion of a population lives in cities rather than in rural areas (Kendall, 1998:374).

An urban place is a spatial concentration of people whose lives are organized around non-agricultural activities. The essential characteristic here is that urban means non-agricultural (Weeks, 1996:392). It is possible, therefore, to have one community larger than another, but because it is agricultural oriented, it is not considered urban while the smaller community is considered urban.

Urban can also be defined as a fairly complex concept. Criteria used to define urban can include population size, space, density, and economic organization.

Usually, however, urban is simply defined by some base line size, like 2500 people.

2.     City vs. Metropolitan Area

a.     Metropolitan area:

The United States Office of Management and Budget (OMB) defines metropolitan areas (MAs) according to published standards that are applied to Census Bureau data. The general concept of an MA is that of a core area containing a large population nucleus, together with adjacent communities having a high degree of economic and social integration with that core. See:

b.     Cities

Rather than representing logical demarcations in geography, cities have politically conceived origins. Cities, for example, have political boundaries that are sometimes drawn to exclude minority and/or poor people.

B.     Contemporary Urban Growth

1.     Edge City

An edge city is an area of middle- to upper-middle-class residences with complete working, shopping, and leisure activities that make the area independent of the central city or other suburbs (Kendall, 1998:376).

2.     Megalopolis

A megalopolis is a continuous concentration of two or more cities and their suburbs that have grown until they form an interconnected urban area (Kendall, 1998:376).

3.     Metropolitan Demographic Comparisons

Please follow the links in the following table to four tables that describe various demographic features of U.S. Urban areas.  Remember that the data are collected for metropolitan area and not city.

Click on the following links for Metro data.

Table #1:

Metropolitan Areas in the U.S. Ranked by Size: 2015

Table #2:

Fastest Growing Metropolitan Areas in the U.S. -- Total Change in Population: 2010-2015

Table #3:

Fastest Growing Metropolitan Areas in the U.S. --  Growth Rate: 2010-2015

Table #4:

Texas Metropolitan Areas Ranked by Size: 2015

II.     Urban Problems in the United States

American urban areas are characterized by social problems which are expanding and intensifying (Eitzen, 2011:145).  Poverty is especially acute.  Urban areas are characterized by white flight.  Immigrants and minorities make up an ever larger proportion of urban Americas population.   Eitzen (2011:146) argues that cities face problems relating to falling real estate values, declining sales tax revenues, shrinking pension funds, and skyrocketing costs.  Forty-one percent of America's poor live in cities.

Environmental Racism

Environmental racism refers to the placement of noxious and toxin-producing industries and landfills near minority communities.

A.     Suburbanization and Urban Sprawl

The most dramatic population shift in the U.S. in the past fifty years has been people moving from urban areas to suburban areas.

Despite the flight to the suburbs, urban life continues to be characterized by:

B.     Urban Job Loss

Corporations relocate to suburbs because of lower wages, lower taxes, and weaker unions (See Eitzen et al, 2011:146-147).

C.     Disinvestment


Banks, savings and loan, and insurance companies have "redlined cities and metro areas.  Redlining is the practice of systematically refusing loans for housing in undesirable neighborhoods (Eitzen et al, 2011:147).

2.     Race

According to Eitzen et al. (2011:148), the most significant factor determining the flow of mortgage credit in U.S. cities is the racial composition of a neighborhood.  Blacks were denied mortgages even when their income level matched that of whites. 

Furthermore, first time mortgages for minorities tended to be of the sub-prime type (30%).  Sub-prime mortgages ensure that the applicant will pay interest rates as much as four points higher (Eitzen et al, 2011:148).

3.     Place 

"Place" can refer to cities, suburban areas, or rural areas.  It can also refer to specific areas within a city or rural area.

Eitzen et al. (2011:149) contend that suburban areas receive more a greater share of loans than do urban dwellers.

Eitzen et al. (2011:149) call attention to a self-fulfilling prophecy related to red lining.  When banks disinvest in neighborhoods, businesses fail.  Homes and property fall into disrepair.  When businesses fail, the services they provide are lost to the community.  The jobs they once provided are also lost to the community.  Without capital neighborhoods decline even more. 

4.     Federal Abandonment

Eitzen et al. (2011:149-150) calls attention to the decline of federal aid provided to cities.  Federal aid has declined ever since the Reagan administration.  Cuts have been made in welfare, medical aid, subsidized housing, and essential services.

States too have reduces aid to cities.

D.     Fiscal Crisis in Cities:  The Disappearing Tax Base

1.     The Cause of Fiscal Crisis

a.     The Decline of Manufacturing

Corporations relocate to the suburbs because of lower taxes, lower wages, and weaker unions.

Because of the decline in manufacturing in urban areas, there were fewer revenues flowing in just when prices were rising. As a result, cities were forced to do some short-term borrowing.

b.     Suburban Flight of the Middle-Class

At the same time that manufacturing jobs were leaving the city, cities were hit hard by the flight of child-rearing middle class folks to the suburbs. They essentially took their taxes paying abilities with them. The folks who were left behind were less affluent and required many public supported services such as health care, education, and housing. The federal government refused to help.

2.     The Solution to Fiscal Crisis: Austerity Measures

Cities responded to the fiscal crisis by:

3.     Transferring the Problem to a Higher Authority

By the 1980s, the fiscal crisis of the cities had ended, apparently, but the solution, in part, involved a transfer of the problem to the state level. As a result, by the 1980s the states were no longer able to support their local governments. This, in effect, meant that the cities would have to suffer a while longer.

4.     The 1990s and the Federal Debt.

The federal government was also incurring debt. By the 1990s, the fed's had to spend as much as 14 percent of the national GNP on servicing the national debt.

For the first time in history the U.S. became a debtor nation. There was no extra money to provide to cities.

5.     Social Service Cutbacks

The distribution of city services often has a spatial component involved in that often the advantaged receive services that the less affluent do not receive.

The fiscal crises aggravated these inequities.

Some scholars dispute the notion that the cities practice fiscal discrimination. They argue instead, that inequalities, in schools for example, occur because of different tax basis. Or they argue that the inequalities were the result of bureaucratic clerical errors.

I DOUBT IT! The inequality in education is well documented. There is also documented evidence that parks are placed in more affluent areas of town.

III.     Understanding Homelessness:
Industrial and Urban Decline

A.     The Most Visible of America's Social Problems.

B.     Common Perspectives for Understanding the Homeless

1.     It's the Fault of the Homeless

This view assumes that individuals are personally responsible for their successes and failures. People are homeless because of their drinking habits, their immorality, their mental instability, their illiteracy, their lack of purpose and initiative.

If this approach is accurate, we should expect to find generally the same proportion of homeless in all cities. We do not!

Homeless people are homeless because they do not have a home and their friends and family cannot or will not help them out.

2.     The Structural Approach

This approach explores the impact of the housing shortage, the impact of changing technology at work, the globalization of the economy, and the dual labor market that dooms certain kinds of workers to economic marginality.

C.     Themes in the Inquiry

D.     The Homeless: How Many?

Estimates vary. It's hard to determine exactly. Estimates range from a low of 350,000 to a high of 3 to 4 million. Three points must be noted:

E.     Blame in the Individual:  Myths of homelessness

1.     Homelessness and Mental Illness

Timmer (1994:13) noted that many, including politicians, consider the homeless as disabled or mentally impaired. He argues that this myth is false and it has damaging consequences.   Many argue that homelessness is related to deinstitutionalization. He notes that about 400,000 mental patients were released, but that more than half of this was accomplished by 1978. Homeless people did not begin crowding homeless shelters until 1983.

  1. Most of the homeless are not mentally impaired. No more than 10 to 15 percent of the homeless have mental problems.
  2. Liebow notes that when one attaches a label like "mentally ill" that it involves an attempt to describe the homeless as deviant. Often the description would receive a more positive judgment if the individual were in a different setting. When the homeless have a "problem" this is immediately identified as the cause of their homelessness
  3. There is a problem of cause and effect. Does mental illness (or drugs, or alcoholism) cause homelessness or does homeless cause mental illness (or drug use, or alcoholism)?
  4. By blaming the victim, there is a tendency to deflect attention away from the structural sources of problems causing homelessness.
  5. If some of the homeless do have other personal disabilities, it means that they may be more apt to lose their homes during economic crisis.

The point is, however, is that there are not enough houses for everyone. If the homeless had no personal defects, the number of homeless would still be roughly the same as it is now.

2.     Alcohol Myths

a.     The Old Homeless Were Alcoholic

Timmer (1994:49) suggests that more than anything else Skid Row is associated with alcoholism. This stereotype is not true. The majority of men on Skid Row were working men and were not alcoholics.

There was some drinking going on, but it happened in the context of social activities like social clubs or through union and political activities (Timmer, 1994:49).

b.     Alcoholism Causes Homelessness

F.     Structural Sources of Rising Urban Homelessness

1.     There is not enough low-cost housing.

There has been an absolute loss in the number of lost-cost rental units. The loss of SROs (single room occupancy) is of critical concern.   are New York, for example, lost about 80 percent of theirs since the 1970s. Some reasons follow. 

The loss of SROs is brought about, in part, by the following three processes:

2.     Rising Costs

Despite low interest rates in the 1980s, the cost of housing rose at all levels. The cost rose faster than inflation during the 1970s and the 1980s.

3.     Rent Squeeze:

In many cities, notably Houston and New York, only a few land lords control most of the housing,

G.     The Poor Pay More for Housing and Other Services and Commodities

H.     Failed Federal Housing Policies:  Urban Renewal

Urban renewal applied federal funds to remove blighted areas. Huge expanses of houses were removed.

The plan was to rebuild that housing, but this was never carried out. Especially under the Reagan administration, there were major rollbacks in programs to build federally financed low-income housing (Timmer, 1994:22).

I.     The Swelling of the At-risk Population

Another way in which housing becomes less affordable is by way of declining wages and income.

  1. The Changing economy:  Capitalism has changed the character of the economy in at least five ways.
    • There has been a shift from manufacturing to services.
    • Capital fight: Capital goes overseas and to the sun belt in the Southern United States.
    • The globalization of the economy means more competition from abroad.
    • Technological breakthroughs result in automation in production and a loss of jobs
    • In 1979 18.3% of workers worked in low wage jobs, by 1992 the figure was 25.7%.
  2. The Temping of America: Temping is source of low wage jobs. Temping refers to the practice of hiring people part-time and on a temporary basis.  By using temps, employers can avoid:
    • high salaries
    • unemployment compensation
    • training
    • issues regarding career advancement
    • They also avoid issues of anti-discrimination
    • health care costs
    • paid vacations
    • pension costs

    Temping increased by 250 percent from 1982 to 1988.

  3. Changing family structure
    • The Increase in Divorce: There was a sharp rise in the mid-1960s reaching a peak in 1981. There has been a slow decline since then.
    • Male Economic Marginality: This is especially a problem for the poor and especially a problem for poor black families living in the inner city.
  4. Changing Government Policies:  As more and more people are approaching poverty, the government (State and Federal) has "jerked away the safety net" (Timmer, 1994:29).

J.     The Economic Marginality of Young Families:  The Near Homeless and a Precipitating Event

Even in the midst of the obviously desperate social problem of homelessness, there is an even larger population of at risk individuals who are almost never discussed. These are the near homeless. These are people on the edge of homelessness who are currently living doubled up or tripled up with others.

Generally, housing is considered affordable if it does not exceed 25 percent of household income. In 1985, nearly one of four renters paid more than half of their income on housing.

A precipitating event refers to a personal or family catastrophe. Timmer (1994:70-73) introduces us to a fellow named Dave who becomes injured on the job which doesn't have union protection. Precipitating events could include illness or a disabling condition.


Eitzen, D. Stanley and Maxine Baca-Zinn

2000  Social Problems. (8th Ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

2003  Social Problems. (9th Ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Gottdiener, Mark

1994 The New Urban Sociology. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Kendall, Diana

1998 Social Problems in a Diverse Society. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Liebow, Elliott

1967 Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Street Corner Men. Boston: Little Brown & Company.

Timmer, Doug A. and D. Stanley Eitzen, and Kathryn D. Talley

1994 Paths to Homelessness: Extreme Poverty and the Urban Housing Crisis. Bolder, CO.: Westview Press,

Weeks, John R

1996 Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues. (6th Ed.) Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.