Scientists have found that the rich get even richer and the poor get even poorer, the larger cities become.
The world is fast urbanizing, and cities are becoming hubs of economic opportunity for many of the world’s poorest residents who migrate to urban areas in search of new livelihoods and other opportunities.
Yet even as cities do provide more opportunities, that does not mean that economically disadvantaged people living there will be better off. This is according to a team of researchers who has found that income and other inequalities can become stark in large urban areas.
The scientists examined data from municipal areas across the United States and found, as they explain in a paper published by the Royal Society, that when cities grow in size the top 10% of income earners gain an increasingly large portion of the wealth, leaving other residents with much less.
At the same time, as cities grow, so do the costs of living, including housing and necessities like food.
“For the lower decile, there is no proportional increase in wealth. So the city is not increasing economic benefit, but it’s not decreasing it either,” explains Chris Kempes, a professor at the Santa Fe Institute. “However, since costs do go up, the experience of the poorest individuals gets worse.”
This insight is important as more than half the world’s current 7.7 billion people already live in urban areas and many more will be joining their ranks. In the coming decade alone, the number of megacities of 10 million residents or more will quadruple, scientists predict.
And the larger the cities, the more pronounced inequalities will become because inequality is primarily an urban phenomenon, “arising from underlying social dynamics that desperately need to be addressed,” argues Geoffrey West, a British scientist who is a leading authority on scientific models of cities.
“[A]s the city grows, there’s no advantage to people in the bottom 10-20th percentiles. As you go down the income deciles, the value added for city-dwellers [gets] less and less in a systematic way,” West says.
“So much so that in the bottom decile you get nothing at all. There’s even evidence that you’re losing quality of life,” he adds. “Here we found that the rich are getting even richer than we thought and the poor are getting even poorer than we thought.”
In other research scientists have found that the quality of life for economically disadvantaged residents in cities is generally poor. Air and water pollution, which is endemic in most larger cities, also inordinately affects poorer residents living in low-cost housing.
As a result of their urban environments, the health of these city dwellers often suffers.
“Low-income and/or ethnic minority communities — already burdened with greater rates of disease, limited access to health care, and other health disparities — are also the populations living with the worst-built environment conditions,” explains the National Institute of Health in the US.
“[V]arious aspects of the built environment can have profound, directly measurable effects on both physical and mental health outcomes, particularly adding to the burden of illness among ethnic minority populations and low-income communities,” the institute notes.
“Lack of sidewalks, bike paths, and recreational areas in some communities discourages physical activity and contributes to obesity; in those low-income areas that do have such amenities, the threat of crime keeps many people inside. Income segregation — the practice of housing the poor in discrete areas of a city — has also been linked with obesity and adverse mental health outcomes,” it elucidates.
This is especially the case in developing nations where the poorest of the poor live in abject poverty. They are condemned to a life of penury in badly polluted and overcrowded urban environments that are unfit for human habitation.