The City of Boston and the State of Poverty


By many accounts, the City of Boston is wealthy and successful. From world-renowned academic institutions to financial giants to healthcare and technology leaders, Boston is home to many prosperous institutions and individuals. Yet, there are also many in Boston who live in the shadows of success. In fact, nearly one quarter of Boston currently lives in poverty, and does not have access to all the growth it has to offer.

The State of Boston Poverty: The Great Divide

Surprisingly, Boston is the 10th poorest city in the nation, joining a “bottom 10” that includes Baltimore, Philadelphia, Memphis and Detroit. In addition, The City of Boston is one of the most unequal when it comes to the distribution of wealth. In 2015, Boston ranked as the third most unequal city.

Dan O’Brien is the assistant professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. When it comes to the City of Boston and the state of poverty, he describes a tale of two cities with vast wealth disparities.

According to O’Brien, there is more than one Boston; the Boston that is lived in and experienced by those living in poverty is very different from the city’s current prosperous image. And these economic divisions are in plain sight, he said. “The areas of Boston are racially distinctive and geographically stratified.” In other words, not every Bostonian is experiencing growth that is helpful.

The People Who Are Left Behind

There is no doubt that greater Boston is an economic growth phase. The Mayor’s office of Economic Development reports major success for the City of Boston: increased employment, a flood of venture capital and a construction boom. So why does Boston still experience a significant poverty rate?

Despite the economic gains Boston has experienced in neighborhoods like the burgeoning Seaport, which is teeming with tech startups, high-value retail space and luxury condos­ – the benefits of a growing Boston are by no means present in every neighborhood.

“The most important thing to understand about poverty in Boston is how far it is from the top to the bottom,” O’Brien says. “There is a real divide there. There is a clear inequity.”

What Could Be the City of Boston’s Biggest Challenge to Overcoming Poverty?

For Boston, O’Brien feels the real challenge of improving the state of poverty is one of access, opportunity and mobility. It can be difficult for a family on the bottom of the economic divide to be able to climb the ladder, even a bit.

Back to mobility: When a great program is available, it still may not be accessible to most of those who need it. “I know Boston Public Schools is really struggling with this with their school assignment system,” O’Brien says. “They are really trying to enable equal access to education. But, it comes with an interesting question. If I tell you that you can attend a high-quality school, but it is miles away, are you going to be able to get there?”

O’Brien acknowledges there are many initiatives Boston has championed to combat economic stratification. “It’s hard to build institutions that will bring those who are in poverty into contact with the resources and people that can help them succeed.” When creating a program, time should be spent considering whether the initiative is meeting communities in their own space and supporting them in the way they can participate.

Giving Value in Local Boston Communities

Institutions and programs designed to address poverty – whether providing food or assisting with shelter– are worthy and deserve our time and support. But even more than that, we need programs that provide access to institutions and resources that allow families to pull themselves out of poverty.

At Operation Warm, we are committed and able provide both immediate need for assistance with the long-term need for opportunity, and do it right in the schools and communities that need it most.

A brand new winter coat to a child in need not only provides warmth and the ability to regularly attend school during the long Boston winter, but also provides confidence and self-esteem. Those two traits, confidence and self-esteem, are linked to economic success in scholarly studies going back as far as 1997.

We not only want to provide coats to children in low-income communities, but also give them a chance to change their lives.

Operation Warm is continuing to broaden our reach across the US. To support this expansion, we are building our Volunteer Brigade city-by-city, including Boston, and we are inviting volunteers to join us. Help give warmth, confidence and hope to children living in need.

Photo by Mohit Singh on Unsplash


Learn how you can volunteer to help children in your community receive a gift of warmth, confidence and hope!

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