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You Are Here: Home > Essay Topics > Argumentative Essays and Research Papers > Controversial Research Paper Topics  > Essay on Slums

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Essay on Slums

Slums are squalid sections of a city or town, areas in which most inhabitants are in or near poverty, stores and residences are cheap and dilapidated, and streets are narrow and blighted. Slums have been created in various locations; where they arise depends upon political and economic conditions in a community. In early industrial cities of England and the United States, slums housed the lowest paid workers not far from the center of the city, close to factories gates. To this day, slums in English and U.S. cities are typically located in these areas, though often the factories have closed down. In other cities, where central areas retained high land and rent value, large public housing projects were built on the outskirts and slums developed and still exist on peripheral areas (e.g., Paris). Perhaps the world's largest slum (Dharavi) is on the northern edge of the city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay). In Mexico City and other cities of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, slums exist both near the heart of the city and on the outskirts. The latter are impoverished shanty settlements created and inhabited by squatters, many of whom are relatively recent migrants.


Slums are usually the most stigmatized parts of a city or town (other areas carrying high social stigma, such as skid rows, red-light districts, and docks, often are located near slum neighborhoods). In the mind of the general public, the disrepute and stigma of the slum area washes onto the people who frequent or inhabit it. When most people think of a slum they think of residents who deviate from the morals, norms, and standards of public decency held up by the wider conventional community (i.e., people involved in serious crime, drug and alcohol abuse, juvenile delinquency, gang violence). People also frequently invoke the concept of "social disorganization" to describe the slum; in other words, they see it as an area lacking the sociocultural institutions, order, coherence, and predictability found in more economically stable environments.

Sociologists and anthropologists, however, paint a more nuanced picture of slum life. Research shows that a broad range of individuals and households live in slums, from the "routine-seekers" and "decent" residents, who abide by the norms and values of the larger society, to the "action-seekers" and "street" folk, who are more likely to flout or reject those standards (Gans 1962; Anderson 1999). Additionally, research on slums often highlights the ways in which ongoing life is organized rather than disorganized. Communication channels, interpersonal obligations, status symbols, local institutions, and public etiquette usually do exist in a slum, although these may be quite different from those of middle-class neighborhoods in a city or suburb. As the literature on local community organizing in slum areas shows, outsiders often are surprised at how much potential or actual organization exists (e.g., in the form of leadership and engagement in local social networks) even in allegedly disorganized poor neighborhoods. Having said this, one must not romanticize slums as bastions of salt-of-the-earth authenticity; all too often life in them is short and brutal, with miserable living conditions and wasted human potential.

It is tempting to think that slums are an urban anomaly produced only when something goes terribly wrong in a city. However, the high prevalence of slums and the ease with which they grow suggests that their causes lie in conventional and institutionalized routines of business as usual. Urban space is stratified as the most powerful people or those with the greatest wealth occupy the most desirable parcels of land. In cities where land and housing are commodities, the most desirable land is expensive, and the worst locations (e.g., noisy, wet, polluted) are cheap. Early slums developed when people built crowded substandard housing on the cheapest land and rented it to poor households with earnings too low to allow them to live in better but more costly areas. Beyond that simple process, the creation of slums involves more subtle causes of concentrated poverty and property decline.

By definition, cities and towns that have in their neighborhoods a mixture of housing types and the full price range in housing, from cheapest to most expensive, are places that do not have highly concentrated poverty, since the poor can live dispersed in fairly close proximity to the nonpoor. Also by definition, places where only the affluent reside are places that have no concentrated poverty in them; although, by excluding the poor, such places may contribute to the concentration of poverty in other locales. For concentrated poverty to occur, the non-poor must have the desire and ability to distance themselves from the poor. This desire arises from several sources. One is the search for status (prestige and respectability); the poor are often perceived as uncouth, ignorant, or disreputable, and the nonpoor gain status by disassociating themselves from the poor. This is especially true if, as is often the case, the poor belong to a stigmatized racial or ethnic group. One's address becomes a prestigious status symbol if one lives in an area reserved for the "right" kinds of people. Such class consciousness coupled with aversive racism creates a related motive for concentrated poverty: fear of declining property value and/or the desire for property value appreciation. When the poor and/or racial-ethnic minorities are seen as harmful threats to community health and stability (e.g., lowering the quality of schools, raising the crime rate, spreading disease, not keeping up their yards or homes), then attempts to exclude them are made, which if successful leaves them in areas of highly concentrated poverty. On the other hand, if efforts to exclude the poor are unsuccessful and some do enter a neighborhood, then under certain conditions, a self-fulfilling vicious circle of out-movement and avoidance of the area by the affluent coupled with declining property values occurs, as affluent people refuse to pay "top dollar" for housing in or close to areas in which "the undesirables" live and instead move to other more secure, better locations.


Historically, the institutionalized mechanisms the affluent have utilized to distance themselves from the poor, thereby relegating those with low incomes to impoverished areas, are restrictive covenants, zoning ordinances, building codes, and political control over the location of public housing projects. With these devices (which control the types and size of housing units that are built, the size of the lots homes are built on, and whether or not apartments are allowed to be built) those in control create sections of cities or whole towns that are simply too expensive for poor people to live in. Beyond these forms of class exclusion, African Americans have faced racial exclusion (e.g., denial of mortgage loans for homes in suburban areas). This combination of restrictions forced most middle- and working-class black households to live near or in predominantly poor black areas, thereby minimizing their ability to accumulate wealth through appreciating values of their homes. Since 1980, as successful blacks became able to obtain better housing outside old black city neighborhoods, the out-movement of the middle-and working-class--in combination with loss of jobs due to deindustrialization, plus minimal investment in poor urban areas by government and the private sector--left many areas devastated with extraordinarily high rates of poverty. In rare instances, such as in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, some state courts have ruled that suburban towns' reliance on exclusionary land use control to keep the poor out of their towns and penned up in high poverty sections of cities, like Camden or Newark, is illegal. In the 1990s, programs aimed at increasing home ownership among blacks and replacing public housing projects with mixed income developments have reduced the extent of concentrated urban poverty.


A slum is more than an area of concentrated poverty; it is an area of physical and social deterioration. Several mechanisms cause this deterioration. One is "red-lining" by financial and insurance institutions. Older areas with less affluent residents are perceived as not profitable enough for home or business loans and insurance coverage, which prevents the repair and improvement of dwellings and buildings. Inability to obtain insurance coverage makes it difficult or unwise for businesses or home owners to remain in red-lined neighborhoods. Absentee landlords and speculators also play a role if they are unwilling or unable to properly maintain properties and instead extract from their buildings maximum rent while investing the minimum in upkeep, until they become dilapidated or uninhabitable. Boarded up or semi-abandoned buildings get used by transients or for drug use and become the objects of arson (for insurance money or "kicks"), and a "broken windows" phenomena may emerge as residents or outsiders commit further damage and criminal acts because they see nothing to restrain destructive impulses (Wilson and Kelling 1982). Outsiders dump garbage in the neighborhood, crime increases, and most people who seek to better themselves leave the area if they are able.



Anderson, Elijah. 1999. Code of the Streets. New York: W. W. Norton.

Eckstein, Susan. 1990. Urbanization Revisited: Inner-City Slum of Hope and Squatter Settlement of Despair. World Development 18: 165-181.

Gans, Herbert J. 1962. The Urban Villagers. New York: The Free Press.

Medoff, Peter, and Holly Sklar. 1994. Streets of Hope: The Fall and Rise of an Urban Neighborhood. Boston: South End Press.

Philpott, Thomas Lee. 1978. The Slum and the Ghetto. New York: Oxford University Press.

Suttles, Gerald D. 1968. The Social Order of the Slum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wilson, James Q., and George L. Kelling. 1982. The Police and Neighborhood Safety: Broken Windows. Atlantic Monthly 127 (March): 29-38.

Wilson, William J. 1996. When Work Disappears. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Charles Jaret

Source: International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2nd edition

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