The Issue: The New Geography of Poverty and Immigration, Spatial Mismatch and Obstacles to Accessing Immigrant Services
Poverty, immigration and service provision are dynamic spatial phenomena. Historically, immigration and poverty were characteristics of big cities. But now we are witnessing a new geography of poverty and immigration in the United States. Suburbs have experienced a dramatic increase in low-income immigrant populations in recent years. We see this trend in the Bay Area, where many immigrants are no longer settling in big cities like San Francisco, as they did historically. Instead, they are moving directly to suburbs, such as Fremont and Mountain View.
These rapidly changing immigration patterns, however, have not been followed by a parallel shift in the location of non-profit and community-based organizations that serve low-income and immigrant populations. As a result, there is a spatial mismatch between where immigrants live and where services are provided. Since the 1960s, American social policy has shifted to a model of public-private partnerships where government funding finances local nonprofit organizations to provide services to the disadvantaged. As nonprofits are increasingly taking on the service-provider role, scholars argue that their focus on local issues make these organizations uniquely situated to understand and advocate for the vulnerable populations they serve. Without nonprofits located in close proximity to growing immigrant populations, families risk greater food insecurity, difficult access to health care or legal services, and fewer opportunities for civic engagement. These problems are compounded by inadequate government funding of immigrant-serving nonprofits. When funding is not allocated according to the proportion of poor immigrants in a city, gaps in services arise, forcing families to travel further to access services. Thus, the mismatch between funding and location of service providers and local demographics has direct consequences for the health and well-being of immigrants.
Besides a spatial mismatch between the demand for and supply of immigrant services, immigrants also face a variety of other obstacles when accessing services. Linguistic, financial, legal, and logistical barriers all prevent immigrants from accessing the services they need. Moreover, there is no comprehensive database with information on whether organizations provide language support, provide low-cost or free services, have any restrictions in serving specific groups of immigrants, and whether organizations are open during the weekend or evening hours to improve access to these services for immigrants who often have multiple jobs.
The Solution: A Comprehensive Service Database and Interactive Web Map
We tackle these issues by creating the first comprehensive immigrant services database in the Bay Area. This database provides an overview of legal and health services in the 9-county Bay Area and includes crucial information on available language support, financial support, service restrictions, etc. Based on this database, we create an interactive web map which tackles two problems. First, public officials’ lack of knowledge of local demographics and immigrants’ social needs, especially those working in smaller municipalities with limited staff or research-based planning departments. Second, the lack of information about local resources among immigrant populations.
The interactive web map enables users to visualize the mismatch and provides immigrants, policy makers and community advocates with information on health and legal resources that serve immigrants in the Bay Area. Immigrants can tailor their search for health and legal aid clinics that fit their needs by filtering for specific services and access support features (such as languages served, free and sliding scale payment systems, walk-in appointments etc.). Policy makers can use this tool to identify gaps in services and better inform fund allocation. This tool also allows for knowledge transfer of research to the general public, increasing awareness about spatial inequality and potentially ameliorating it by spurring civic engagement and public investment in community-based organizations.
Ultimately, our research aims to incite change by facilitating access to existing health and legal services through the interactive web map, educating policy-makers about the needs of underserved immigrant communities, and supporting immigrants in building new civic organizations in their communities.
Read more about this project in the BIMI Policy Brief "Mapping Spatial Inequality - The New Geography of Poverty and Immigration".
Acknowledgement: Data Collection for this tool was supported in part by the National Science Foundation under grant #2017044.