The terms ghetto and slum are often used interchangeably, but have very different origins stories. A location can be a slum or ghetto, or both; as the case may be, but terms slum and ghetto often conjure up the image of poverty, run down buildings, gangs, and underprivileged, ethnic minorities.
Interestingly, and sadly, the term ghetto stems from the Italian word “gheto or ghet” meaning “slag or waste” and referred to the neighbourhood in Venice where Jewish minorities were confined to live. The term’s use was expanded to include other cities in Europe where Jewish people were confined. Somewhere along the way, the term Ghetto began and continues to refer to neighbourhoods where ethnic minorities reside. Although most, but not all ghettos are poverty stricken, most people associate the word with poor, high crime neighbourhoods. The strictest, original meaning of the word ghetto refers to a concentrated neighbourhood of Jewish people, but now, it is commonly used to denote any neighbourhood of ethnic minorities. Most, but not all ghettos attract people who are there for financial reasons, not being able to afford to live in more affluent areas.
Many, but not all ghettos are slums. A slum is a neighbourhood of run down houses, apartment blocks, streets, abandoned buildings and general squalor. Often crime is rampant, sanitation is poor and basic upkeep of essential services is poor. Many new immigrants fleeing bad situations in their home countries – the Potato Famine in Ireland, newly freed black slaves from the Southern US, German and Italian immigrants made their way to the Northeastern US and settled in these slums, unable to afford anything better; likely the reason why the term ghetto and slum are incorrectly used interchangeably.
So, in summary, a ghetto refers to the ethnic and racial characteristics of people in a neighbourhood, while the term slum refers to the physical characteristics of the neighbourhood.