Essays on People, Place & Purpose

Investing in What Works for America's Communities

Our History with Concentrated Poverty

by Peter Edelman

American poverty has many faces. The poor are elderly and young, families and single individuals, men and women, with and without disabilities. They are of all races and ethnicities. They work in restaurants, on farms, in packinghouses, in day-labor settings, and at many more workplaces that do not pay enough to get them out of poverty. Their work is often part-time, intermittent, or largely nonexistent. They live in inner cities, suburbs, and rural areas that range from Appalachia to the Mississippi delta and from the colonias of South Texas to the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota.

We declared a “war” on poverty almost half a century ago, and we have taken major steps forward, but poverty is still with us. Some have even said we fought a war on poverty and poverty won. That’s quite wrong. Considering the low-wage economy of the past 40 years, we’ve actually done pretty well. Things would be much worse if we had not acted. We have far too much poverty still, but our policy achievements now keep some 40 million people from becoming poor, according to analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Poverty did not win. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the Child Tax Credit, public housing, housing vouchers, and Pell grants have made a huge difference. The civil rights laws of the 1960s have played a significant role as well.

Nonetheless, we have a long way to go, and that is especially the case with concentrated poverty, which is of course one of the subjects of this book.

Most people who experience poverty have a short stint of it. We need to do much better at cushioning their fall and helping them get back on their feet, but, as troubling as poverty of any duration is, the far more vexing problem is that of those who are persistently poor and whose children tend to be poor as well. Persistent and intergenerational poverty sorts itself by race and gender, too, but it is particularly a feature of concentrated poverty, both urban and rural.

We have had far less success in attacking the hard core of poverty that persists from year to year and generation to generation and is often associated with where people live, especially when a disproportionate number of residents of a neighborhood, town, or rural area are poor.

Why have we had less success? Both experience and research tell us that when too many people in a place are poor, their situation produces “concentration effects.” All of us have our individual strengths and weaknesses, and almost all of us are also part of some kind of community. The community of which we are a part is both influenced by and influences our individual strengths and weaknesses. The economic health of a community has a reverberative effect on its social capital that in turn has a multiplier effect on numerous behaviors and outcomes for people who live there. Once the concentration of poverty takes hold, we have seen that it is tough to root out.

My focus here is urban concentrated poverty and the history of efforts to ameliorate it. Many Americans see urban concentrated poverty, or to be more precise, African American urban concentrated poverty, as the face of American poverty generally. That is untrue in two respects. People who live in places of concentrated poverty are a minority of the poor, and people of color are not the only residents of such places. White Appalachia is a longstanding example of persistent poverty with devastating effects that carry on from generation to generation. And with the economic decline of predominantly white small towns around the country, we see many places where the social fabric is wearing thin, a phenomenon appearing more frequently as the current recession drags on. And, sad to say, Indian reservations are another pertinent example.

Nevertheless, African Americans make up a disproportionate number of the people who live in such circumstances, constituting about half of the inner-city poor. It is important to understand why this is, as well as to be aware of the history of efforts to confront it. The answer to why this especially difficult set of issues came to pass in the first place and why it is so hard to root out involves a complexly intertwined set of forces and factors: racism, economic trends, demographic changes, politics, and policy failures.

I think it is fair to say that inner-city poverty, like poverty generally in post–World War II America, was on few people’s radar screens before the 1960s. Urban “ghettos” began to make their way into public consciousness with the civil rights movement in the early part of the decade and forced their way onto national television with the civil unrest of the mid-decade. The police dogs in Alabama and the murders in Mississippi had shocked the nation into positive action to end state-mandated segregation, but the violence and burnings in South Central Los Angeles and elsewhere shortly thereafter evoked a more negative response to the widespread injustices in the North and West.

The history of significant inner-city segregation and poverty goes back to the Great Migration. Beginning with World War I and continuing for a half century and beyond, black Americans moved northward and westward by the millions from the South. Comparatively speaking, the cities of the North and West constituted liberation from sharecropping and backbreaking work in the fields for bare subsistence wages, and from a constant danger of violent reprisal for invented transgressions against whites. That the migrants were required to live in segregated neighborhoods when they moved North and West was degrading but in fact an improvement over what they had left behind.

The generation that migrated saw their new life as a step forward on the whole and accommodated themselves to the (hardly insubstantial) barriers they encountered. Their children saw things very differently, eventuating in the violence that ripped away the veneer of normalcy.

The civil unrest of the 1960s changed everything. Until then, racially segregated inner-city neighborhoods were economically integrated and, at least in the later telling, had a strong sense of community. With expectations raised by the legal fruits of civil rights activism, younger residents—frustrated by the failure of the movement to make a difference for them—exploded in anger. The proximate cause was police misconduct. The real point, though, was palpable discrimination in the world of work, exacerbated by inferior educational opportunities and daily reminders of de facto second-class citizenship. To a new generation coming of age, going along to get along was no longer acceptable.

Visionaries like Ted Watkins in Los Angeles and Arthur Brazier in Chicago were already at work on inner-city organizing and community economic development when the cities began to burn, as were farsighted people like Dick Boone at the Ford Foundation and Mike Sviridoff in New Haven. Robert Kennedy, for whom I worked, found himself challenged by leaders in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn to help them revitalize the neighborhood, and started a process that led to the founding of what became the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation.

Importantly, Kennedy and his Senate colleague Jacob Javits successfully attached an amendment to the legislation reauthorizing the War on Poverty that made federal funding available for multidimensional inner-city revitalization initiatives. Via this funding and significant financial support made available by the Ford Foundation, community development corporations (CDCs) sprouted in many communities, as did the community action agencies that were at the heart of the War on Poverty. Evenwith the violence and the burning, there was a sense of purpose and movement and a new activism that transformed politics in city after city.

Kennedy and others who came after him—notably, George Romney as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Nixon administration—had a dual vision of policies relating to place. Improving life chances for inner-city residents was one objective, but it was nested in a framework of metropolitan desegregation that would promote genuine choice for people of color to live and work outside the inner city. Romney’s insistence about this ultimately wore out his welcome with the Nixon administration.

Kennedy’s interest in the question of place began with three speeches that he delivered in January 1966. The speeches made two major points. The first was a call for metropolitan residential desegregation that would include people of all income levels. The second was his idea for an inner-city revitalization initiative, which turned out to be the cornerstone for what became the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation.

Kennedy and Romney notwithstanding, the part of the vision that called for metropolitan desegregation regardless of income disappeared from the table. Inner-city strategies, which in Kennedy’s view would have included both revitalization in the inner-city areas themselves and the wherewithal for people to move out if they wanted to, focused solely on revitalizing the neighborhoods themselves.

So the story after 1968 was not what some of us had envisioned. Of course history often surprises us. Robert Kennedy was murdered, and Richard Nixon was elected. But this is just the beginning of the story.

To start with, the premises on which neighborhood revitalization efforts operated were at best too narrow. The fundamental operational idea was that the neighborhood could be lifted up within its four corners—that enough new jobs could be created inside of or just adjacent to the neighborhood to turn things around. Improved housing, neighborhood amenities, and community safety were also important aims, but they, too, focused within the neighborhood. And the all-important economic strategy—to attract enough manufacturing plants and small businesses to close the employment gap—was deeply flawed. For the most part, CDCs did not pursue strategies of helping people find jobs in the regional economy, let alone pursue the vital transit facilities necessary for people to get to those jobs once found. In retrospect, it is obvious that the only way to maximize employment was to pursue jobs wherever they were available. But that was not the strategy chosen.

To some extent this was an effort to make a virtue out of a necessity. If metropolitan housing desegregation and even access to jobs were unavailable to low-income inner-city residents, the only avenue for change was to transform the inner city. But the mistake also had an ideological driver. CDCs came into being during the era of black power, and many of their leaders’ political views matured at that time. Their vision was one of political power grounded in economic strength. If new jobs could be situated in the immediate area, the economic success for the residents would become the building block for political power. And there was a third point, in my view. I have always thought as well that some of the white establishment’s support for CDCs was driven by its comfort with a strategy of self-segregation.

If the premises were flawed, the demographic, economic, and political trends were toxic. With large sections of inner cities resembling bombed-out European cities after World War II, many residents of inner-city neighborhoods wanted to get out if they possibly could. The striking expansion of the black middle class and the enactment of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 gave some people the economic and legal basis for doing so. Not everyone who had the economic capacity to leave did so, but the exodus was big enough to destabilize the preexisting economic and community mix, and the descent into concentrated poverty was underway. Efforts at inner-city neighborhood development, already facing tough odds, became even more challenging. Whether greater mobility for lower-income people in inner cities to disperse would have helped or made matters worse is of course impossible to say. The larger point is that economic trends, racial attitudes, and political factors converged in the 1970s and 1980s to push things in the wrong direction.

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