Essays on People, Place & Purpose

Investing in What Works for America's Communities

If community development works, why is poverty at a record level?

by Ellen Seidman

The Washington, D.C., launch of Investing in What Works for America’s Communities served as a starting point for what we hope will become robust conversations around the ideas raised by the book’s authors on this blog. Leaving that meeting, we committed to getting these dialogues started by addressing some of the event’s unanswered audience questions. In the first of such posts, we are responding to:

“If community development works, why is poverty at a record level? Is this evidence of public sector failure and could the private sector do it better?”

A great question. As Peter Edelman points out, a host of policies, not just community development (think Earned Income Tax Credit) have made poverty less pervasive than it would otherwise have been, although it is obviously still much too high. One of the major points of the book as a whole is that while there are certainly examples of community development working in various times and at various places, we can do better by broadening our frame of reference, integrating goals and strategies, and working more collaboratively toward goals that are agreed upon up front and can be measured.

Just this week in Politico, former White House Policy Council Directors Melody Barnes and John Bridgeland point to successful bipartisan efforts to improve education and job training and reduce food insecurity and call on public-sector leaders to invest in proven solutions: “Our economy and security — security for the country and for families — require avoiding fiscal brinkmanship, a well-educated workforce and evidence-based solutions to our nation’s toughest problems. To get there from here, our leaders should reposition government to invest in what works — borrowing the best ideas being negotiated and implemented around the country and ensuring that opportunity extends to all families for decades to come.”

As both Clara Miller and Angela Glover Blackwell remind us in the book, effectively fighting poverty needs to start from the recognition that the economy as a whole is no longer producing a sufficient number of sustaining jobs; that poverty is no longer on the fringes, but is baked into the system. The private sector has a significant responsibility for creating that situation, in part in the manner in which it has influenced public policy and in part because of larger forces like technological change and globalization; and it must be a participant in moving us out of it. Taking more responsibility for educating the workforce it needs would be a good place to start.


  1. James Monroe Holland Jr. Reply

    If the Community Development Corporations implement the requirements of section 3,employment and contracting would increase ten fold….and would lower the poverty level all over the county in days.

  2. James R. (J.R.) Sloan Reply

    CDBG: Grants in our community were managed at the neighborhood level, resulting in an annual set-aside for infrastructure that eventually accumulated into a large enough fund ($300,000) to act as seed money for additional improvements via grants. Our recent (2010) $14MM business district revitalization was a direct result of this strategy. Now the CDBG program requires that funds be used in the year they’re committed to a purpose, eliminating a community’s own ability to make this kind of effort. Preposterous.

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About The Project

Investing in What Works for America’s Communities is a joint project of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and the Low Income Investment Fund.

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The views expressed in this book and on this website do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the Federal Reserve System, or the Low Income Investment Fund.

Tell Us What Works

The ideas in Investing in What Works for America’s Communities are just a start. We want to hear about what’s working in your community. Tell us about innovative ideas for addressing poverty and share examples of people and places that inspire you. We want to share these ideas and spark conversation about how to create opportunity and prosperity for all Americans. Tell Us What Works

Funding for this project was generously provided to the Low Income Investment Fund by the Citi Foundation.