Essays on People, Place & Purpose

Investing in What Works for America's Communities

Our History with Concentrated Poverty

by Peter Edelman

Trends in the larger economy exacerbated the process. The industrial jobs that had brought impressive gains to black men along with others began disappearing in large numbers—to other parts of the country, to other parts of the world, and to technological change. The income of the lower half of earners of all races declined, and income in inner cities dropped even more.

The war on crime and the war on drugs began—in my view, in large measure as a conservative strategy to help attract white votes. The effect was devastating for inner cities. Black men, already hit hardest by the economic changes, ended up behind bars in large numbers, with major negative effects on family formation. The percentage of births to unmarried women, which was growing all over the world and among all races and ethnicities, grew disproportionately among African American women. With available jobs increasingly so low wage that a one-worker family with children could not make enough to escape poverty, unmarried women in inner cities were hit the hardest. And welfare benefits, never an avenue out of poverty, lost more ground to inflation every year. In the 1980s crack cocaine made everything even worse.

Not surprisingly, as all of this was going on, comprehensive inner-city neighborhood initiatives lost momentum. Federal and foundation funding decreased, and the problems they were trying to attack were worsening day by day and year by year.

With so many forces influencing things, it’s difficult to isolate the significance of any one variable. What we do know is that urban concentrated poverty rose dramatically from 1970 to 1990, essentially doubling over the two decades. CDCs and other community economic development initiatives expanded over that period and made a tangible difference in limited ways. But the bigger picture overshadowed these achievements. Inner cities were caught in a pincers. On the one side was a national economy that was deteriorating for all lower-income people and disproportionately for people of color. On the other side were public policies that, if anything, made matters even worse. The 1990s saw a significant improvement, largely because of the hot economy of the last half of the decade, but things slipped badly between 2000 and 2010.

Can we do better? I think so. Despite the slippage in recent years, I think we know more now about what we should do if we can command the necessary resources and political support.

Most important, we need to clarify the premises of our policies. I believe the operative word is “choice,” as Robert Kennedy said in 1966. Everything we do should empower the choice of people to live where they want to live. They should have the economic wherewithal, supported by strong enforcement of antidiscrimination laws and housing vouchers as necessary, to make a real choice of where to live in any metropolitan area. At the same time, they should have a realistic possibility of staying where they live in the inner city, but in a revitalized inner-city community that offers decent housing; good early childhood programs; high-quality schools; safe streets, parks, and playgrounds; and healthy food sold at nationally advertised prices. This would be new. I do not believe there has ever been a time when we could say with any honesty that we really offered a genuine choice for people to be able to move out or stay in their current neighborhood, with both options being to live in healthy communities.

What are the elements of such a policy?

First, every element of good antipoverty policy that is applicable to people everywhere is relevant to people who live in concentrated poverty. Jobs that pay enough to live on, based as much as possible on wages and supplemented as needed by policies like the EITC, will make it easier for people to move if that is their choice and will collectively raise the quality of life in the neighborhood for those who stay. The same is true for public benefits such as health care, child care, housing, and others.

Second, jobs in the regional economy should be a real policy instead of a bumper sticker. The legacy of the myopia of the early neighborhood revitalization enthusiasts persists despite the lip service of too many who should be doing more. Job training and placement strategies should be simultaneously aggressive in partnering with employers and recruiting inner-city residents for jobs. Transit access is a crucial component of a more robust policy that needs to be pursued at every level of government. Jobs in the regional economy are a key building block in strategies to help people take steps toward moving out and to help them stay in place if that is what they prefer.

Third, housing strategies to facilitate mobility must be pursued in new and improved form. The experience of HOPE VI—a program begun in 1992 at the end of the first Bush administration to demolish rundown public housing and replace it with mixed-income housing—offers lessons in how to avoid moving people to unfamiliar neighborhoods without adequate support services. As operated over the past two decades, it includes excellent examples of creating new mixed-income neighborhoods, but also resulted in a net loss of housing stock for low-income people. The Obama administration reconceptualized the program in the form of Choice Neighborhoods but was unable to obtain funding to move forward on an adequate scale. Fully implemented, it would promote choice for those who wish to move out, but care must be taken to couple it with strategies to vindicate the choices of those who wish to stay where they are.

Fourth, education must become a central strategy for transforming inner-city neighborhoods into healthy communities. One of the most serious failings of neighborhood revitalization strategies until quite recently has been their lack of attention to the schools attended by the children of the area, including emphasis in the all-important area of early childhood development. Although not the first effort in regard to education, the work of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) has brought the issue to national prominence and resulted in President Obama’s Promise Neighborhoods program.

HCZ teaches a number of important lessons, in addition to the basic fact that quality schools are a key to opportunity for children in low-income neighborhoods. One lesson is that the 1960s mythology that one meta-initiative can transform a neighborhood is just that—a myth—and that multiple actors doing multiple tasks in a collaboratively strategic way is crucial. The second is that charter schools make projects like HCZ substantially more viable. It is not impossible to mount an effort like HCZ in collaboration with a traditional public school or schools—such examples exist in a number of cities—but charters have a flexibility that local schools, controlled as they are from “downtown,” are unlikely to have. And the third lesson is that school reform cannot succeed to the maximum degree possible if it occurs in a vacuum. Good schools will make a difference and will be the reason why some children will make it when they otherwise would not have done so, but they will make a much greater difference if they are part of a broader antipoverty strategy.

This point is worthy of extra emphasis. There is a bogus debate going on that pits school reform against antipoverty advocates. School reformers, wanting to squelch teachers and others who have said over the years that they cannot teach children who come to school with multiple problems that stem from poverty, say (correctly) that there are no valid excuses for failing to teach low-income children. They point (as they could not until quite recently) to multiple examples of schools that excel in teaching low-income children. But to the extent they say or imply that reducing poverty now is somehow less important than school reform, they overstate their point. Antipoverty advocates, for their part, in some instances downplay the independent efficacy of school reform.

The real answer, quite obviously, is that both school reform and serious antipoverty policies are vital. Better schools in inner cities, both charters and traditional public schools, are crucial to children’s possibilities of having a better life. But far more inner-city children will succeed in school if their parents have better jobs and higher incomes and if the communities in which they are growing up are healthy. There is no either-or here. Good schools are a must for inner-city children, but they cannot achieve maximum effect unless the schools strategy is part of a larger antipoverty approach.

The fifth element of a productive policy is that for some but not all inner-city neighborhoods, attracting people with somewhat higher incomes will be possible and can be a stepping-stone toward neighborhood improvement. For this to be a possibility at all, we must talk about a neighborhood that is accessible to the city’s center, not one that is located miles away, which is frequently the case. But the strategy is hardly without risk. Cities like Washington, DC, have seen neighborhoods gentrified and transformed to the point where the previous residents are pushed out by rising property taxes and rents. On the other hand, HOPE VI provides numerous examples of mixed-income developments located in low-income neighborhoods, with the consequent effect of raising incomes in adjacent blocks.

Sixth, and finally, explicit attention to the behavioral patterns— crime, nonmarital childbearing, denigration of the value of education, and more—that have been associated with concentrated poverty is essential. Sad to say, they have become embedded and, in effect, intergenerational. The structural frameworks and continuing racial discrimination have to be addressed, but so do the issues of personal and parental responsibility. Much of what is needed has to happen on the ground, in the community, carried out as a matter of civic action. Personal and parental responsibility is an indispensable part of building a healthy community.

Issues of concentrated poverty and place are not inherently racial, either in the United States or around the world. Yet we need at the same time to confront the racial facts that are disproportionately present in America’s version of concentrated poverty: the official as well as attitudinal racism that created inner-city segregation in the first place and the structural and institutional (and sometimes illegal) racism of inferior schooling, the criminal justice system, the housing market, and employer behavior that perpetuates it.

If we are to make progress in this century toward ending urban concentrated poverty, we must understand what caused it, what perpetuates it, and the plethora of remedies that must be applied to bring about changes of the necessary magnitude.

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