December 10, 2014
Initiatives that focus on our country's most distressed neighborhoods have been the subject of lively and insightful debate lately. Three big themes animate my own thinking about this work, highlighted in a talk I gave last week at a forum organized by the Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy and the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at USC.
- Place matters. If we care about poverty, we can't ignore neighborhoods.
- The strategies we employ should be "place conscious," not myopically "place based."
- Race matters. As we tackle poverty and place, we can't ignore the central role of racial inequality and injustice.
Place matters. Neighborhoods play a huge role in shaping the well-being of families and kids. They're the locus for essential public and private services — schools being perhaps the most significant. Neighbors and neighborhood institutions help transmit the norms and values that influence behavior and teach children what's expected of them as they grow up. And where we live determines our exposure to crime, disorder, and violence, which profoundly affects our physical and emotional well-being long-term.
Research shows that conditions in severely distressed neighborhoods undermine both the quality of daily life and the long-term life chances of parents and children. In fact, Pat Sharkey's research shows that living in a high-poverty neighborhood undermines some outcomes across generations.
It goes without saying that tackling poverty — especially inter-generational poverty— requires sustained interventions at many levels. Nationwide efforts to expand employment opportunities, boost wages, strengthen work support systems, and bolster the social safety net are all necessary. But I'm convinced they're insufficient for families living in severely distressed neighborhood environments. Interventions that explicitly target the neighborhood conditions most damaging to family well-being and children's healthy development have to be part of our anti-poverty policy portfolio.