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Tackling Poverty in Place

December 10, 2014

Headshot_margery_turnerInitiatives 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.

  1. Place matters. If we care about poverty, we can't ignore neighborhoods.
  2. The strategies we employ should be "place conscious," not myopically "place based."
  3. 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.

Today, innovative practitioners, scholars, and advocates are defining a next generation of strategies that are “place conscious” rather than place based. This emerging approach recognizes the importance of place and focuses on the particular challenges of distressed neighborhoods, but it is less constrained by narrowly defined neighborhood boundaries, more responsive to the realities of family mobility and change, and more attuned to region-wide conditions and opportunities.

Three defining characteristics distinguish this "place-conscious" approach:

First, many of the opportunities any family needs to thrive are located outside their immediate neighborhood. So place-conscious initiatives work to connect families to city and regional opportunities in addition to expanding opportunities within their target neighborhoods.

Second, the optimal scale for tackling neighborhood challenges varies across policy domains. So place-conscious initiatives not only work horizontally, by integrating efforts across policy domains within a neighborhood, but also work vertically, by activating city, state, and even federal policy levers and resources. It may be about the neighborhood, but that doesn't mean all the action happens in the neighborhood.

And third, poor people move a lot, and their mobility creates both challenges and opportunities for neighborhoods. Place-conscious initiatives recognize and plan for residential mobility, helping families avoid unwanted moves, but also supporting those who want to move to higher-opportunity neighborhoods.

Let me be very explicit about this: I see mobility assistance and neighborhood revitalization as complementary place-conscious strategies, not as dueling ideologies.

As we tackle the challenges of poverty and place, we must confront the central role of racial inequality and injustice. Neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and distress aren't the products of "natural" or "normal" housing market operations. Rather, as Massey and Denton taught us in American Apartheid, discriminatory policies and practices confining African Americans to segregated city neighborhoods produced communities with much higher poverty rates than existed in white communities. These poor, minority neighborhoods were subsequently starved of the resources and investments that communities need to thrive, like financing for homeownership, business investment, and essential public-sector services, including quality schools.

Today, although blacks and Hispanics are less starkly segregated from whites than they were in the past, ongoing racial and ethnic segregation and discrimination combine with rising income inequality to sustain neighborhoods of severe distress. And most of these neighborhoods are predominantly black or Hispanic. Poor whites (and Asians) are much more dispersed geographically, scattered throughout non-poor neighborhoods. As a consequence, of the roughly four million poor children growing up in high-poverty urban neighborhoods today, almost 90 percent are children of color.

Evidence from many quarters gives us reason for alarm about persistent poverty, worsening inequality, and dwindling opportunities for economic mobility in our country. The evidence is compelling that tackling these challenges requires serious attention and concerted action at the intersection of poverty and race — in place.

Margery Turner is senior vice president for program planning and management at the Urban Institute, where she leads efforts to frame and conduct a forward-looking agenda of policy research. This post originally appeared on UI's MetroTrends blog.


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