The blog of the Urban Institute
December 10, 2014

Tackling poverty in place

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 hosted by the USC Price School of Public Policy:

  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 intergenerational 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 regionwide 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 4 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.

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.


Marge: a thoughtful summary (of course). One important piece, as I have been shouting about since I worked in city govt in the 80s and 90s, is the linking up of residents of poverty-stricken neighborhoods with decent jobs in the wider regional economy. Place-based job opportunities are in many neighborhoods not nearly sufficient nor likely to be soon, but richer people don't work in their neighborhoods in most cases either. Job placement linkages, public transportation improvements and access to autos (and licenses), education and job training, and the like are crucial pieces of connecting to the wider economy (along with national and regional policy to expand living wage jobs). On a different and very much current note, stopping putting people of color residing in poor neighborhoods in jail for victimless and inconsequential "crimes", and improving their job prospects in the process, would be an important approach coupling changing a neighborhood condition and improving access to wider opportunity--seemingly fitting in your place-conscious category in multiple ways and very much addressing consequences or racial inequality and injustice.
I hope this means that deconcentration has been abandoned as a failed and counterproductive policy. It is not clear from the forum topics or the narrative above. The way to solve neighborhood problems is to address the conditions and discriminatory factors that diminish life in such places, to abolish over-policing, under-resourcing, and exploitative businesses and practices, and to engage the people who live their as partners rather than the objects of scorn or therapy.
The more resources we can provide within the community to support individuals, families, and the community, the better. There are plenty of examples already in place. Churches in the area can provide facilities for community programs. In recent years, many inner city churches have moved to the suburbs as their members move to the suburbs, leaving many of their members behind because they don't have transportation. A better way is to plant a new church in the suburbs and maintain the present one downtown. Neighborhood centers are also helpful. Jane Addams did much to develop neighborhood centers in the neighborhood that could involve people in the neighborhood. Churches can go together to purchase and renovate homes within the community to serve as community centers, when church facilities aren't available. Churches in the inner city lack many of the resources needed to carry on the programs needed and partnerships between downtown churches and suburban churches benefit both. Suburban churches often have money and volunteers who want to help which downtown churches often lack. In addition, the downtown church often have facilities close to those in need, social access to those in need, and experience dealing with the problems which suburban churches often lack. In addition, many of the urban problems are migrating to the suburbs and suburban areas don't have people experienced in dealing with them and can use help from the downtown churches.