Tackling Persistent Poverty in Distressed Urban Neighborhoods
By Margery Austin Turner, Peter Edelman, Erika Poethig, and Laudan Aron
with Matthew Rogers and Christopher Lowenstein, An Urban Institute White Paper, June 2014
Historically, efforts to overcome the negative effects of neighborhood conditions on families and children have primarily focused on changing conditions within the boundaries of a distressed neighborhood—by renovating buildings, delivering needed services, or organizing residents to work collectively. But many of the services and opportunities families need are located outside the neighborhoods in which they live, and interventions that connect them to these opportunities may be more effective than interventions that try to create them within the neighborhood.
The best example is employment. Few people work in the neighborhoods where they live; rather, they commute to jobs in other parts of their metropolitan region. The primary employment challenge facing residents of distressed urban neighborhoods is access to job opportunities in the larger region. People may not know about those opportunities, they may not have the skills or credentials necessary to qualify for them, or the time and cost of commuting to them may be too high. A place-conscious intervention would improve access to regional employment opportunities rather than only trying to create jobs within the neighborhood. This might mean advocating for new bus lines or transit subsidies, enabling people to buy cars, or helping residents enroll in a city- or region-wide training and placement program with a strong track record of placing graduates in good jobs.
Educational opportunities are increasingly expanding in central cities through initiatives that modify school enrollment boundaries and delink a family’s home address from its options for school attendance. Mandatory busing (to desegregate public schools) helped break this connection in many cities. Though busing has mostly ended, few city school districts have returned entirely to neighborhood-based schools. Instead, districts have provided increased levels of school choice. Additionally, public charter schools have emerged in many cities as alternatives to neighborhood schools. As a consequence, parents do not always have to settle for a failing neighborhood school or move to a neighborhood with a better school. Too often, however, low-income parents lack the time to gather meaningful information about school quality or options to transport their children to high-quality schools.
A growing understanding of how city and regional dynamics influence neighborhood outcomes is leading to the recognition that a single approach to place-conscious anti-poverty work will not be equally effective everywhere. Many of today’s best-known initiatives evolved in big northeastern and midwestern cities, where the legacy of racial segregation and poverty concentration has isolated and “trapped” residents in high-poverty neighborhoods—blocking their access to opportunities in the larger metro region. The geographic patterns and opportunity structures in other metropolitan areas differ and require different strategies. Moreover, metros vary widely in their civic leadership and institutional capacity, so the same interventions cannot necessarily be effectively replicated everywhere. Place-conscious practitioners (and researchers) need to further develop typologies of places that can support learning across metros about effective strategies and their implementation.
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