A Mobility Strategy Offers Real Choices

Development strategies invite us to reconstruct an inner-city economy that has not existed for decades. Dispersal strategies counsel us to destroy the inner city in order to save it. But there is a third approach to enhancing the employment prospects of inner-city residents.

mobility strategy. Image shows city bus stop in heavy fog
Photo by AlexeyLitvintsev from Pixabay

Last January, The New York Times Magazine published “The Myth of Community Development” by Nicholas Lemann. The article painted a gloomy picture of urban community development, citing failed programs and ever increasing neighborhood dissolution.  At the end, Lemann acknowledged the positive impact of community development corporations and urged that their social activities – affordable housing, health services, job training – be supported, but that we disabuse ourselves of the notion that “ghettos” can ever truly be “revitalized.”

Shelterforce asked for responses from Vice President Al Gore; columnist Jim Sleeper of the New York Daily News; Marc Alan Hughes (below), vice president for policy development at Public/Private Ventures; and Robert O. Zdenek, senior program associate of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

It is not difficult to demonstrate that public policy has a miserable record on inner-city economic development, and Nicholas Lemann recites a grim history of federal efforts founded on ghetto job creation.

Unfortunately, Lemann employs a false dichotomy that pits ghetto development against ghetto dispersal, and fails to imagine any alternative to this policy deadlock. Lemann implicitly advocates dispersal as the only meaningful option for helping poor minorities now living in inner cities. For example, Lemann cites an Urban Institute report that shows how jobs have followed people to the suburbs in large numbers, and that calculates that the African-American population of the suburbs increased by 38 percent in the 39 largest metropolitan areas during the 1980s.

As the author of that report, let me point out that it also shows, in the paragraphs immediately following the one Lemann cites, that African-Americans remain overwhelmingly concentrated in cities and under-represented in suburbs. There is a single striking fact: if African-Americans in 1990 resided in the suburbs in proportion to their numbers, there would be over 5 million more black suburbanites in our largest metropolitan areas – almost twice the number of African-Americans that did reside in the suburbs in 1990.

It is only by breaking out of this dispersal-versus-development box that we can make any progress on urban anti-poverty strategy. Development strategies invite us to reconstruct an inner-city economy that has not existed for decades. Dispersal strategies counsel us to destroy the inner city in order to save it. But there is a third approach to enhancing the employment prospects of inner-city residents.

A “mobility strategy” would seek to connect the residents of inner cities to employment opportunities throughout the metropolitan area. Jobs are no longer around the corner. Rather they are over the suburban horizon. But we do not need to hold the futures of inner-city residents hostage to policymakers’ capacities to open up the suburbs to low-cost housing or redevelop the obsolete industrial base of big cities (neither one is much to pin a future on.).

Instead, the mobility strategy focuses on making the inner city a more viable place. Many are now only barely so, and only with enormous personal and communal struggle against horrifying conditions. Viability in the inner city means the same things it means in all the other places people live. At the very least, it means the inner city must be safe and supportive. Lemann points to the qualified successes of social services in impoverished neighborhoods, and these effective models should be expanded. But viability does not necessarily mean that the inner city also be full of employers. It means that employment must be accessible, but not necessarily next door.

That is, after all, the way most of us organize our lives. We live in one place and work in another. A mobility strategy simply tolerates similar aspirations for those that live in our inner cities. Public policy has never taken seriously the needs of our poorer citizens in navigating our sprawling metropolitan areas – needs that are met by income among the affluent.

By making the inner city viable in this sense, several things would likely result. First, if our economic development efforts moved with rather than against markets, surely we could produce more jobs for the disadvantaged. It is not unreasonable to think that public investments in job creation might yield two or three times as many jobs at suburban sites than at inner-city ones. That is about the ratio of new suburban to city jobs in our larger metropolitan areas in recent decades. Second, if we could ensure access to those suburban job sites for inner-city residents (difficult to be sure; but more difficult than ensuring suburban homes for those inner-city residents?), we could make the inner city a more viable place to live and give a higher return on the social services, such as job training, rightly located there. And finally, if the inner city becomes a more viable place to live, then its residents will have a genuine choice about where to live in the future. Either they can remain in the neighborhood and support its revitalization (a complement to development strategies), or they can leave the neighborhood for more immediately green pastures (a complement to dispersal strategies). But in either case, that choice resides in the household, and not with the dispersal or development strategist.

Senator Bill Bradley’s Mobility for Work bill recognizes the potential of this mobility strategy. It would experiment with these ideas in several metropolitan areas. These ideas were also loosely reflected in the outcome of the conference committee on Empowerment Zones that Lemann describes, and the mobility approach is a potential option under the zone guidelines. It is important for zone applicants to know that tax credits to employers are not the only option for inner-city antipoverty strategy. If they were, Lemann might be right in saying rebuilding the ghetto doesn’t work. But there are other options. Pessimism is not the only alternative.


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