Let’s Agree to Agree on a Poverty Policy Overhaul

I want to thank Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube for their thoughtful response to my post critiquing their book, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America. In reading their post and the other comments posted on Rooflines on the Brookings Institution book, I thought it would be worthwhile to highlight the many areas on which there appears to be broad agreement, and to offer some additional ideas about how to meaningfully confront poverty in the suburbs and everywhere.

I agree with Brookings in that:

1. There is often a lack of government and nonprofit capacity in suburban communities and small cities and this makes it much harder to use federal and private dollars to effectively serve low-income people.

2. Cross sector and cross jurisdictional collaboration is essential and we need regional level capacity to serve metropolitan areas.

3. Federal programs are often siloed and operate with strict regulations that make them difficult to use in suburban communities, and urban ones too for that matter.

4. Private philanthropy is often focused on the big cities to the exclusion of smaller cities and suburbs.

5. Notwithstanding the challenges of living in concentrated urban poverty, moving low-income people to the suburbs creates its own set of challenges and problems.

6. Broad changes in our economy and in our public policies have caused a dramatic increase in poverty across the entire country and it is not likely to get significantly better any time soon. Indeed, a compelling chart on page 22 in book shows that poverty has increased at approximately 3 percentage points in large cities, suburbs, small metros, and rural areas alike. Poverty is growing everywhere.

7. Finally, putting aside for a moment the definitional issues of what constitutes a “suburb,” I certainly accept the book’s core conclusion that poverty is rising in the suburbs and we need a better strategy to deal with that. We agree on a lot and there is more agreement than disagreement for sure.

With that said, I would like to offer some thoughts about how to advance this conversation so we can start moving the needle.
To craft the right programs and policies for these challenges we need a detailed understanding of the changing demographics in our regions, and simply talking about suburban poverty is not sufficient.

The book does distinguish among four types of suburbs that are facing rising poverty, in addition to recognizing that 45 percent of our nation’s suburbs did not see a significant rise in poverty. That helps. But calling satellite cities “suburbs” is simply confusing, especially here in Massachusetts where many of us have spent the last several years trying to draw attention to our “Gateway Cities” and the particular challenges they face. Indeed, if one classifies these cities as “urban” (as everyone that I know does) I am confident that one would find that probably well over 80 percent of Greater Boston’s poor households reside in urban cities, not suburbs. Growing suburban poverty remains a serious challenge, but we have not yet reached a “tipping point” in Greater Boston.

The story may be very different in other regions so I would encourage Brookings to provide the raw data for individual metros and municipalities on their website so local people can see precisely what is happening in their regions, cities, and towns and fashion appropriate responses. These distinctions matter when crafting policy and practice because the challenges and opportunities in our smaller cities are both similar to and different from those in suburbs.

This brings me to my next point. In addition to building regional capacity, we also need to build local capacity that can both deliver services tailored to that community and lead what I and others call “demand-driven community development.” Many of the models and programs that work in Boston will also work in our gateway cities if we provide the right investment and support.

Here in Massachusetts we are doing this in part through the newly enacted Community Investment Tax Credit, which incorporates many of the ideas in the Brookings book, including “enterprise level funding,” public/private partnership, competitive funding that drives innovation and impact, and a push for cross sector collaboration. That said, we took pains in crafting the CITC to enable large and small organizations to participate, avoiding an arbitrary preference for organizational scale per se and instead opting to focus on impact, collaboration and resident leadership. This allows groups to leverage the power of a community development model that builds community, improves places, and changes lives.

We also enacted new CDC-enabling legislation in Massachusetts that was designed specifically to be more inclusive of suburban, regional and rural organizations, and we have been helping our members who want to expand their geographic service area and form new collaborations. At the same time, we are working hard to knit together local and regional level capacity into a more effective eco-system, just as Brookings recommends. We are doing that work with the Smart Growth Alliance’s Great Neighborhoods program, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation’s Resilient Community/Resilient Families program, and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s Metro Future initiative.

As a community development advocate, I believe in the power of our placed-based work to improve people’s lives. On this, Brookings and I are in total agreement. And we can all agree that we should strive to make these programs more effective. But we also must avoid over promising what we can deliver (see my post on the role of community development in reducing poverty). The recommendations in the Brookings report are too modest to significantly drive down poverty rates in suburbs or cities.

The book suggests that their proposed reforms will make the system dramatically more efficient. A video on the website seems to imply that we can turn 80 cents into $1.20 if we are just a bit smarter in how we deploy resources. I’m not convinced. And even if it were true, we need to do more than simply spread the same (or slightly more) peanut butter more thinly and evenly across metropolitan areas.

We need jobs that pay a decent wage and we need to reform a broad array of policies related to taxes, labor law, immigration, bankruptcy, financial regulation, land use policy, health care, and education. I’m sure my colleagues at Brookings would agree, as would most of Rooflines’ readers, that these are the forces driving poverty rates in America. A serious movement to “confront suburban poverty” must put those issues at the top of its agenda.

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