“Let’s invest in what works” is a common and recurring slogan that has gained currency in recent years. And why shouldn’t it? Who is going to advocate that we invest in what’s broken? So I was not surprised to see a new book built around this idea called Investing in What Works for America’s Communities, co-edited by Nancy Andrews, president of the Low Income Investment Fund and David Erickson from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. The book urges us to “break through silos in our programs, our financing streams and our thinking” and to use “data-based rigorous analysis to direct scarce resources to what works.” This is an important book with contributions from leading thinkers in our field; serious community development practitioners and students would be well advised to read it.
That is not to say that I liked or agreed with all that I read. Many of the articles were interesting, insightful, thought provoking, and even inspiring. I found myself reacting with enthusiasm to many of the ideas in the book. And Ellen Seidman writes a wonderful summary of the many ideas presented that is worth reading even if you don’t have time for the entire book. As a whole, I think the book offers an important contribution to the ongoing discussion about the future of community development in America, but I also think it exemplifies some of the trends in our field that make me very nervous. So let me share with you some of what I think works about “What Works,” and what I think does not work.
What works about Investing in What Works for America’s Communities:
- I agree with the general theme throughout the book that we need to take a comprehensive approach to community development. Virtually every article hit on this theme and it is consistent with the direction we are pursuing here in Massachusetts.
- I was also pleased to read articles by a few of authors that emphasize the importance of engaging local residents and working at the neighborhood level.
- It was gratifying to see a strong recognition of the importance of neighborhoods and neighborhood-level work, in addition to the now-common calls for regional solutions. We need to work at both levels and I think the book makes that point effectively. Thankfully, the pendulum is slowly swinging back to the center on the perpetual debate between regional and neighborhood-level work.
- The book includes interesting and thoughtful articles about a range of issues from health care to housing, education, transit oriented development, crime, and economic development and how these issues intersect with each other — there are good lessons and good ideas throughout.
- Thankfully, the book avoids the tired old debate about place-based strategies and people-based strategies and endorses both approaches.
*The book includes one of the best histories of community development that I have read in a long time in a chapter by Alexander von Hoffman that traces the field’s history without focusing entirely on federal policy as many do. (See page 8 for a condensed version.)
What does not work about Investing in What Works for America’s Communities:
- Amazingly, this 419-page book about the future of community development, a book with 30 authors, does not include a single page written by someone from a community development corporation. There are articles by academics, government officials, foundation executives, national nonprofits, CDFIs, and more, but not one by a CDC practitioner. Now I would certainly not argue that CDCs should be the only voice in such a book, but how can that perspective be entirely excluded? The national conversation about the future of our field must include a more diverse set of voices — we can’t allow it to become a small echo chamber.
- Much of the book is focused on community development finance. That’s an important topic to be sure, but it reinforced my growing concern about the sector is becoming too “finance-centric,” just as we begin to move away from a “real-estate centric” vision. Many of us have bemoaned the fact that our economy is increasingly dominated by the finance industry, but now we see the community development field increasingly organized around finance.
- While I am a strong proponent of comprehensive community development, I think this book might be taking the concept too far. Community development can’t be everything for everybody. The term loses meaning if we use it to describe every activity and program that benefits low-income people or neighborhoods. Moreover, as the Aspen Institute has pointed out, too much comprehensiveness can be a problem too, as initiatives collapse under the weight and complexity of trying to connect every dot and solve every problem.
- Similarly, the core premise of the book seems to be that the goal of community development is to dramatically reduce poverty in America. I don’t think that was or is the goal of community development, and certainly not the defining goal. I agree that community development needs to be part of the solution, but it can’t do it alone. If we expect community development to solve poverty than we are setting ourselves up to fail — even if we are successful at the more limited (yet still important) goals we can actually achieve, such as improving the quality of life for local residents, providing some economic stability for low-income families, and increasing community control over community assets and local development.
- I also worry about the hyper-focus on outcomes and data. Now how can anyone speak out against achieving outcomes and measuring them with data? It’s impossible, right? And certainly, I think we should measure outcomes with data. But there are risks with data that were not sufficiently addressed in this book. Sometimes data can mislead. Sometimes data can be flawed. Sometimes data misses important elements. For example, poverty data does not account for housing subsidies, food subsidies, child care subsidies or health care subsidies, so providing those forms of assistance do not reduce poverty, at least as measured by our government. But do they help people make ends meet? Do they help people gain economic stability? Of course they do. A focus on population level outcomes can quickly create incentives to displace low-income people and exclude them from the population being studied. Data is a tool that can be used wisely or poorly. Let’s use some wisdom along with our data.
- Finally, the book fails to sufficiently talk about the vital role that advocacy and organizing play in shaping public policy at the local, state, and national level. Any serious attempt to reduce income inequality and poverty in America has to include changes in policy. I believe that the community development movement has to be part of shaping that new policy framework.
Investing in What Works for America’s Communities makes an important contribution to the ongoing debate and discussion about the future of the community development field. But we need more voices and more skeptical voices to join the fray. At a minimum, I hope the next edition includes a few articles from those working on the front lines in America’s neighborhoods. I suspect they will have something interesting to contribute.