How to Reverse the Trend of Concentrated Poverty

Alan Berube
Alan Berube Interim Vice President and Director - Brookings Metro

December 28, 2008

One of Cleveland’s neighborhoods made the Washington scene earlier this month.

Alas, it wasn’t up for a multibillion-dollar bailout.

Instead, the Central neighborhood and 15 other communities across the United States were the centerpiece of a new report published by the Federal Reserve System and the Brookings Institution.

These communities share a simple, disappointing characteristic. In 2000 – the peak of the last economic boom – at least 40 percent of their residents lived below the federal poverty line. That was about three times the national average.

No American needs to look very far to find places like these. Concentrated poverty affects manufacturing cities like Cleveland, and Albany, Ga.; immigrant gateways like Miami, Fla., and Fresno, Calif.; and rural areas like eastern Kentucky and northern Montana. About 4 million poor Americans live in these areas of extremely high poverty.

How did this happen? Policy decisions made decades ago – like clustering thousands of the Cleveland region’s public housing units in the Central neighborhood – helped shape their trajectory. So too did economic changes, like the long-run loss of decent-paying manufacturing jobs, or – in rural areas – mining and agricultural jobs.

By allowing poverty to concentrate in these places, we’ve magnified the problems their poor residents face. For instance, many low-income children in these communities start school not yet “ready to learn.” On top of that, though, they attend schools burdened with lots of other poor kids who face similar challenges, and deal with higher levels of neighborhood crime that affect their mental health and educational performance.

The challenges of concentrated poverty extend to many other areas: low adult work-force skills and employment, poor-quality housing and a lack of investment by mainstream businesses.

And that’s in a good economy. Today, Central – and thousands of other high-poverty communities like it across the nation – faces even more significant challenges as the United States enters what may be its worst recession in decades.

So what should Washington do for these places and their residents in the face of such difficult circumstances?

First, we must not lose sight of them in the economic turmoil. That’s especially true because the roots of this crisis, in the subprime mortgage market, grew in many very poor neighborhoods like Central. As a result, home foreclosure rates in high-poverty communities are more than double the national average.

To stabilize these hard-hit communities, Washington must adopt new measures to prevent foreclosure and provide additional resources and guidance for state and local governments to help them cope with the rising numbers of vacant properties.

Second, a forthcoming economic stimulus package from Washington that could amount to half a trillion dollars or more should not bypass these neighborhoods and their residents.

That implies the need for immediate federal aid to sustain basic public services in states like Ohio, where the deficit for this year already tops $1 billion. It also suggests providing direct assistance to struggling workers and their families, through enhanced unemployment benefits and tax credits.

At the same time, the infrastructure dollars in the package – which could amount to more than $100 billion – must be spent strategically. States should not be permitted to go on expanding highway capacity at the metropolitan fringe, to the detriment of poor communities near the urban core. Cities like Cleveland, and metropolitan organizations like the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, should get their fair share of new transportation funds. And funds should be set aside for training programs that provide low-income residents with a pathway to decent jobs.

Third, we have to rethink neighborhood policy over the longer term.

For too long, government has funded housing, schools and economic development in these communities as though they were islands unto themselves.

That’s not how the real economy works. These neighborhoods are part of larger regional labor and housing markets. Decisions made across the Cleveland region, such as where firms locate new jobs, or where families buy homes and send their kids to school, ultimately dictate whether neighborhoods like Central can become real neighborhoods of choice and better connected to economic opportunity.

Public policy must leverage that real economy for the benefit of lower-income residents, by building on smart regional strategies like the Fund for Our Economic Future and WIRE-Net in Northeast Ohio. It should diversify housing in poor communities, but also encourage affordable housing development in wealthier parts of metropolitan areas.

Cleveland’s Central neighborhood, like other high-poverty communities across the United States, faces a tough road ahead. Short-term opportunities, and long-term strategies, are needed to help its next generation of residents overcome the challenges of concentrated poverty.