Updating Anti-Poverty Policy for the Suburban Age

This year, 2014, is rife with 50-year retrospectives of the War on Poverty. More than just a round-number anniversary, the topic is attracting a lot of attention thanks to growing rates of poverty and inequality in America, as well as a nostalgia for a time when the federal government did “big things,” like establishing Medicare and the Food Stamp program. In today’s gridlocked Washington (and notwithstanding the Affordable Care Act), that seems like ancient history.

As we’ve noted previously, many of the retrospectives are simply an occasion for arguing about whether we “won” or “lost” the war. For all the economic struggles that millions of American families continue to face today, evidence clearly demonstrates that many of the anti-poverty policies and programs we’ve adopted over the past five decades have significantly materially improved the lives of lower-income people.

Yet the evidence seems more mixed when it comes to poor places. More than one in five big-city residents is poor. And of those poor residents, nearly one in four lives in a neighborhood of “extreme poverty,” where the poverty rate exceeds 40 percent. When community poverty rises to that level, it multiplies the negative consequences of individual poverty, and can mute the effectiveness of programs intended to help the poor.

This was the stark backdrop against which a collection of researchers (including me) and practitioners came together at the University of Southern California last month, to discuss “Innovating to End Urban Poverty.”

Yet as we know by now, poor people are not confined to urban areas. Neither are high levels of community poverty exclusively urban. The latest Census Bureau data indicate that fully one-quarter of poor individuals who live in extremely poor neighborhoods in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas are in suburbs. And suburbs account for four in ten poor individuals in those regions who live in areas of high poverty—a neighborhood poverty rate exceeding 20 percent. (We’ll be releasing a more detailed analysis of the latest data in the coming weeks.)

True to the name of the conference, however, the presenting researchers and practitioners advanced ideas and spoke about innovations that, for the most part, were rooted in poor city neighborhoods. To be sure, they advanced many cutting-edge practices, including helping parents navigate school choice options, re-engaging the previously incarcerated, expanding community-based health care, and using community organizing to give voice to politically under-represented groups. Yet these solutions are largely built on the infrastructure, expertise, and lessons borne of decades of work in low-income urban neighborhoods. School choice, for instance, isn’t really an option in most struggling suburbs. Political organizing is nascent at best.

Only one panel at the conference focused on “place” as a context for addressing poverty. A short paper I wrote for that panel argues that contemporary anti-poverty strategies must recognize the different needs of poor families in both cities and suburbs. The suburbs, for example, often lack the density to deliver services in a distinct area. Poor families often spread over greater distances in the suburbs, and they face different barriers (transportation, for example) than city dwellers do.

Moreover, as poverty spreads to the suburbs, it becomes less a neighborhood problem and more of a regional or sub-regional problem—affecting the south sides and suburbs of Atlanta, Chicago, and Seattle, or the east sides and suburbs of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C.

Investing our existing resources in organizations and strategies that are less tied to one particular place, and more collaborative in their execution, represents one important way forward. In Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, Elizabeth and I propose a Metropolitan Opportunity Challenge. The Challenge would reward regional and sub-regional strategies via competitive funding, create new forms of partnerships, and, above all, create more comprehensive networks to achieve scale and spread the most highly effective programs.

Angela Blanchard, CEO of Neighborhood Centers, Inc., represented this approach on the panel I participated in. That organization’s work throughout the Greater Houston area also captures well what Marge Turner, another panelist, termed in her paper “place-conscious” anti-poverty strategies—those that grapple with the important context that place creates in addressing the needs of low-income families, but are not circumscribed by the boundaries of those locales.

There’s no question that in an era of flat resources and growing needs, we simply must innovate to address the enduring challenge of urban poverty. But we should strive to innovate in ways that ensure 50 years from now, we won’t need to hold a conference on innovating to end suburban poverty, too.