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The Avenue

Beyond Baltimore: Building on what we know to create neighborhood opportunities

Amy Liu

Since the events in Baltimore, columns and stories have asked why concentrated poverty persists in neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester and what can be done to help young people like Freddie Gray succeed. The stories run the gamut, from criminal justice reform and the elimination of lead paint in housing to the need for better schools and social mobility. Indeed, the solutions to poverty are multidimensional and multigenerational, and the strategies must be sustained over the long haul—which is tough when government resources are thin and nonprofit capacities are stretched.

Poverty has deepened and spread since the Great Recession. The number of people living in neighborhoods of high poverty and the number of such neighborhoods have increased dramatically since 2000, not just in cities but especially in suburbs like Ferguson, outside St. Louis. Residents who live in low-income and minority neighborhoods have access to fewer jobs within their region’s typical commuting distance now than in 2000. Since the recession, teens and young adults are having a harder time finding jobs, and those who are lower income and minority and possess lower levels of education have the hardest time of all.

Meanwhile, the U.S. economy is improving, along with Baltimore’s. But the broader economic recovery has yet to include neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester.

So, as national and local leaders consider strategies to address high-poverty neighborhoods, let’s not reinvent the wheel. It’s time to take stock of the approaches and innovations underway to address the changing nature of poverty in today’s economy.

Reduce concentrations of poverty and create mixed-income neighborhoods of opportunity

Research by Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren reinforces the importance of neighborhood characteristics for economic mobility. For example, children whose families moved away from concentrated areas of poverty experienced better life outcomes. The findings from this and earlier work motivated my colleague Bruce Katz and Marge Turner from the Urban Institute to make the case for streamlining the balkanized housing voucher program to give low-income families access to a broader array of regional housing choices. They cite experiments within states that can point the way.

Giving residents housing choice must also include enabling them to stay in their existing neighborhoods and reap the benefits of living in communities with more market opportunities. Research by Mindy Turbov and Valerie Piper from the mid-2000s found that efforts in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Atlanta, and Louisville to transform isolated neighborhoods dominated by large public housing projects into mixed-income communities improved the incomes and labor force participation rates of low-income residents. The study found that strategies worked best when they went beyond bricks and mortar to include strong resident engagement in shaping school reform and supportive services for working families at all income levels.

A new neighborhood paradigm that seeks to attract residents of all social and income classes while linking them to quality education, training, and other routes to economic opportunity is explored in Neighborhoods of Choice and Connection by Bruce Katz. The essay reviews the evolution of neighborhood policy and informed the Obama administration’s creation of Choice Neighborhoods and Promise Zones.

Connect low-income neighborhoods to the regional economy and regional opportunities

As regional leaders work to build a post-recession economy based on trade, innovation, infrastructure, and human capital, they must be deliberate in connecting low-income residents and communities to that next economy. In Building from Strength, a special report for Baltimore, Jennifer Vey found that the region contained good-paying jobs in sectors like port/logistics and information technology (IT) that are important to the global economy as well as accessible to workers without a college degree. She recommended that Baltimore seek more of these jobs while providing the right mix of education, skills training, workplace learning, and transportation to enable low- and mid-skill workers to access the opportunities.

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Transportation planners have a role to play in metropolitan opportunity, as noted by multiple recent studies. Transit routes must not only reach low-income neighborhoods but they must connect people to places where the jobs are. In the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region, planners and community development leaders worked together to make regional equity and job access explicit through their Corridors of Opportunity.

Finally, as leaders consider ways to connect low-income people to jobs and opportunity, they must match strategies at the neighborhood, county, or regional level to the market, an idea exemplified in Chicago, south King County in Seattle, and university districts in Philadelphia.

Strengthen skills training and career pathways for workers of all ages, particularly young adults

The ticket out of poverty is a job. This is especially true for young workers first entering the labor force, but because they lack the experience, skills, and often the educational attainment needed to compete, young adults typically fare worse than older workers. During the 2000s, this trend accelerated, impacting minority and less-educated populations most severely.

Improving labor market prospects—and, consequently, life chances—for lower-income young adults with lower educational attainment requires spreading lessons learned about the effectiveness of demand-driven training that connects workers to high-value skills and engaged employer partners. Experiential learning opportunities in high school and community colleges, apprenticeships, internships, and other approaches to training closely linked to real jobs can make a difference.

For example, among many proven programs that are effective with disadvantaged young adults, including YouthBuild and Year Up, a relatively new entrant is i.c. stars, a Chicago IT education and training program. It draws on a network of highly engaged employer partners, including larger firms such as Kraft Foods, for its intensive internships, which students complete while attending community college. The program reports that 80 percent of entrants complete the initial internship, and 95 percent of those who complete the rest of the program find jobs in the industry.

Other examples of effective programs designed to connect young people to the world of work are covered in a report by Andrew Sum and others.

Extend these approaches to suburbs where poverty is rising and capacity is thin

With more poor Americans living in the suburbs rather than in older, urban neighborhoods, leaders in regions including Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Seattle are pioneering new ways to adapt antipoverty programs to fit the challenges of suburban poverty. Five Lessons From Leading Innovators sums them up.

One innovator is Neighborhood Centers in Houston, a high-impact organization that provides thousands of predominantly Hispanic immigrants in low-income neighborhoods throughout metro Houston with access to good schools, adult education, tax preparation, senior services, credit union membership, immigration assistance, and other services. Houston’s challenges may not be the same as those in every metropolitan area, but the ingredients of the Neighborhood Centers’ success have broad currency. By focusing on building community strengths and investing in core capacity, the network of Neighborhood Centers is able to operate at a regional scale, integrate complex resource streams, and deliver high-value results.

This framework to address high-poverty neighborhoods is not meant to be inclusive. Missing is the importance of safe streets,  pre-school education, and work supports like the Earned Income Tax Credit, to name a few. Yet these approaches remind us that strategies have matured and shifted over the last few decades. No longer is an antipoverty agenda limited to the inner city. Solutions will not emerge from one program, one federal agency, or one congressional committee. Instead, the next generation of antipoverty strategies will connect investments in people, neighborhoods, and regional economic development in ways that create opportunities for families and workers, no matter where they live. 

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