Op-Ed

Louisville and New Orleans

Alan Berube and Bruce Katz

Pictures of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating aftermath for New Orleans’ most vulnerable residents shocked and dismayed most Americans.

As well they should have. Poor blacks, including many children and elderly individuals from the city’s most distressed neighborhoods, were left behind amid the fast-rising waters with little information or means to escape.

For Louisville, these images should resonate close to home.

That’s because the conditions that exacerbated the New Orleans disaster—deep, segregated urban poverty—still exist in Louisville, and in most major American cities today.

Findings from a new Brookings analysis underscore the problem. As of 2000, the old city of Louisville ranked third among the nation’s 50 largest cities in the degree to which its poor residents were confined to the city’s very poorest neighborhoods. That placed it right behind-you guessed it-New Orleans.

The picture looks somewhat less bleak after the merger. More of Louisville Metro’s low-income families now live outside the city’s very poorest neighborhoods, ranking the consolidated city 14th instead of third. Even so, the new regional city ranks fifth in the degree to which its poor African Americans reside in the most distressed neighborhoods.

Why should Louisville be concerned? The dams and levees along the Ohio River constructed after the devastating flood of 1937 provide some assurance that the River City is unlikely to suffer a Katrina-sized natural disaster.

But extremely poor neighborhoods like some of those in West Louisville embody a slower-moving humanitarian disaster. Research shows how these communities limit job prospects and aspirations. Homeowners live in properties with low and declining values. High crime rates and poor housing conditions debilitate residents mentally and physically. In the end, the economic and civic health of the surrounding city suffers.

Fortunately, Louisville Metro government has acted boldly to break up the city’s worst concentrations of poverty, and to give low-income families access to better living environments. Under Metro Mayor Abramson, Louisville has used the federal HOPE VI program to transform the once highly impoverished Park DuValle neighborhood into a healthy, mixed-income community. Similar revitalization is underway in the former Clarksdale development just east of downtown. And successive administrations have used market-oriented community development finance to stimulate business investment in the city’s distressed corridors.

The city also boasts one of the most successful municipal campaigns to connect low-income workers to benefits like the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, coordinated by the Louisville Asset Building Coalition. By boosting wages, the credit helps enable these families to afford better housing in lower-poverty neighborhoods.

What’s more, the merger itself signals Louisville’s commitment to address economic and social issues on a region-wide basis. Three years ago, we prepared a report entitled “Beyond Merger” that laid out a series of challenges for the new regional city. Today, the work of the Greater Louisville Project continues to guide the city’s long-term strategies to create more inclusive neighborhoods.

Clearly, then, Louisville Metro is no New Orleans. Still, the city’s leaders must not let merger mask the remaining challenges. Just as before the merger, more than 30,000 of the city’s residents, including 8,400 poor children, live in extremely poor neighborhoods. To give those children and their parents better chances in life, Louisville must sustain focus on alleviating concentrated poverty.

Louisville is on the right course already. But achieving progress will be all the more difficult in an era of shrinking federal assistance.

Programs like HOPE VI, housing vouchers, and the Earned Income Tax Credit helped reduce concentrated poverty in the 1990s, but all face budget cuts or wholesale elimination in Washington today. Breaking the cycle of poverty will take more local effort than ever before.

In that respect, Louisville must first ensure that its own housing strategies do not reinforce concentrated poverty. For instance, since 2000 nearly 250 affordable units funded by the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit were placed in Louisville Metro’s poorest neighborhoods.

To help lower-income families access better local environments, Louisville must ensure that housing investments like these are distributed more equitably. Confronting local interests who seek to keep affordable housing out of their neighborhoods has been, and will continue to be, difficult. But the city cannot afford to tolerate the sort of discrimination that has held back its lower-income residents and communities for so long.

None of this will be quick or easy. Smart policies rarely are. But in its quest to be a truly great city, Louisville owes its neediest citizens a shot at real economic mobility. Eradicating concentrated poverty represents the critical first step.

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