This commentary originally appeared in Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity
Policy debates over anti-poverty policy (especially in academia) often get stuck on the question of whether it’s better to focus on “people” or “places.” The prevailing view of many economists is that giving resources to people, not places, is the most effective way to improve the well-being of low-income families. But it is obvious to even the casual observer that good schools, jobs, housing, and services – the types of tools and resources that can help poor residents forge a path out of poverty – are not spread evenly across the national landscape. Where individuals and families live shapes their level of access to these kinds of opportunities and in turn can either ease or deepen the challenges of poverty for residents struggling with economic hardship.
Despite this reality, our public policies fall short in taking into account dramatic changes in the geography of poverty in America in recent years. Between 2000 and 2011, the poor population in suburbia grew by 64 percent – more than twice the rate of growth in cities (29 percent) – making suburbs home to the nation’s largest and fastest growing poor population, according to the official poverty measure. By 2011, 16.4 million residents in suburbia lived below the poverty line, outstripping the poor population in cities by almost 3 million people.
As these changes have occurred, the place-based anti-poverty programs the country has implemented over the last five decades have failed to keep pace. Each year, the federal government spends $82 billion on programs and policies aimed at fighting poverty with a focus on place. From programs that invest in improving neighborhoods (like the Community Development Block Grant), to those that deliver services in communities (like Community Health Centers), to those that open up social and economic opportunities elsewhere in the region (like housing choice vouchers), these programs recognize the fact that place matters.
Yet these funds are not only deployed in a fragmented way – spread across 81 programs and ten different agencies – but many were also built with distressed inner-city neighborhoods in mind. Need clearly remains high in such communities, but these programs often prove inflexible and ill-suited to adapting to the suburban landscape of poverty. Consider, for instance, that there are 14 federally supported community health centers in the city of Cleveland, but none in the remainder of its county (Cuyahoga), despite the fact that more than four in ten of the county’s poor residents live outside Cleveland.
Notwithstanding these challenges, innovative and enterprising leaders – ranging from social service providers to community development financial institutions, regional intermediaries, local elected officials, school districts, and partnerships among these stakeholders – are finding ways to work within or around the current system, developing more effective strategies to address today’s geography of poverty. Organizations like IFF (formerly the Illinois Facilities Fund) and Washington state’s Road Map Project, and approaches like those developed in the wake of the Great Recession in Chicago’s suburbs and in Montgomery County, MD, are finding ways to work at a more effective scale, collaborate across jurisdictions and policy silos, and strategically deploy limited funds to help more people in more places, whether urban or suburban.
But over the long term, to truly reshape our place-based anti-poverty policy and practice framework to more effectively address the regional reach of poverty, the country requires something more than the current patchwork of creative solutions and workarounds to a system in need of new structures and thinking.
By repurposing just 5 percent of what the federal government spends on place-based anti-poverty programs, federal policymakers could free up $4 billion to create a Metropolitan Opportunity Challenge— a competitive funding stream that would offer a real incentive for states and metro areas to think differently about how resources are deployed within regions to measurably increase access to opportunity for low-income people and places in cities and suburbs alike. The Challenge would allow states and regions to identify local needs – whether that means improving access to better schools, affordable housing, services, or jobs – and invest at scale to address agreed-upon goals. Funds could be used to build capacity in the region as needed to help meet those goals, and to evaluate which strategies work most effectively to appreciably increase access to economic opportunity. Moreover, that initial $4 billion could leverage private investment and realign other funding streams in ways that deliver truly transformative impact.
Making this kind of change at the federal level may not seem likely in today’s political and fiscal environment. But we can start by building on the good work already taking place in regions across the country. By lifting up what works and demonstrating the effectiveness of these models, local and regional leaders can eventually help bring federal policy in line with the 21st century geography of poverty and opportunity.