Wanted: Suburban Quarterbacks

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  • January 23, 2014

By Alan Berube and Natalie Holmes

During our travels around the country, we’re often confronted with the question, “Is suburban poverty better or worse than urban poverty?” A good one-word answer is: “Depends.”

A better question to ask might be, “How is suburban poverty different from urban poverty?” To that, a good one-word answer is: “Capacity.”

Most suburbs simply haven’t built the infrastructure that cities have over the past few decades to tackle the issues facing low-income families and communities. At the same time, existing safety net programs in suburbs are highly siloed and fragmented, frustrating effective delivery. By bringing high-capacity organizations to scale and encouraging collaboration between smaller service providers where a larger regional anchor group may not exist, we could greatly enhance the reach and effectiveness of suburban anti-poverty efforts.

Hence, our call in Confronting Suburban Poverty in America for “quarterbacks” that can operate across multiple communities and programs to bring resources and market expertise to bear on suburban poverty. That’s a concept we borrowed from the 2012 book Investing in What Works for America’s Communities, a joint project of the Low Income Investment Fund (LIIF) and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. In that volume, David Erickson, Ian Galloway, and Naomi Cytron envisioned quarterbacks as high-capacity, high-performing local organizations whose job was to “identify and build on…areas of leadership and strength, as well as to build capacity in the gaps.”

It was great to see, then, that in early December, Citi Foundation and LIIF announced the inaugural recipients of Partners in Progress grants. Each of the 13 organizations selected will be awarded a one-year $250,000 grant to support its work as a “Community Quarterback.” According to the announcement, grantees will work to “develop or expand networks that connect efforts to improve places—for example, housing, transportation, and community safety—to opportunities for people—such as jobs, childhood development, educational opportunities, health care, and other services.” Those grants will support each organization to work in a targeted community where it will help knit together these various strategies. For instance, Frazier Revitalization in South Dallas, Texas, will use the grant to coordinate the activities of a diverse group of stakeholders involved in transforming the Hatcher Station Village neighborhood through housing, health care, business development, and community support services.

Many of the organizations selected by Citi and LIIF explicitly demonstrate the qualities we found so important for success in confronting suburban poverty. Scale helps organizations serve their clients with efficiency that may not be not possible for smaller organizations, delivering better outcomes with the same, or even fewer, inputs. (These are the groups that, as Urban Institute President Sarah Wartell puts it, “figure out how to get $1.20 of value from $0.80.”) Because of their size and diversity of services they provide, scaled organizations can access a wider array of funding, which in turn may confer stability. They may also be able to invest in better organizational infrastructure, and to attract talented employees with higher salaries. By backing high-capacity organizations including BRIDGE, CCLF, CASA, and LINC Housing, Citi and LIIF are stretching their dollars for greater impact.

Collaboration among smaller service providers and/or geographically diffuse groups is a way to emulate scale in the absence of a single, scaled service provider. Collaboration can help to overcome the fragmentation and proliferation of systems, sectors, jurisdictions, and agencies—and break down policy and program silos. Recognizing the potential returns to collaboration, Partners in Progress selected organizations to receive funding that are explicitly collaborators in their communities.

These approaches are crucial for building a stronger safety net and greater access to opportunity in suburban areas, where the majority of America’s poor now live, and where poverty is growing most quickly. This is not to say that the same strategies are not also well-suited to address urban poverty. But the quarterback model is arguably needed even more in suburbia, to help strategically close the capacity gaps facing so many of those communities.

However, just two of the 13 Partners in Progress grant recipients—CASA de Maryland, in Langley Park, Maryland; and Neighborhood Housing Services of South Florida, in unincorporated Miami-Dade County—received support for work outside of an inner-city setting.

(In a similar vein, on January 9, the first five communities to be awarded the Obama Administration’s new Promise Zone designation—which provides those areas with enhanced technical assistance and preferences in accessing a bevy of federal place-based anti-poverty investments—included no suburbs.)

It may well be that the intensive, place-based strategies encouraged by the Partners in Progress program are not well-suited to more spread-out suburban populations. Or the funding to sustain such efforts beyond a planning phase may not exist in many suburbs. Or existing suburban quarterbacks (or collaboratives that could fill the same role) may lack the visibility to attract philanthropic investment. The end result, unfortunately, is that poor suburbs that could benefit from the presence of strong quarterbacks may lose out from the services they can help provide, and the investment that such organizations can attract.

Nevertheless, here’s hoping that the first round of the Partners in Progress project proves a tremendous success, and gives the effort a chance to expand further into the growing number of suburbs that so greatly need strong quarterbacks and the capacity they provide.

Homepage Photo/Jim Larrison

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