2014 April

Updating Anti-Poverty Policy for the Suburban Age

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Alan Berube

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.

Courtesy of Maureen SillAs 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.

Courtesy of FutureAtlas.comOnly 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.

Photos courtesy of Maureen Sill and FutureAtlas.com, respectively.

Public-Private Partnerships Promote Equitable Growth in Minnesota

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Ramsey Cnty Blog SummitBy Sarah Jackson

All eyes are on Ramsey County, MN, as it implements an ambitious 11-point plan that ties reducing inequality to boosting the Minneapolis-St. Paul region’s economy.

In the Twin Cities region, inequality and poverty are on the rise. Wages have stagnated, and the achievement gap between white students and the growing population of students of color is gaining national attention. Between 2001 and 2011, poverty in the region’s suburbs rose by 127 percent.

These are alarming indicators from a region and state known for their models of progressive government with a focus on equity. But now, officials in Ramsey County, have an ambitious plan to do something about it.

Officials have launched an 11-point program to boost prosperity in the region and reduce racial disparities. According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the program includes:

“improving support services for youth so that fewer kids end up in criminal detention; ensuring that county buildings and services are where they easily can be accessed by residents; elevating the visibility of the county’s workforce programs; and using more small local businesses when buying county goods.

There’s also a focus on creating internship opportunities for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and reviewing the county’s hiring and promotion policies.”

“Disadvantaged” in this case often means black, Latino, Hmong, and African individuals. In Ramsey County, 25 percent of people of color live in poverty compared with 6 percent of the area’s white population. Ramsey County also has a heavy concentration of the region’s federally subsidized housing (32 percent). This coupled with a lack of investments have increased concentrated poverty. Poverty rates in some suburban locations have reached as high as 40 percent.

“The fear,” according to the Star-Tribune, “is that unless something is done to reduce poverty among minorities, the county’s overall poverty rates will grow in step.”

The proposed solution is policy that is multi-jurisdictional, multi-faceted, and collaborative. The county will target public and private investment to community banks, grocery stores, retail development, transportation, and community centers. Public-private partnerships, including those with employers, will be key.

Ramsey County is on the right track, according to researchers at PolicyLink and the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE). In “Minnesota’s Tomorrow,” a new report, they find that programs that promote racial and economic inclusion are critical to a region’s economic success. The authors call for an “equity driven growth model” that helps to connect vulnerable populations to good jobs while strengthening local and regional economies.

A successful future economy, researchers from Policylink and USC argue, must focus on equitable growth — creating good jobs, preparing workers for those jobs, and expanding economic opportunity for all.

Ramsey County is advancing that goal with its push to connect workforce development programs with private-sector employers who need skilled workers. Currently, according to the Star-Tribune, there’s a gap between what employers need and what workforce development programs are focused on.

St. Paul-based manufacturer J.W. Hulme, featured recently on CNBC, faced such a skills gap. When the company needed more skilled workers, CEO Jennifer Guarino reached out to Minneapolis-based Dunwoody College of Technology to design a six-month curriculum to teach the industrial sewing skills needed to produce high-end leather goods. The school agreed, on one condition: Guarino had to offer jobs to students who finished. The two eventually convinced other companies to join, forming “The Makers Coalition,” which trains and employs people with industrial sewing skills and promotes the trade. The coalition has recently expanded to Michigan.

The PERE report also highlights the work of Summit Academy OIC in Minneapolis, a  community-based vocational training and job placement program that aims to help meet demand for future workers in construction (and other industries) to replace an aging, and mostly white, workforce. The workforce is needed to tackle the backlog of infrastructure projects in the area. The 20-week training program provides hard and soft skills to trainees in low-income communities, including high school dropouts.

These initiatives are promising. However, to be truly effective, they must expand beyond the local area and scale up the models that work.

The Obama administration has proposed several efforts to start that process. As a start, it is urging greater collaboration between local employers and community colleges as training hubs. In September 2013, the Departments of Labor and Education announced nearly $500 million in grants to community colleges for targeted training and workforce development to help dislocated workers change careers. The grants support partnerships between community colleges and employers to develop programs that provide pathways to good jobs and that meet industry needs.

President Obama’s 2015 budget also creates the Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative includes a four-year, $6 billion Community College Job-Driven Training Fund to launch new training programs and apprenticeships that will prepare participants for in-demand jobs and careers. The hope is to double the number of apprenticeships over the next five years. The budget also proposes $15 million for grants to states to focus on regional partnerships.

Bold new solutions like these are needed to ensure today’s students and tomorrow’s workers are prepared, and to ensure that economic growth is shared by everyone. Ramsey County is a place to watch.


Building Capacity to Fight Today’s Poverty

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CentroNiaBy Sarah Jackson

Mary’s Center, a D.C. community health center, had always served an urban population. Created in 1988 to provide culturally sensitive prenatal care to young Latinas in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, the small community center grew over the years, becoming a Federally Qualified Health Center in 2005.

But it faced perhaps its biggest challenge in the 2000s, when it began to see large numbers of its patients coming to their health centers from outside of the city.

Some of these families had recently moved to the Maryland suburbs in search of more affordable housing. But suburban patients were also coming to Mary’s Center who had never lived in the city—new immigrants who had settled directly in the suburbs or the newly poor, folks who had recently fell into poverty and didn’t know where else to turn.

Montgomery County was experiencing rapid demographic change. While fewer than one in five county residents were immigrants in 1990, by 2010, according to census data, immigrants made up nearly one-third of the population and almost 40 percent of poor residents. After the recession, poverty in the county grew by two-thirds between 2007 and 2010.

Low-income families in the county were often unable to find organizations that provided the same kinds of support services available to urban residents. Multilingual and multicultural support services, immigrant services, and affordable and quality early childhood education were either limited or not available in areas experiencing rapidly growing need.

To add further strain, existing service providers in the suburban communities were stretched very thin facing the new increased demand.

“There just wasn’t enough money to deal with this upswing in requests for emergency services,” Tim Warner, who works with faith communities in the county executive’s Office of Community Partnerships, told the Washingtonian in 2011. “So we got together and said, ‘What can we do creatively to deal with this?’”

County officials launched the Neighborhood Opportunity Network in 2009, a cross-sector collaboration with an emphasis on cultural competency that aims to ensure residents receive critical services and helps create support networks in high-need suburbs. The county’s struggles reflect a common problem facing suburban communities across the country – lack of capacity.

Living Cities, a partnership of foundations and financial institutions, is one of a growing group of institutions finding creative ways to help suburban communities respond regionally to the growing demand from new populations. Its Integration Initiative aims to determine what’s needed to help communities “move beyond piecemeal approaches” and toward broader change in systems that shape the lives of low-income people. Through this initiative, one thing they quickly learned is that communities often lack not only the infrastructure to fight poverty, but also the ability to even absorb the funding that comes their way. Building capacity in these communities is critical to helping them effectively address growing need.

In the D.C. region, Venture Philanthropy Partners (VPP) recently has had some important success in finding effective ways to invest in and build capacity region-wide.  VPP supports strong service providers that can blend multiple funding streams.  Through its targeted investments, VPP encourages cross-sector, multijurisdictional partnerships, and has helped a number of high-performing nonprofit organizations to expand into suburban areas with limited capacity.

For example, VPP facilitated a key partnership between Mary’s Center and Washington Adventist hospital in Montgomery County; the hospital, in Takoma Park, now sends low-income immigrant patients needing follow-up care to the Mary’s Center that opened in 2008 in nearby Silver Spring.  Along with a $3.3 investment, VPP helped Mary’s Center build strategic business and government relationships that made this and expansion to other new service areas possible. The Center now runs six sites, four in D.C. and two in Maryland. They also operate mobile units that provide free HIV and pregnancy testing, as well as one providing pediatric dental care in Prince George’s County.

Similarly, VPP helped CentroNia, a youth service organization, make the shift from a Latino neighborhood group serving 322 children in D.C,’s Columbia Heights neighborhood, to a regional leader serving bilingual children from multiple ethnic communities. VPP’s investment of $2.4 million over six years helped support the expansion of programs into Takoma Park, MD to serve the growing immigrant community there, and CentroNia’s internal processes to strengthen its board, restructure management, and develop an “outcomes framework” that could manage significant growth.

Elevating regional solutions over neighborhood-by-neighborhood approaches makes sense. And VPP has found effective ways to invest in and expand high-capacity organizations.

As Elizabeth and Alan argue in Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, these are the models metro regions will increasingly need to look toward to meet the needs of their changing populations.

Changing Suburbs, Poverty, and America’s Political Future

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VotingBlogBy Sarah Jackson

In the vast sprawl east of Los Angeles lie some of the fastest growing communities in the country. The Riverside-San Bernardino metro area grew 32.7 percent from 2000 to 2012. And it’s expected to keep growing, according to California’s Department of Finance.

In fact, if the state’s estimates are on track, Riverside County will have the largest population of any California county by 2060.

Once predominantly white and Republican, the area is now home to a growing population of African Americans and Latino immigrants and non-immigrants, many of whom were lured from Los Angeles by the region’s more affordable housing.

And it looks like these families are more likely to vote Democratic. Voters here elected three Democrats to Congress in 2012 (two Latinos and a gay Asian American), something the region has only done twice in 40 years. As LA Times writer Phil Willon notes, “Contests will be much harder to predict.”

More Americans now live in suburbs than in central cities, and more suburbs are starting to look as diverse as Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Brookings analysis shows that the majority of each of the country’s largest racial minority groups live in the suburbs.

And these new patterns of migration and minority suburbanization, experts say, may also create new voting patterns.

Center for American Progress’ Ruy Teixeira found in a 2008 report that demographic and geographic changes in the electorate may have the potential to alter some of the political polarization we see today.

Increasing suburban diversity may turn these places more “purple” in local and national elections, making them less reliable bases for either Republicans or Democrats who have depended on demographically homogeneous voting blocs.

Both parties may find it increasingly necessary to appeal to different suburban constituencies—white seniors looking to strengthen social security and Medicare, for example, as well as young minorities, who may be more interested in education, affordable housing and jobs programs.

“The views and preferences of the suburban majority,” Teixeira writes, “are driving American politics.’

Writing at Politico, Richard Florida argues that distressed suburbs are “the new swing states.”

“The old dichotomies—red state/blue state, city/suburb—are just too simplistic to capture today’s much more complex picture, which often as not is painted in shades of pink, purple and mauve.”

Another condition likely to play out in the voting booth is the growth of poverty in congressional districts that include suburbs (368 of the nation’s 435 congressional districts contain some portion of the suburbs with the 100 largest metropolitan areas today.)  In an analysis that followed the publication of Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, Elizabeth and Alan and colleague Jane Williams find that many of those traditionally red suburbs now include a growing poor population among their constituents.

Communities in the Riverside-San Bernardino metro area have been hit hard by the Great Recession; the suburban poor population there increased 62.8 percent between 2000 to 2011.

Indeed, districts with the fastest growth in the suburban poor population during the 2000s leaned Republican, according to their analysis. And while Democrats still represent poorer suburbs than Republicans on average, the gap has narrowed.

What these changes mean for consensus politics remains to be seen, particularly as the suburban constituents are typically regarded as allergic to tax increases to fund social programs, but U.S. poverty, Elizabeth and Alan argue, is more than ever “a shared challenge—not just economically and socially, but also politically.”

Photo/ Columbia City Blog


Learn about suburban poverty in your community, how innovators around the country are addressing it, and what you can do locally and nationally to take action.