Grassroots Organizing in Suburbs to Prevent Another Ferguson

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st. louis voting - body
Sarah Jackson

Lorna Francis, a single mom and hairdresser profiled recently in the New York Times, doesn’t vote often. She’s busy raising her daughter and working to afford the rent on her “well groomed suburban cul-de-sac.” And, according to the Times, she’s part of a wave of new working-class black residents in the Atlanta suburb of Conyers, Georgia, who don’t have the means or time to run for local municipal office, or to get involved in politics.

So although the city is now majority African American, it’s represented by mostly white city council members. Conyers is in Rockdale County, which has undergone a demographic shift since 2000. The county’s share of black residents jumped from 18 to 46 percent between 2000 and 2010.

The police force is still mostly white as well. And although life has been relatively peaceful in Conyers, experts say these representation imbalances can lead to long-term tensions like those we saw erupt in Ferguson, Missouri, this summer after a white police officer shot an unarmed African American teenager.

Sharon Pratt, who was mayor of DC in the 1990s, knows all too well how “Fergusons” happen. In the early 1990s, the US Commission on Civil Rights found that an underlying causes of riots in a Latino neighborhood in Washington, DC, was a police department that did not reflect or understand the city’s growing Latino population. Pratt said recently that the police force had not done enough to respond to the neighborhood’s changing population.

“We did not have enough officers who could speak Spanish,” she said, “not enough officers who were attuned to the cultural differences.”

As the Washington Post reported, federal civil rights lawsuits and public outcry have helped change this in some (but not all) major US cities. But this has not been the case in smaller cities and suburban communities like Ferguson or Conyers, where rapid demographic and economic change has occurred without the benefit of public or civic infrastructure or cross-racial organizing coalitions that can lead a push for change.

This grassroots mobilization is important, experts say, in a community’s ability to find structured, constructive ways to help residents cope with economic hardship and racial tensions—and to find real ways to fight for community change.

In their 2011 report, “All Together Now? African Americans, Immigrants, and the Future of California,” Manuel Pastor and his coauthors Juan De Lara and Justin Scoggins highlight examples of grassroots organizing in California communities working to manage tensions among racial and ethnic groups and build a common agenda for change. They document examples of immigrant and African American communities coming together based on common needs and disadvantages and what they term “everyday social justice.”

The authors call for “patient relationship building” and stress that movements are built not by leaders but by everyday interactions among people in neighborhoods.

It’s exactly this kind of work that Peter Dreier and Todd Swanstrom argued is needed in poor suburban communities like Ferguson. Swanstrom is professor of community collaboration and public policy administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College They are co-authors of “Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-First Century.”

Low-income suburbs, they explained in a Washington Post op-ed, face particular challenges in building grassroots interracial organizing coalitions for several reasons. Size is one, but so too is the fact that low-income minority suburban communities are often underrepresented in local government, on the school board or the police force. Like Lorna Francis in Conyers, residents in these suburbs are also less likely to vote or have a history of community organizing.

Only ongoing regional organizing, the authors said, can give residents in places like Ferguson political power and a seat at the table. The authors call for an interracial coalition of religious, community, civic, labor, and enlightened business leaders to join forces, notably across jurisdictional lines, to build agency and power.

“A strong community organizing movement, based in local churches and neighborhood groups, helped by experienced organizers, could mobilize a voter registration and turnout effort, and increase civic engagement, to shift the balance of political power in Ferguson,” they write.

Dreier and Swanstrom argued for merging of some of these fragmented small governments and school districts. In the past, Swanstrom has also argued that cross-jurisdiction political coalitions—for example, older suburbs joining with central cities on regional development projects—could help suburbs gain resources and political power. Diverse funding structures are needed that promote collaboration across sectors and governments instead of competition for dollars.

Beyond Housing, a suburban nonprofit organization in St. Louis County, offers one such example to address growing poverty and demographic change. In an innovative partnership that encourages collaboration among 24 small suburban municipalities that fall within the same school district, Beyond Housing is coordinating services such as housing, jobs, economic development, and health care across jurisdictional boundaries.

Ferguson matters not only for the residents of northern St. Louis County. As many journalists and pundits have pointed out, this story matters because it’s the story of many other communities throughout the country. Ferguson’s racial divisions, economic challenges, and St. Louis County’s fragmented municipalities are similar to those faced by many suburban communities.

Like many metro areas, St. Louis’s suburbs now have more people living in poverty than people living in the city of St. Louis itself. And the number of suburban neighborhoods with poverty rates more than 20 percent has more than doubled since 2000. As Elizabeth Kneebone and Natalie Holmes found in their recent analysis of new census data, poverty in major metro areas continues to grow, and more than two-thirds of the increase in poverty from 2000 to 2013 occurred in suburbs.

To avoid creating future “Fergusons” in struggling suburbs across the country, community partnerships have to be built before a crisis comes, so that community members have systems and structures in place for coping—and a voice at the table.

Photo credit: Flickr user @pasa47

Behind the “Poor Door” Controversy: Inclusionary Zoning Policies in Cities and Suburbs

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Barbara Ray

Affordable housing is in the news these days as New York City makes headlines for its efforts to build more housing at affordable rents. Whether it’s the “poor door” controversy or the de Blasio administration’s push to mandate developers to include affordable units in every development, a widespread and growing problem is coming into focus.

The “poor door” has set off a wave of criticism because the affordable units are in a separate section from the rest of the luxury high-rise, and low-income residents must enter through a separate door. They also do not have equal access to the building amenities. The reason for the separate entrance, developers argue, is cost.

As the president of the development company told the New York Times, having the affordable apartments incorporated into the condominium tower would have meant “giving away” the most valuable units.

“We wouldn’t be able to do affordable,” he said. “It wouldn’t make any financial sense.”

The affordable housing units in the high-rise were built as part of the local inclusionary zoning (IZ) ordinances. Under the program, in exchange for including affordable units in a market-rate development—and thus losing money on those units—municipalities allow developers to build more units (higher density) than the zoning allows. Each community has a different set of rules governing the program, but most IZ programs have three features: the density bonus, a share of total units to be set aside as affordable, and requirements for how long those units must remain affordable (and what constitutes “affordable).

Inclusionary zoning is neither a new program nor only a city program. The first IZ program began in Montgomery County, a suburban expanse just northeast of DC, in the mid-1970s. Given its longevity, the Montgomery County program offers several lessons for affordable housing efforts.

To start, like de Blasio’s new push in New York City, Montgomery County mandates that suburban developments of more than 20 units designate 12-15 percent of the total homes as affordable. If they do not, they do not break ground. In other locales, IZ is voluntary. That mandate, many say, gives the program teeth. Case in point: In Cambridge, Massachusetts, the initial IZ rule was voluntary and spanned 10 years, and not one home was built,according to a RAND analysis.

Another lesson learned from Maryland is that inclusionary zoning alone is not enough. A RAND report estimated that IZ programs nationally have produced only 150,000 units over several decades, a relative drop in the bucket. The Housing Choice Voucher Program, in contrast, serves approximately 2 million households and the Low Income Housing Tax Credit has created more than 2 million homes. And that’s still not enough.

In addition, homes built under IZ eventually return to market-rate homes. From 1976 to 2011, IZ in Montgomery County produced 13,000 affordable units. However, only about 2,300 affordable homes were left by the end of 2010, according to the HUD report, as the initial affordability timespans expired and the houses shifted to market rate.

This loss is distressing given that the demand for affordable housing continues to far outstrip supply. In addition to a range of policies that create affordable housing, such as IZ, housing vouchers, and tax credits, communities also need tools to preserve affordable housing over time.

The Housing Partnership Equity Trust (HPET) is one promising model that combines private and philanthropic dollars to help preserve affordable housing units—whether they are at risk of being redeveloped into higher-price condos or they are expiring LIHTC properties. A product of the Housing Partnership Network, HPET operates as a real estate investment trust that pools funds from philanthropies coupled with debt-funding by major banks. Investors secure a stable return on their investments, while simultaneously providing stable housing to low-income households and improving the building’s environmental impact. Other innovative financing options that leverage public and private funds include the Golden State Acquisition Fund in California or the HOPE SF fund in the Bay Area. The federal and local governments are also experimenting with new models and programs to both expand and preserve affordable housing options.

These tools must also consider local conditions and community needs.

As we wrote in May, the affordable housing crunch often looks different in the suburbs than in central cities, and responses must recognize these unique conditions. In central Atlanta, for example, they might build affordable townhomes to counteract gentrification, but in the suburbs, that kind of concentrated, single-project approach will be less effective. “A scattered approach in housing and community development over a larger geography is more effective than it is in inner-city neighborhoods,” said John O-Callaghan, president and CEO of the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership (ANDP).

And sometimes, the suburbs are simply overlooked altogether. As we wrote in February:

“Researchers at the University of Minnesota … argue that too much federal funding for affordable housing is going to Minneapolis and St. Paul neighborhoods at the expense of fast-growing suburbs. … In part, the focus on urban housing stems from the regional Met Council’s emphasis on locating affordable housing near transit lines to ensure connectivity. Many suburbs lack transit access, and thus end up missing out on affordable housing opportunities even if they want to develop more affordable units.”

In many respects, the “poor door” controversy in New York City masks a much larger metro-wide problem. As poverty continues to grow in the suburbs, the issue of affordability will only intensify. New solutions are needed, both in cities like New York and suburbs across the metro landscape.

Photo credit: Flickr user @MDGovpics

Food Insecurity Persists Despite Economic Recovery

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Barbara Ray

It’s been more than five years since the Great Recession officially ended. The stock market is rising and the unemployment rate is falling, yet poverty remains stubbornly high and millions of Americans still can’t afford the food they need to feed their families. According to two new reports by the USDA and Feeding America, many families, including a growing number of suburban families, must choose between food and other basic needs like paying rent, transportation, or medical care.

Since 2008, according to the USDA report, the share of households that in the prior month cut back on the size of their portions, skipped meals, ran out of food before payday, or couldn’t afford to feed their families balanced meals has been stuck at approximately 14 percent. In 2003, before the recession began, approximately 11 percent of households were “food insecure,” as the USDA defines it. For most of these families, food insecurity was not a fleeting experience. Most were struggling for at least seven months in the year.

Although scrimping on food is a problem none of us wants, it is particularly hard on kids. And the numbers, unfortunately, are much higher for children. Nearly one in five (19.5 percent) US households with children was food insecure in 2013—affecting nearly 16 million children. Of these children, approximately four in ten (37 percent) lived in the suburbs in 2010, according to a study by Alisha Coleman-Jensen for the USDA. In contrast, one-third lived in central cities, and 16 percent were in rural areas.

Many of the food-insecure families are not also benefiting from SNAP or other supports, for a variety of reasons. Only approximately one-half (47 percent) of the food-insecure families received SNAP (food stamps) benefits in the prior month. Only one-third of the children in these families were enrolled in free or reduced-price school lunches.

So why aren’t more families and children receiving benefits when they clearly could use them?

“Some people don’t know [they’re eligible], for others it’s difficult to navigate the process, for others it’s the stigma,” Ellen Vollinger, legal director of the Food Research and Action Center, said in an interview with the Huffington Post.

Another reason, said Scott Allard, professor at the University of Washington, in a paper presented at a workshop on child hunger last year, is the location of the offices. Not all neighborhoods have a public assistance office or nonprofit food bank. Research shows that proximity to a provider increases awareness, which in turn increases the odds people will sign up for the supports. Unfortunately, as Allard reported, evidence suggests that food programs are not well matched to neighborhoods with the highest need.

This disconnect is particularly true in the suburbs, where poverty is a new phenomenon and the capacity to help families is not yet built up. In a study for the Brookings Institution, Allard and his colleague, Benjamin Roth, found that suburban communities have fewer and less accessible food assistance providers than urban communities do. That could be one reason, as Elizabeth and Alan wrote in “Confronting Suburban Poverty,” why 46 percent of poor urban households but 40 percent of poor suburban households received SNAP.

In the suburbs, the newness of food insecurity and poverty more generally also takes many by surprise: “There is a new group of people who don’t know where to go for help, they are newly poor and don’t know what to do,” a suburban Chicago respondent told Allard and Roth.

Many of these newly poor in the suburbs are working. A story in the Baltimore Sun on use of food banks in suburban Montgomery County, MD, underscored that point, writing: “The great recession hit so many industries so hard that many previously middle class families can no longer afford to feed their families and make ends meet. It is telling, and indicative of hunger across America, that a food bank in Montgomery County reports people checking their watches because they have to get back to work. They represent the growing masses of working poor who never thought they would need food assistance.”

In Montgomery County and elsewhere food banks have reported that people are increasingly relying on their services not solely as emergency support, but as monthly maintenance to supplement insufficient paychecks.

So what can be done to resolve the plight? One model that holds promise for connecting families to supports is the Neighborhood Opportunity Network (NON) in the Washington, DC, area. Working directly with the Department of Human Services, NON created a cadre of community residents to help people in need access services in a more streamlined, integrated way. Rather than being based in a government office, the community connectors are housed at the local (and more trusted) nonprofit organizations. They also make a concerted effort to connect neighbors to neighbors, which, asthey wrote, “involves them in networks that can help them become less vulnerable.”

This is one positive step, but hunger and food insecurity are real issues for far too many people, and increasingly suburban families as well. More must be done to ensure that families don’t run out of food by Tuesday when the paycheck doesn’t arrive until Friday.

Photo credit: US Dept. of Agriculture

New Census Data Show Few Metro Areas Made Progress Against Poverty in 2013

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According to an analysis of 2013 American Community Survey, four years into an economic recovery, most major metro areas had yet to make progress toward reducing poverty to pre-recession levels. Where gains did occur, they tended to happen in big cities, further accelerating a long-term trend in the suburbanization of U.S. poverty and the challenges that accompany it.

Read the new report>>

ACS brief image

Homepage photo credit: Flickr user @waitscm


Homelessness among Students Is Up Sharply in the Suburbs

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Barbara Ray

In 2010, Penny Scrivner, a retired Greyhound bus driver, had a new job. Every morning, she swung by motels, abandoned cars, and street corners to pick up homeless children for school.

“I’ve picked up kids waiting on street corners,” she told the Oregonian in 2010. “They don’t have an address. I just know they’ll be standing there waiting.”

That morning she pulled over to an apartment building, where a family was living temporarily, to pick up a group of siblings.

“Penny,” one of the girls asks after the door shuts, “can I have a hug?”

“Oh, honey,” Scrivner says, “yes you can.”

school bus thumbThe 22 kids on the bus that day were on their way to Portland’s Community Transitional School, a private institution serving homeless and poor families. The school serves kids who live in school districts throughout the Portland metro area, Marcia Harris, the school’s development coordinator, told the Oregonian.

As school starts again this August, they’ll be joining thousands of students throughout the nation whose families are struggling with poverty and hardship. And increasingly that hardship is in the suburbs.

In many metro areas, suburban poverty is on the rise for a variety of reasons, including growing hardship during and following the recession.

In the Indianapolis metro area, for example, the number of homeless students in the suburbs (outside of Marion County) has grown sharply since 2007, the Indianapolis Star reported. Indiana’s Hendricks County, for example, has seen a 500-percent increase in the number of homeless students in the past five years. In 2013, 241 students were homeless, up from 40 in 2007. In fact, all counties in the metro area have seen increases in homeless students; the smallest increase was 24 percent in Putnam County.

The story is the same in the suburbs of Chicago, where in northwest suburban Cook County, according to the Daily Herald, “there are 55 percent more homeless students than two years ago. In DuPage and Lake counties the numbers have risen by more than 35 percent.” The statewide average change is a 17 percent increase.

The rise is driven by several factors, including a sluggish economy, fallout from the foreclosure crisis, low-wage jobs, fewer social services in the suburbs to catch families before they fall, and better identification by schools of homeless students.

classroom thumbOften in the suburbs, need exceeds available help. In the Washington, DC, metro area, according to a recent report by the Urban Institute and the Community Foundation of the National Capital Region,5,301 families were homeless in the region in January 2013, 4,406 of them in communities beyond the city center. Yet in those communities, shelters or transitional housing had only 2,529 beds for persons in families. The study area included Montgomery, Prince George’s, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties and the communities of Alexandria and Arlington.

The report finds that a typical homeless family is headed by a single mom in her late 20s with two young children. She also is likely working. In Loudoun County, Alexandria, or Arlington, for example, more than two-thirds of homeless adults in families were employed.

In the Inland Empire just east of Los Angeles, a region still struggling to recover from the housing crash, Larry Ellwell, principal of Victoria Elementary School in San Bernardino, told the New York Times that he was stunned by the number of families who could not afford necessities like clothes and dental care. He was also alarmed by the lack of services. In LA proper, where he’d worked before, families knew where to find help. In the suburbs, that’s not the case.

Indeed, as we’ve written before, “In many cases, schools are often a hub for delivering services . . . and frequently are the only place to which kids and parents will turn when their families are in need.”

“What we have out here,” Dom Betro, executive director of Family Services in Riverside County, told the Times, “is more need and fewer centers of resources. . . . Even if there is help—and that’s not always—people who need it can’t get to it.”

school busesMore suburbs should follow the lead of Denver, where a 2013 survey showed that families make up the largest percentage of homeless in the suburbs there. But Denver is beginning to coordinate its suburban services, Alexxa Gagner, spokeswoman for the Denver Rescue Mission, told the Denver Post. “One of the great things that’s happened in Denver is different service agencies have gotten out of their silos,” she said.

As Elizabeth wrote recently, the path out of poverty for suburban families “requires strategies that cut across jurisdictional boundaries and policy silos, and link up decisions around affordable housing, transportation, services, and community and economic development at the regional level.” The same applies to crafting effective strategies to address the growing homeless population many suburban school districts will be facing this year.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons user PRA

Ferguson, Mo. Emblematic of Growing Suburban Poverty

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Cross-posted on Brookings’ Metro blog, The Avenue

Elizabeth Kneebone

Nearly a week after the death of 18 year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., protests continue in the 21,000-person suburban community on St. Louis’ north side and around the nation.

Amid the social media and news coverage of the community’s response to the police shooting of the unarmed teenager, a picture of Ferguson and its history has emerged.

The New York Times and others have described the deep-seated racial tensions and inequalities that have long plagued the St. Louis region, as well as the dramatic demographic transformation of Ferguson from a largely white suburban enclave (it was 85 percent white as recently as 1980) to a predominantly black community (it was 67 percent black by 2008-2012).

But Ferguson has also been home to dramatic economic changes in recent years. The city’s unemployment rate rose from less than 5 percent in 2000 to over 13 percent in 2010-12. For those residents who were employed, inflation-adjusted average earnings fell by one-third. The number of households using federal Housing Choice Vouchers climbed from roughly 300 in 2000 to more than 800 by the end of the decade.

Amid these changes, poverty skyrocketed. Between 2000 and 2010-2012, Ferguson’s poor population doubled. By the end of that period, roughly one in four residents lived below the federal poverty line ($23,492 for a family of four in 2012), and 44 percent fell below twice that level.

These changes affected neighborhoods throughout Ferguson. At the start of the 2000s, the five census tracts that fall within Ferguson’s border registered poverty rates ranging between 4 and 16 percent. However, by 2008-2012 almost all of Ferguson’s neighborhoods had poverty rates at or above the 20 percent threshold at which the negative effects of concentrated poverty begin to emerge. (One Ferguson tract had a poverty rate of 13.1 percent in 2008-2012, while the remaining tracts fell between 19.8 and 33.3 percent.)

Census Tract-Level Poverty Rates in St. Louis County, 2000

Census Tract-Level Poverty Rates in St. Louis County, 2000

Census Tract-Level Poverty Rates in St. Louis County, 2008-12

Census Tract-Level Poverty Rates in St. Louis County, 2008-12

As dramatic as the growth in economic disadvantage has been in this community, Ferguson is not alone.

Within the nation’s 100 largest metro areas, the number of suburban neighborhoods where more than 20 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line more than doubled between 2000 and 2008-2012. Almost every major metro area saw suburban poverty not only grow during the 2000s but also become more concentrated in high-poverty neighborhoods. By 2008-2012, 38 percent of poor residents in the suburbs lived in neighborhoods with poverty rates of 20 percent or higher. For poor black residents in those communities, the figure was 53 percent.

Like Ferguson, many of these changing suburban communities are home to out-of-step power structures, where the leadership class, including the police force, does not reflect the rapid demographic changes that have reshaped these places.

Suburban areas with growing poverty are also frequently characterized by many small, fragmented municipalities; Ferguson is just one of 91 jurisdictions in St. Louis County. This often translates into inadequate resources and capacity to respond to growing needs and can complicate efforts to connect residents with economic opportunities that offer a path out of poverty.

And as concentrated poverty climbs in communities like Ferguson, they find themselves especially ill-equipped to deal with impacts such as poorer education and health outcomes, and higher crime rates. In an article for Salon, Brittney Cooper writes about the outpouring of anger from the community, “Violence is the effect, not the cause of the concentrated poverty that locks that many poor people up together with no conceivable way out and no productive way to channel their rage at having an existence that is adjacent to the American dream.”

None of this means that there are 1,000 Fergusons-in-waiting, but it should underscore the fact that there are a growing number of communities across the country facing similar, if quieter, deep challenges every day.

Concentrated Poverty in the News

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Here is a roundup of some of the national and regional coverage Elizabeth’s brief The Growth and Spread of Concentrated Poverty, 2000 to 2008-12 has received since its release two weeks ago.

The Washington Post, Poverty consolidated and spread to the suburbs during the 2000s, report finds

GovBeat’s Niraj Chokshi discusses the growth of poor suburban neighborhoods, their shifting geography and demographics, and the growth in share of suburban poor living in very poor neighborhoods.

Read the article>>

Time, The Rise of Suburban Poverty in America

The overwhelming majority of metro areas in the US saw their suburban poor populations grow—and grow more concentrated—between 2000 and 2008-12. This trend predates the Great Recession, and is the result of many factors. On the ground, social service providers around the country must contend with the changing geography of concentrated disadvantage.

Read the article>>

CityLab, The Great Recession Cemented Suburban Poverty

Kriston Capps writes: “If the best tools geared toward alleviating poverty are designed for urban centers, then they may be rendered increasingly ineffective by the new geography—with poverty spreading to areas with lower density, less transit, and fewer services.”

Read the article>>

Vox, The amazingly rapid suburbanization of poverty

The 2000s saw a reversal of progress made toward reducing concentrated poverty in the late-1990s. The proliferation of poor neighborhoods, particularly in suburban communities, suggests a need for additional affordable housing in suburbs.

Read the article>>

Slate, The Frightening Growth of Suburban Slums

Despite the lingering perception that poverty is strictly an urban phenomenon, the growth of concentrated poverty in suburbs may represent what author Jordan Weissmann calls the “worst of all possible worlds”: the negative effects of poor neighborhoods, transported to areas that may lack safety net services and access to opportunity.

Read the article>>

The Dallas Observer, Recent Study Shows Poverty in DFW Suburbs Has Doubled in the Past 12 Years

Between 2000 and 2008-12, Dallas-Fort Worth’s metro area poor population grew by 65 percent, and the share of poor residents living in poor neighborhoods grew by 16 percentage points.

Read the article>>

Colorado Springs Independent, In the poorhouse now

Among the 100 largest metro areas in the country, Colorado Springs saw the largest increase in the share of its suburban poor living in high-poverty neighborhoods between 2000 and 2008-12. J. Adrian Stanley investigates the local causes and consequences of Colorado Springs’s shifting geography of poverty.

Read the article>>

Mayors Take Aim at Inequality, but is That the Right Target?

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Cross-posted on Brookings’ Metro Blog, The Avenue

Alan Berube

Monday, a special U.S. Conference of Mayors task force released a report documenting growing income disparities in U.S. metro areas. The Cities of Opportunity Task Force is chaired by New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, two of the most prominent mayors elected last fall on platforms to reduce inequities within their cities.

The analysis and the mayors’ response to it highlight the difficult situation these leaders face.

The statistics in the report, authored by IHS Global Insight, demonstrate that in most places, inequality is increasing. In about two-thirds of metro areas, average incomes grew faster (or shrank more slowly) than median incomes from 2005 to 2012, suggesting that more income has become concentrated among richer households.

It makes sense from an economic standpoint to look at metro areas, since they best approximate the regional labor markets driving these income dynamics. Yet it also highlights the mismatch between the purview of mayors, who run the administrative cities at the heart of those metro areas, and the bigger metropolitan—and indeed, global—economic forces with which they are trying to contend. For instance, Mayor DeBlasio has jurisdiction over New York City’s 8.3 million citizens, but they represent fewer than half of the New York metro area’s 19.8 million residents. Meanwhile, Mayor Walsh runs a city that is home to only one in seven residents of the Greater Boston area.

A report we released earlier this year found that big cities are actually experiencing faster-growing income disparities than their wider metro areas. That explains the political saliency of inequality in big cities today. But it may be a bridge too far for them to attack “inequality,” that is, the economic distance between low- and high-income residents. Inequality may be important context for social mobility, but national and state policymakers are much better positioned to address it directly.

None of this means mayors should sit on their hands, especially given increased gridlock in Washington and state capitals. Rather, they can focus on how to make their cities more effective engines for economic mobility. Higher local minimum wages and better worker benefits can be part of such a strategy, as can high-quality early education, two prongs of the task force agenda moving forward. Yet economic development policies—fostering good jobs and aligning training accordingly—and housing/land use decisions—preserving and expanding affordable and middle-class communities—are also important mobility levers that mayors shouldn’t overlook.

Meanwhile, big city mayors should reach out and work with their wider metropolitan counterparts on issues that affect mobility. Washington, D.C. recently did this with its Maryland suburbs on minimum wage increases. Seattle has worked with King County to preserve public transportation.

The mayors deserve credit for keeping a critical economic issue on the political front burner. But they should be sure to pick the right target for their efforts, one where they can achieve meaningful progress toward making their places true cities of opportunity.

Regional Coordination among Governments Can Combat Suburban Poverty

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Barbara Ray

When I was a kid growing up in a small town, the phone in my sister’s house would ring with a different tone to alert my brother-in-law to a fire. When the phone rang, he’d drop everything and run the three blocks to the firehouse and join a dozen or so other volunteers to put out the fire. Our town was too small to warrant a full-time fire department—or many other services for that matter. (We were, however, bigger than the nearby town of Bolan, Iowa, pop. 33—and 16 in 1989 when the entire town joined David Letterman on stage.)

Governance in towns such as Bolan or Glen Echo Park (pop. 160; 37 families) outside St. Louis, a region Elizabeth recently visited, is often a straightforward affair—until, that is, help is needed or disaster strikes.

At a recent meeting in St. Louis County, Elizabeth was discussing the importance of smart governance in combatting growing suburban poverty when a Glen Echo Park elected official raised her hand. Glen Echo Park, she said, has two streets and no retail or businesses, and about one-fourth of the homes are vacant. They needed better housing code enforcement, but where were they to turn? Glen Echo Park is just one of more than 90 municipalities in St. Louis County, which itself is just one county in the St. Louis metro area.

She’s not alone. Glen Echo’s problems are shared by many other regions, albeit on a different scale. The eight-county Chicago metro area is home to 9 million residents and 1,226 different units of government. In the Chicago metro, townships, municipalities, counties, and other levels of government overlap, create redundancies, and compete for resources, making coordination nearly impossible. The numerous small municipalities mean that many of the region’s poor live in small communities, often with tiny governments that are stretched thin. “Where are they to turn?” applies there, too.

As Jon Davis wrote in the Building Resilient Regions blog about Denver and Chicago’s different approaches to governance, “Strong suburban governments in Denver make policy implementation much easier than in Chicago, where ‘fragmented and weak local governments . . . present a major obstacle even to secure funding to address growing poverty.’”

A recent paper by Rebecca Hendrick and Karen Mossberger examined the ability of townships and municipalities in the Chicago metro region to deliver services amid growing poverty. Even before the 2008 recession and housing crisis, the authors found that 20 to 30 percent of the townships surveyed believed they could meet only a fraction of the demand for services in their community. Municipalities are even worse off. Of the 30 municipalities in the southern suburbs of Chicago, only one is designated as a Community Development Block Grant Program recipient, according to a recent report by the Urban Institute’s Rolf Pendall, University of California Berkeley’s Margaret Weir, and Urban Institute’s Chris Narducci. Most must rely on overburdened Cook County.

One option is to consolidate these many layers and levels of government. Although that’s a good option in many cases, it’s not always so. Consolidating mental health services, for example, might mean longer drives for suburban residents, and a 2003 study shows that people were substantially more likely to use mental health services if there was a provider within three miles of their home. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), in a recent assessment, argued that consolidation should be done on a case-by-case basis. A report by a commission, assembled to determine whether consolidating governments in Illinois was a smart move, came to a similar conclusion that cooperation between governments was as important as consolidating them.  (Ohio is an example of a state playing a helpful role in overcoming fragmentation. There, the Local Government Innovation Fund channels state funding to communities to assess when it makes sense to coordinate services or actually consolidate.)

Pendall, Weir, Narducci, and others argue that when government capacity is as low as it is in the Chicago suburbs or Glen Echo Park, regional approaches can boost local resilience. Examples of this regional approach are emerging, albeit slowly. A new brief by Robin Snyderman and Beth Dever of BRicK Partners on our website points to successes in coordination. Civic organizations in Chicago, such as the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), Chicago Metropolis 2020, and the region’s philanthropic community have long championed the importance of regional coordination.

Elizabeth also discusses promising progress in Kansas City in her recent blog post, and as we recently wrote, the 24:1 initiative in St. Louis began as a coordinated effort to stem the foreclosure crisis and has now turned its attention to the coordination of housing, jobs, economic development, and health care.

In the San Francisco, the OneBayArea project is coordinating efforts among the Bay Area’s nine counties and 101 towns and cities to create a more sustainable future, with an initial focus on transit-oriented development. Its 2013 Plan Bay Area was a joint plan by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). As Commission Chair and Orinda Mayor Amy Rein Worth noted in their press release, ““For decades, MTC has been charged by state and federal law to produce a long-term regional transportation plan, while ABAG has been responsible for assessing regional housing needs. Plan Bay Area puts these elements together in a way that makes sense.” The Plan promotes compact, mixed-use commercial and residential development close to mass transit, jobs, schools, and other amenities. The focus areas include regional centers like downtown San Jose to suburban centers like Walnut Creek’s West Downtown area.

Most of us rarely think about how the lights stay on or the fires get put out, let alone who helps meet the needs of families on the brink of disaster. That’s the role of governments and smart governance. Whether fractured and parochial like Chicago or, like Glen Echo Park, a municipality too small to marshal a response, the problem of responding to growing need is similar. Increasingly, the problem calls for a regional solution.

Homepage photo credit: Flickr user Pete Zarria

Does Inequality Matter for Mobility? A Metro View

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Cross-posted on Brookings’ Social Mobility Memos blog

Alan Berube

Standard and Poor’s issued a new report this week arguing that high levels of inequality may be retarding U.S. economic growth, moving debates around the effects of inequality further into the mainstream.

The Unresolved Debate about Mobility and Inequality

One particularly contentious axis of the debate about inequality has focused on whether there’s any connection between income inequality and intergenerational mobility. Former chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers Alan Krueger popularized the Great Gatsby curve, based on research from Miles Corak at the University of Ottawa, which portrays that countries exhibiting higher levels of inequality also experience lower levels of mobility across generations.

Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute and Donald Schneider of Heritage, as chronicled on this blogchallenged that interpretation in a piece late last year (as well as in subsequent writings). The two researchers made use of great new data from the Equality of Opportunity project at Harvard and UC-Berkeley which measure US income mobility at the metropolitan scale by pairing the tax returns of parents and children across 30 years. Winship and Schneider ultimately find no significant relationship between the project’s measures of inequality and mobility for “commuting zones,” which approximate urban and rural economic regions.

Why Look at Mobility from a Metro Angle?

Inequality at the metropolitan scale could affect mobility over time if, for example, it leads to more racially and economically segregated neighborhoods and schools. The Harvard and Berkeley researchers find that low-income children growing up in metro areas with higher levels of segregation made less progress up the income ladder over time. Similarly, Melissa Kearney of Brookings’ Hamilton Project finds that high school dropout rates and non-marital childbearing rates, factors also associated with lower income mobility for the poor, are higher in areas characterized by more inequality.

To investigate whether metro-level inequality might affect metro-level mobility, I plotted the average Gini coefficient (a standard income inequality measure, derived from Census Bureau data) for metro areas in 1980 and 2011 against the Harvard/Berkeley measure of intergenerational mobility for those same metro areas (provided on their website), which they calculated across a similar time period. It suggests that, in fact, metro areas where inequality is higher tend to show lower rates of intergenerational income mobility. The relationship is actually a little bit stronger among the 100 largest metro areas (depicted below), where the difference between a low-inequality metro like Boise and a high-inequality metro like Chicago translates into a predicted 3 percentile lower adult income for a child growing up in a 25th percentile family.


Is that a lot? Not exactly. Is it causation rather than simple correlation? I’m not sure. But it’s a reminder that efforts to promote social mobility—through channels such as education, norms around family formation, or economic development—ultimately take shape in local places that have their own distinctive economic dynamics, inequality among them. Whether or not there’s truly a “Metro Great Gatsby curve,” inequality warrants attention as potentially important context for those efforts in metro areas.