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

New Public-Private Models for Stabilizing Neighborhoods in the Wake of Foreclosures

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ForeclosureBy Barbara Ray

Six years after the housing market bust, the effects of the foreclosure crisis still linger for thousands of communities hit hard by a spiral of disinvestment that left families facing painful decisions.

A father of three teens in suburban Chicago lost his job as a truck driver and soon began to fall behind on his $1,700 monthly mortgage payments and was on the brink of foreclosure.  A mother, left with child support as her only income after a divorce, was repeatedly denied a modification on her mortgage when it threatened to swamp her. To add insult to injury, she lost $1,500 to a loan modification scam. She too faced foreclosure.

And it’s not over. As a recent CNN story reported, up to 180,000 people will see their mortgage payments increase on average about $200 a month this year, when rates under the Home Affordable Modification Program begin to reset.

In response to the continuing crisis, nonprofits across the country have been developing new approaches to stop the spiral of decline. As Sarah Berke of the Housing Partnership Network and Carolina Reid of the University of California Berkeley write in the latest issue of “Community Development Review,” published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco:

“It hasn’t been easy—funding for neighborhood stabilization remains small in comparison to need, and the volatile housing market has required quick thinking and the ability to design new solutions on the fly. And although the housing market has finally begun to rebound, nonprofits are working to sustain their work in response to continued historically-high levels of foreclosures and bank-owned inventory.”

One thing is clear: We can no longer address the foreclosure problem with yesterday’s policies. The crisis is too fast-moving and at such a different scale, and budgets are too tight, for siloed approaches to make a dent. Instead, it will be critical to continue creating funding models that blend public and private dollars.

In Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, Elizabeth and Alan point to the Mortgage Resolution Fund as a good example of a collaborative effort to leverage funds. At the height of the crisis, four national organizations, including Housing Partnership Network, joined forces to form the MRF. MRF aims to keep homeowners in their homes, and uses innovative tools and enterprise-level investment to do so. In a novel, market-based approach, the MRF partners tapped into the Treasury Department’s Hardest Hit Fund to negotiate a loan of $100 million with very favorable terms. This allowed them to buy 270 properties in four suburban areas in the Chicago region and work with the owners to keep them in their homes.

In summer 2013, MRF expanded to northeast Ohio, where the mortgage pool was riskier, according to Danielle Samalin in “Community Development Review.” Despite these odds, initial results from the loan pool purchases “have been extremely encouraging,” she says.

With the help of MRF, the suburban father of three was able to reduce his monthly mortgage to an affordable payment (and he found a new job). The young woman who had struggled after her divorce was able to move forward with her life by voluntarily entering into a deed in lieu of foreclosure. Communities were stabilized instead of depleted.

The Review showcases several other fresh approaches to the crisis. Boston Community Capital’s (BCC’s) Stabilizing Urban Neighborhoods (SUN) Initiative, for example, purchases foreclosed homes and then turns around and helps owners repurchase them at a lower price, bringing down housing expenses by an average of 40 percent. The program recently expanded to Maryland, which had the highest foreclosure “starts” in the country in the fourth quarter of 2013. And it’s not just in inner-city Baltimore. According to an NBC news report in January, “Montgomery, Frederick and Howard counties each suffered from 100 percent increases in home foreclosures between autumn 2012 and autumn 2013. There was a 50 percent increase in Prince George’s County. In Anne Arundel County, the spike is much larger: 400 percent.”

In the end, even these innovative models only begin to scratch the surface of a problem that has affected, and will continue to affect, metropolitan communities of all kinds. But they demonstrate that public-private partnerships must become more the norm, given the scale of the challenge.

Photo/ BBC World Service

With More Poor Students, Suburban Districts Look to Expand Public Pre-K

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PreKBy Sarah Jackson

Several years back, Ed Leman, then superintendent of District 33 in West Chicago, began searching for funding to expand preschool services to students in his school district, 30 miles outside of Chicago.

Like many communities in suburban DuPage County, Illinois’ District 33 was experiencing dramatic jumps in the number of low-income students. Educators in the early grades were struggling to meet the needs of this changing population, more and more of whom were arriving on the first day of kindergarten far behind their higher-income peers.

These challenges were new to some suburban educators in the area, who as recently as 10 years ago had almost no low-income students in their classrooms. “We can’t begin the academic work,” Leman told the Chicago Tribune in 2010, “because they’ve taken such a step back in such rudimentary things as entering a classroom, handling their materials, interacting with tablemates and orienting a book right side up.”

District 33 ran a pre-K program, but slots at the publicly funded preschool were hard to come by. In most states, preschool falls outside the funding structure for K-12 education. So when public preschools programs do exist, they are often susceptible to politicking and budget shortfalls, which has been the case in Illinois. The state’s Preschool For All program has never been fully funded and the Early Childhood Block Grant, which pays for preschool, has suffered $80 million in cuts over the past few years.

For District 33, the solution came through a partnership with the Ounce of Prevention Fund, which worked with the district to build Educare of West DuPage. Today, the center offers year-round preschool to 102 at-risk children ages 6 weeks to 5 years, with funding from private foundations. Educare’s model, which is now being expanded, is in many ways similar to other programs being implemented in cities and states around the country and to Obama’s Preschool for All proposal: year-round full day services, low staff ratios, well-trained teachers, rigorous curricula, and health care and family support programs.

Early results from Educare’s model show that low-income children who attended Educare preschools entered kindergarten with vocabulary and school-readiness scores that were near national norms. On average, low-income children enter school with significant shortfalls in these and other skill sets. These results mirror national research that has found that investments in high-quality pre-K can help prevent achievement deficits between low-income students and their more advantaged peers. And Economist James Heckman has found that investments in high quality pre-K eventually pay off in longer-term benefits to society as a whole, like lower social welfare costs, decreased crime rates, and increased tax revenue.

Big cities, of course, have traditionally been home to more of the nation’s low-income school children. And it’s here that lawmakers have been taking the lead in finding innovative ways to fund universal pre-K programs. In San Antonio, mayor Julian Castro led a successful campaign in 2012 to institute an eighth of a cent sales tax increase to expand preschool to more than 22,000 four-year-olds over the next eight years. New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio has proposed an increase in taxes on higher-income residents to help fund public preschool for all four-year-olds (though now state financing seems likely). And Seattle’s city council has proposed providing free preschool to three- and four-year-olds living in households earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

But disadvantaged young children live outside of cities, too. As poverty continues to rise in suburban communities, it’s the youngest children who are most likely to be poor. (A child under age five in DuPage County, for example, is about twice as likely to be poor as a senior citizen.) These imbalances, some are proposing, set the stage for nasty face-offs between young and old over scarce resources. To avert these no-win showdowns, communities around the country will need new regional models and funding structures to support their youngest children. Doing so is critical to these communities’ futures.

In suburban Oak Park, Illinois, for example, six government bodies have come together to create the Collaboration for Early Childhood, a public-private partnership designed to better meet the needs of the area’s youngest children and their families through high-quality preschool, parent information and support, and developmental screening. All governmental agencies participate and contribute financially and the group works to overcome fragmentation by leveraging all available community resources.

Confronting Suburban Poverty in America points out that low-income students in the suburbs are going to schools where students are performing only slightly better than their counterparts in urban schools and not nearly as well as students in typical middle- or higher-income suburban schools. Publicly funded pre-K may help more students in low-income suburbs do better in school over the long haul, increasing the school’s share of students meeting standards and lowering the burdens educators and schools in these communities face.

“In preschool, you never know if you’ll be here the next year,” preschool teacher Christina Stangarone told the Chicago Tribune. “You’re just praying that the state will be generous and that the school district and board believe in the program.”

Low-income children in the suburbs deserve more than a prayer.

Photo/White House

New Analysis Shows EITC Expansion Would Strengthen Credit for Childless Workers

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By Jane Williams and Elizabeth Kneebone

For low-income working families, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is one of the nation’s most effective tools for reducing inequality and alleviating poverty. However, for low-income childless workers, the EITC is a weak or unavailable resource.

Recognizing the need to reform the EITC to better benefit childless workers, the Obama administration recently released details for how it would go about expanding the EITC. The administration’s proposal joins others from officials in both the House of Representatives and the Senate including Representative Richard Neal’s Earned Income Tax Credit Improvement and Simplification Act of 2013 and the Working Families Tax Relief Act of 2013 introduced by Senators Sherrod Brown and Richard Durbin.

Yesterday we released a new analysis estimating the impact of each of these proposals’ on low-wage workers at the state level and across the nation’s 100 largest metro areas using our MetroTax model for Tax Year 2012.

We found that:

  • Each proposal would significantly strengthen the credit for millions of workers.
  • At least 15 states would double the number of filers eligible for the childless worker credit.
  • Every major metro area would see thousands of workers benefit from an expanded EITC.

Our findings illustrate that the proposed EITC expansion would contribute a significant federal investment in low-wage workers as well as the communities in which they live. This is particularly important for our suburban poverty work.

For part of what makes the EITC effective as a poverty alleviation tool is its responsiveness to changes in the economic cycle (bolstered in recent years by targeted expansions) and to the changing geography of poverty in the United States.  As the low-income population rapidly suburbanized in recent years, so, too, did the geography of EITC recipients. Between Tax Year 1999 and Tax Year 2011, the number of filers claiming the EITC in the suburbs of the 100 largest metropolitan areas increased by 61 percent, compared to an increase of just 32 percent in the largest cities. In Tax Year 2011, 10.2 million suburban filers claimed the EITC for a total of $22.9 billion.

Modernizing the EITC by enacting the proposed expansions would ensure the credit is an effective work incentive and poverty alleviation tool for childless workers, many of whom reside in suburban communities that are otherwise ill-equipped to address growing need.

When Transit Is Not an Option

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Auto Loan Image

Through affordable auto loans, Ways to Work helps ease the financial burden of owning cars for low-income suburban workers.

By Sarah Jackson

The suburbs are in many ways defined by cars. Part of the popular stereotype of an American suburb is homes with two-car garages built on quiet cul-de-sacs, removed from retail and businesses, with scarce sidewalks.

While suburbs are certainly more diverse than that picture, in practice suburban residents often have to get into their cars to pick up groceries or get to work. Where suburban public transit exists, it carries commuters to and from the central city and not many other places, as we wrote about here.

As a result, most suburban residents, including low-income families, depend on their cars. More than 94 percent of suburban households own at least one vehicle. Seventy-four percent of low-income suburban residents drive alone and 12 percent carpool to and from work, according to Brookings’ analysis of the American Community Survey Data.

But cars are expensive.

As Elizabeth and Alan write in Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, in addition to the costs of purchasing and insuring a car, low-income drivers also “face frequent and costly repairs to keep the car running because they tend to buy older, cheaper vehicles.”

This was the case for Natasha Gregory, a single mom in Waukesha, WI, a suburb of Milwaukee, who relied on a car she bought “cheap off the street” to get to her part-time job, to school at Marquette University, and home to care for her 9-year-old. When it broke down, Gregory told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, she “started to panic a little bit.”

“I was like, ‘How am I going to get to school?,’” she said. “’How am I going to get to work? If I can’t go to work, there is no way I can pay my rent.’”

On top of those stressors, research shows that people who live in low-income neighborhoods pay between $50 and $500 more than residents of higher-income neighborhoods for the same car, according to work by Matt Fellowes, a former Brookings fellow. In some cases, this may be because residents of low-income neighborhoods have poor credit or payment histories, but also because they are more likely to be victims of predatory lending practices that result in loans with very high interest rates.

Research from the Consumer Federation of America shows low-income residents are likely to pay more for less when it comes to auto insurance coverage as well. In California, for example, State Farm won’t sell auto insurance policies at all to young men with poor driving records from certain low- or moderate-income neighborhoods like Compton, near Los Angeles, or Sunnyside, near Fresno.

Kristina Hubbard could not afford a car with her wages at a call center in suburban Atlanta. And she was making a two-hour trip each way—on two trains and a bus—just to travel 25 miles to work. In the evenings, she told NBC News, she regularly didn’t make it to her daughter’s daycare by its 6:30 pm closing time, and incurred expensive fines.

Gregory and Hubbard both found assistance through Ways to Work, a community development financial institution that provides affordable auto loans to families facing credit challenges. Through a network of 44 loan offices across the country, Ways to Work provides low-interest loans and financial education, and partners with nonprofit, family-serving agencies that are members of its sister company, the Alliance for Children and Families.

Ways to Work clients usually have 24 to 30 months to repay loans at around an 8 percent interest rate. Ways to Work President Jeff Faulkner says 90 percent of clients repay their loans on time, despite their credit risks.

Ways to Work program evaluations show that cars enable clients to improve their employment circumstances (by pursuing promotions, and/or higher paid jobs), enroll in education programs, miss fewer days of work, increase their credit scores, and spend more time with their families.

Hubbard is paying off her two-year loan and is the proud owner of 2006 Honda, which she says allows her to get to work and daycare on time.

“I’m more confident in myself. When I go to job interviews I don’t have to plan two or three hours ahead waiting on a bus. I’m actually able to think about career moves and where I want to go and going back to school,” Hubbard said.

With its centralized lending services and program management, the Ways to Work model is an excellent example of how to create efficiency while working at scale. The organization’s established partnerships with a network of existing providers, as well as its franchise approach have enabled Ways to Work to expand to more than 50 sites in urban, suburban, and rural communities across 21 states.

It’s that kind of scaled approach that will bring needed efficiency and expertise to communities around the country struggling with suburban poverty, and help families in its midst navigate their way toward better job opportunities.

Photo/ David Hilowitz

How Far Can You Get in the Suburbs Without a Car?

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By Barbara Ray

Living in the suburbs without a car can be a problem. Though many suburban communities have bus or train access into the central city in the morning and back again at night during the work week, if your job is anywhere besides the central city or you work odd hours, you may be out of luck.

New tools from Mapnificent are pretty revealing.

The interactive mapping site outlines the area reachable by bus or train within a set time from any starting point—a public transit catchment area, if you will. Drop a pin on a map anywhere in a metro area, choose the time frame (within 30 minutes or 60 minutes, say), pick a time of day or day of the week, and it’ll show where you can go in that time frame using public transportation.

Because most low-wage workers are the ones working off-shift, part-time, and weekend jobs, I was curious to see how easy it is for them to get to work on public transit. So, on the assumption that airports employ a lot of lower-wage workers, I entered 60 minutes and dropped my pin on airports in Houston, Atlanta, and Salt Lake City. All three are experiencing strong growth in population and jobs. Many of the lower-wage jobs in these areas are filled by recent immigrants, who tend to be major users of public transit.

Bad news. If you work at the George Bush International Airport  in Houston, you can’t get very far in an hour on public transport—and forget about weekends. That’s probably why only 1 percent of suburban commuters use public transit. (The percentage may be low, but that’s still 20,000 people.)

Take a look:



Salt Lake City is a little better. You can get almost anywhere in the metro area, except south of I-215, within an hour, even during off-peak hours. A recent report by Brookings scholar Adie Tomer and coauthors backs this up. In “Missed Opportunity,” they find that nearly 60 percent of all metro area jobs are reachable via transit in 90 minutes, much better than the 100-metro average of 30 percent.

In Atlanta, if you live in the southern tier, you can get to an airport job on public transit within an hour—from College Park or East Point, for example (but not Forest Park). If you live in a narrow band north of the city (up by the I-85 corridor), you might also be able to make it—if the connection gods are with you. “Missed Opportunity” shows that only 38 percent of working-age residents have access to public transit, and those residents can reach just 22 percent of area jobs  on average in a 90 minute commute. Those shares drop even further for suburban residents.

In New Orleans, Katy Reckdahl, writing in The Advocate, found that many low-income families in suburban Jefferson Parish, where jobs are migrating, were struggling with both the costs and headaches of transit. If a resident of Marrero wanted to get downtown, for example, “she would have to hop on a Jefferson Express Transit bus and pay one fare that would get her to the city. Then she’d have to pay another fee for the New Orleans bus, run by the Regional Transit Authority. There are no transfers across the two systems.”

Jefferson Transit Director Ryan Brown told Reckdahl that he’d be in favor of a more regional approach, but because the suburban and city lines are two separate entities, allowing transfers between them would mean “everyone would lose money.”

New Orleans is not the only place facing a lack of regional coordination. Detroit, for example, is the only metro area out of the top 30 largest without a regional transit system, and the only airport where you can land but not take transit to your destination. Yet transportation, by its very nature, is a regional issue, and it demands regional solutions. Detroit in fact is taking up the charge, having recently formed the Regional Transit Authority for Southeastern Michigan. The plan is to link Macomb, Oakland, Wayne and Washtenaw counties in southeast Michigan with a system of new rapid bus transit, and dedicated lanes for new express bus service across the county lines and to and from the airport. Funding, however, is not yet secured. The model they’re aiming for is Denver, which passed a regional tax for transit that qualified the area for federal matching funds. The result was a “complete renaissance in transit,” said John Hertel, the director of Detroit’s suburban bus system.

Regional solutions should also accommodate the rising demand for off-peak transit and intra-suburban routes. Efforts like this one in Denver to expand light rail and other transit options are great, but ideally they should also expand their hours of operation if they are to meet the growing demand for off-peak service. Doing so, according to Atlantic Cities, doesn’t cost any more. In fact, making service more regular might be cheaper. Interestingly, adding more off-peak routes also increases peak ridership. “If people know a train can take you back anytime you need, they’re more willing to take the train in during rush hour in the morning,” says Eric Jaffe writing in Atlantic Cities.

Understanding the emerging needs of low-income suburban residents to get to and from jobs no matter what the hours and where they are will be imperative if transit is to be effective.

The Squeeze is on for Affordable Rentals in the Suburbs

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Affordable Housing Image

By Barbara Ray

Families move to the suburbs for better schools, bigger yards, and safer streets. But increasingly, they’re finding it hard to pay the rent.

With an additional 3 million households cast into the rental market after the housing crisis, demand is outstripping supply and rents are jumping. In some suburbs of Boston, rents rose upwards of 14 percent in 2012. Median rents are hovering around $2,000-2,500 a month. In the suburbs of Chicago, rents have risen so much that in some communities developers are going on a building binge after a ten-year dry spell. The median rent for a suburban apartment there is now about $958 a month for one bedroom and $1,152 for two.

Obviously, a $10 an hour job doesn’t go far with those rents.

Today, a stunning one-half of all renters, or about 21 million people, spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, a traditional measure of housing affordability. That’s a new high, according to a new report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies, which also found that the issue of affordability is increasingly a suburban one. Today, 40 percent of renters are in the suburbs. In general, suburban renters are more likely to be parents and slightly older than city renters. Suburban rentals are more often single-family homes or larger apartment complexes.

Clearly, the nation needs more affordable housing. Researchers at the University of Minnesota go one step further and argue in a new report that federal funding is not meeting the need. In their case, they argue that too much federal funding for affordable housing is going to Minneapolis and St. Paul neighborhoods at the expense of fast-growing suburbs. That’s not because there’s no demand. The study found that in one suburban county near Minneapolis more than 9,000 people are on wait lists for affordable housing. Yet the majority of affordable housing units in the region continue to be built in the city. 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.

“It deprives families the opportunity to go to low-poverty, high-performing schools, if you build it all in very poor neighborhoods,” the study’s author, Myron Orfield told Minnesota Public Radio. “And it makes places like Minneapolis and St. Paul, which are already very racially segregated, over time more and more likely to house a larger percentage of the region’s poor population.”

Part of the issue has always been one of exclusionary zoning restrictions that suburban jurisdictions have favored. The restrictions, for example, bar large lots (where large apartment complexes could be built) or restrict multi-unit housing. Often these regulations are thinly veiled efforts to keep the poor—and the crime they are thought to bring with them—in the city, as Dan Rodricks argues in an op-ed about Baltimore County’s opposition to a $13.7 million housing development for low-income families in eastern Baltimore County.

In part as a reaction to these restrictions, policymakers in some areas of the country have created inclusionary zoning policies, which mandate, or at least encourage, developers to build a proportion of homes in market-rate developments that can be sold or rented at below-market rates. More than 500 localities in the U.S. have inclusionary zoning policies. Yet these programs largely target owners, not renters.

For renters, two federal programs help millions of households each year access affordable options, and both are increasingly being used in suburban communities. According to a Brookings analysis of HUD data, in 2008 the nation’s 100 largest metro areas contained 1.1 million affordable units created through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, a dollar-for-dollar tax reduction to investors who develop affordable rental housing, and half of those units were in the suburbs. In addition, recent research found that the Housing Choice Voucher program, a federal program that has grown over the last decade and that offers recipients portable subsidies in private, market-rate housing, served 3.4 million residents in that same year, half of whom lived in suburbs.

Expanding affordable housing in the suburbs seems smart, especially as suburban poverty rates increase.  But “more” is not enough. Where affordable housing is located matters too. Some developers are building affordable housing in unincorporated, far-flung areas with limited services and infrastructure, creating a different form of isolation for poor families. Many Housing Choice Voucher recipients end up in lower-opportunity suburbs, farther from jobs and good schools. While in the past, poor families were isolated in declining neighborhoods in central cities, today an increasing number may be isolated in out-of-the-way suburban developments.

Going forward, planners and policymakers must pay attention to the risk of re-segregation. In the suburbs, affordable housing must be located in areas that afford families access to high-performing schools and good jobs or we risk recreating the same trap of inner-city poverty. Likewise, they must work to create more economic opportunity in struggling suburbs that already have high concentrations of affordable housing.

Whatever the answer, the top-line issue is clear. The nation needs more affordable housing for its hard-working families, wherever they may live. The triple whammy of a foreclosure crisis (which is not over yet), long-term wage stagnation, and rising rents has left far too many families struggling to make ends meet.


The Metropolitan Geography of Low-Wage Work

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Cross-posted on Brookings Metro’s blog, The Avenue

By Jane Williams and Alan Berube

With increasing national debate and action around raising the minimum wage, particularly in several big cities (e.g., New York, Seattle, Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago), now is a good time to ask: Where do low-wage workers live? 

In our recent blog post about the prevalence of low-wage work in the suburbs, we alluded to a new analysis regarding the share of low-wage workers who actually live in the suburbs.  This post further analyzes the data to learn the extent to which fights to raise minimum wages in big cities might affect the low-wage workforce in metro areas.

We define “low-wage work” as occupations in which, nationally, at least one-quarter of all workers make less than $10/hour.  The major low-wage categories include: (1) sales and related occupations; (2) food preparation and serving related occupations; (3) building and grounds cleaning and maintenance occupations; (4) personal care and service occupations; and (5) farming, fishing, and forestry occupations.

Not all workers in these low-wage occupations earn “low wages” (and vice versa), but much of the nation’s low-wage workforce fits into one of these five sectors.  In fact, as the table below shows, more than half of workers in two of these occupational sectors (food preparation and serving related occupations; and farming, fishing, and forestry occupations) make less than $10/hour.  (In order to give a sense of what these occupational groupings mean, we have also included a non-exhaustive list of jobs that fall within these sectors).  Altogether, there were over 23 million workers in the five low-wage sectors in the 94 largest metropolitan areas in 2012, with the largest share working in sales and related occupations (10.5 million).

Minimum Wage Table 1 cropAbout two-thirds (67 percent) of workers in low-wage occupations live in suburban communities, just below the share of total workers who live in suburbs (69 percent).

Min-Wage Graph 1Some types of low-wage workers are more likely to live in suburbs than others.  While only 63 percent of workers (2.3 million) employed in building and grounds cleaning and maintenance occupations are suburban, 71 percent of workers (7.4 million) in sales and related occupations—the largest low-wage occupational sector in metropolitan America—live in the suburbs, evidence that most of America’s retail jobs and workforce have moved to suburbia.

Min-Wage-Graph 2The geography of low-wage workers varies across metropolitan areas, too. Not surprisingly, in highly suburbanized metro areas, large shares of workers in low-wage occupations live in the suburbs, led by: Atlanta (92 percent), Miami (89 percent), Providence (89 percent), Greenville (88 percent), and St. Louis (88 percent).  Conversely, these figures are lower in less suburbanized metro areas, including: El Paso (16 percent), San Jose (30 percent), Colorado Springs (31 percent), Wichita (35 percent), and Albuquerque (35 percent).  Notably, in three metro areas—Bakersfield, Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas—low-wage workers are disproportionately located in the suburbs compared to the overall workforce.

Minimum Wage MapAs municipalities across the country examine ways to boost workers’ wages, these data indicate the geography and scale of low-wage work in America.  Big-city campaigns to raise minimum wages might affect millions of workers, but would still miss the majority-suburban low-wage workforce in metropolitan areas.  Conversely, coordinated efforts to push these increases beyond cities into surrounding suburbs (as has recently occurred in the Washington, D.C. area) acknowledge the new geographic realities of low-wage work.