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How to Tackle Growing Suburban Poverty

Houston's Neighborhood Centers has spent years addressing this hidden problem—which will spread throughout the U.S.

Kids play at the Baker-Ripley campus, open since 2010. (Neighborhood Centers )

Think of a nonprofit that serves the poor, and the first image that comes to mind will likely be distinctly urban: an old, brick YMCA building, maybe with a neon sign announcing it to passersby, or the line for a soup kitchen spilling onto a city side street.

Ever since European immigrants flooded into American cities in the late 19th century, the charitable organizations that serve the vulnerable have clustered in urban centers. After World War II, white flight and the explosive growth of the suburbs only served to sharpen the divide. The suburbs were doing fine, it was long assumed, while hollowed-out cities needed help.

Now city centers are enjoying a revival, and poverty is growing faster in the suburbs than anywhere else. Experts worry that the urban safety net that poor people rely on may not stretch to fit suburbia: How do you get to a distant clinic or food bank when there's no bus, and you don't have a car? Can vast counties and unincorporated towns rally to the aid of their neediest residents?

The success of one Houston-area nonprofit offers lessons for alleviating poverty and building communities across a sprawling urban region. It also shows us what precarity looks like in the 21st century.

Neighborhood Centers was founded in 1907 as the Houston Settlement Association, part of the Settlement House Movement, which sought to improve the lot of the urban poor through education and social services. It is now the largest nonprofit in Texas, with 70-plus locations spread across 60—yes, 60—counties, serving roughly half a million people a year. Its size is not just a sign of the growing need for its services, but has become a powerful tool in and of itself.

"Over the years, we've learned there are advantages to size," says the CEO of Neighborhood Centers, Angela Blanchard, who has led the organization since 1986. "You can take on big regional challenges, like helping people settle into Houston who came here after [Hurricane] Katrina."

Angela Blanchard (Neighborhood Centers)

Tackling regional problems means lassoing funds from multiple governments, agencies, foundations, and other sources. Neighborhood Centers' ability to wring efficiency out of necessity has earned it praise from the Brookings Institution and the White House.

The organization's size also enables it to take a holistic approach, providing a broad spectrum of services—from a credit union to Head Start to ESOL classes—to assist whole families. "It's not unusual for us to work with families of five generations, all at one time," says Margie Peña, who works at the group's Cleveland-Ripley Center in the suburban city of Pasadena, about 15 miles southeast of downtown Houston.

Integrated services compound success: Parents are more likely to seek tax-preparation help or sign up for an ESOL class if it's on the same site as their children's charter school. And such integration is a must for helping clients reach certain goals. For instance, passing the GED requires both academic prep and basic computer literacy, since the Texas test is now administered by computer. Neighborhood Centers can help with both.

Blanchard stresses that most of the nonprofit's working-age clients are in the workforce; Houston has a low unemployment rate. But they tend to be underemployed, and in an era of rising inequality, can't ascend the ladder to the middle class. As Blanchard puts it, "We have a very large number of people working very hard to be poor."

Some speak limited English, which obviously hampers their earning potential. (Greater Houston has close to 1 million people with limited English proficiency, according to the Migration Policy Institute; they are more likely to live in poverty.) Others are working two jobs and can't spare any time or money to develop their skills. A new program is being designed to help the latter, Peña says: Neighborhood Centers will defray their living expenses while they go to class or undergo training—the only way they can afford to do so.

The nonprofit's staff knows that poverty is multi-factoral, so strategies to combat it are diverse, and may be surprising. Sometimes the best way for a person to move up the ladder is not by taking a class but by buying a car, which increases their access to jobs in an area with little public transportation. "The No. 1 product of our credit union is a car loan," Blanchard says.

However, what really sets Neighborhood Centers apart is its philosophy. It rejects the premise underlying so much philanthropic work: that places where poor people live are inherently broken and need fixing. Instead, the organization has embraced "appreciative inquiry," a process that assesses the strengths of a community through extensive interviews with its residents, then collaboratively builds on those. Once the nonprofit and the community embark on a plan of action, outcomes are tracked rigorously.

In the Gulfton area of southwest Houston, typically known for its high crime and gang activity, Neighborhood Centers found a culture defined by strong family ties and parents who work hard for their children to have a better life. The close engagement with Gulfton resulted in the opening of the Baker-Ripley campus in 2010, one of five full-blown centers it operates around metropolitan Houston. (The other locations are smaller "service sites," like senior and career centers, often run through partnerships.)

The four-acre Baker-Ripley campus (Neighborhood Centers)

The bright, village-style campus has become the center of gravity that so many suburban communities lack. It has a charter school, health clinic, credit union and tax prep center, immigration information office, classrooms, a green community space, and more, all based on input from local residents. They had highlighted the need for transportation, too, so there's a bus service that takes them from the center to the grocery store or the doctor. The Houston Chronicle recently called the campus "the keystone of a revival of the Gulfton area."

All this is good news for Houston, but there's another reason policy experts and the Obama administration are paying attention. "Houston is America on demographic fast-forward," as Jennifer Bradley of Brookings has written.

In the 2000s, the area's foreign-born population grew 48 percent. Sixty percent of Houston-area residents are now people of color. Over just the past few decades, suburbs like Pasadena flipped from being overwhelmingly white and middle-class to majority-minority, with a significant rise in poverty. The rest of America will experience similar changes soon enough, demographers say.

So it's fascinating to hear what Blanchard has to say about the "new" problem of suburban poverty. For her and her organization, it's not new at all. "It's never been that neat of a picture," she says. "It's just that the policies were developed [in] cities like Washington where that was the story … I think the county officials here completely understand that they have poverty."

In other parts of the country, awareness is still catching up. But at least there's a model for confronting poverty in its not-so-new, suburban guise.

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