Low-income housing in Brownsville, New York City Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Targeting select low-income communities for an infusion of resources isn’t the answer to the problem of urban poverty. But what is?

Is it time to kick programs like Promise Zones and Choice Neighborhoods to the curb? Are these place-based initiatives, which funnel streams of resources to neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and racial segregation, futile in the face of rapidly expanding wealth gaps? Yes and yes, says Occidental College urban studies scholar Peter Dreier. In The Revitalization Trap,” a column for the National Housing Institute’s Shelterforce blog that Dreier wrote earlier this month,  he argues that organizations focused on community development have “fallen into the trap of focusing on revitalizing low-income neighborhoods, without challenging the corporate and political forces that create economic inequality and widespread poverty.”

And further:

Community development practitioners seeking to build more affordable housing, provide human services, and incubate small businesses, are fighting on a playing field that is tilted against them.

The solution is full employment with decent pay and benefits, and only the federal government has the capacity (and responsibility) to guarantee that everyone who wants to work has a job.

American workers today face declining job security and dwindling earnings as companies downsize, move overseas, and shift more jobs to part-time workers. Place-based policies cannot address these major trends.  

The column is an excerpt from a longer essay Dreier wrote for Nonprofit Quarterly in March—an essay in which he offers a more nuanced take on solutions to inequality, but still holds that place-based initiatives are misguided.

Instead, says Dreier, what government and philanthropy should focus on is system-wide reform of the market system that perpetuates economic inequality. Neighborhood revitalization projects are trivial when what’s really needed is an extremem makeover of capitalism. In short: We need a revolution.

These are important points to make. Community development is a decades-old movement that has taken on many shapes and forms, often not to the benefit of disadvantaged communities. Dreier also calls out the need to examine the lives of the wealthy as opposed to constantly focusing on rehabilitating the lives of the poor.  

There was a glaring omission from his overall argument, however: Racism. Namely, the role of racism in unequal outcomes, and the role of race in determining paths to better opportunities.

It is true that income growth is bad for all races right now. Worker productivity increased in America by 74.4 percent between 1973 and 2013, while hourly wages rose only 9.2 percent. But income growth has been particularly bad for African Americans, 38.1 percent of whom earned low wages between 2010 and 2012 compared to 25.9 percent of white workers, as the National Black Worker Center Project co-founder Steven Pitts wrote about in the #BlackWorkersMatter report released earlier this month.

From #BlackWorkersMatter report (Discount Foundation, Linda Burnham, National Domestic Workers Alliance)

Even more discouraging than the income gap is the wealth gap, which has left African Americans with $1 dollar for every $13 banked by whites.

                                                                                                                                         (Pew Research Center)

Four of the top 10 metros with the highest rates of low-wage work (defined as two-thirds of the median wage of full-time work) for African Americans are among the most hyper-segregated metros in the country.

From the #BlackWorkersMatter report (Discount Foundation, Steven Pitts, National Black Worker Center Project)
Hypersegregated metros, shown in red. (Courtesy Douglas Massey)

Dreier is right to look at increasing wages as a way of lifting African Americans out of poverty, but that’s a separate thing from closing the gaps of inequality. Good jobs and living wages are helpful for African Americans, immigrants, and LGBTQ workers, but they don’t help these populations overcome discrimination at the bank that prevents them from getting business loans, or the discrimination that prevents them from renting or buying housing in certain neighborhoods. Having middle-class incomes has not protected people of color from discrimination either, especially when it comes to foreclosures in recent years.

Patterns of homeownership, delinquency, and foreclosure among the youngest baby boomers (Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Just two weeks ago, 19 fair-housing centers filed a lawsuit against Fannie Mae, alleging that Fannie Mae has been keeping foreclosed homes in white neighborhoods in much better conditions than those in middle- and working-class communities of color, in violation of fair housing laws. The coalition found this to be consistent across 34 metros after a five-year investigation.

Dissing place-based strategies also undercuts initiatives currently in motion that have people of color and disadvantaged communities in the driver’s seats of their own revitalization plans. One great example of such initiatives is the ReGenesis Project in South Carolina, where black community leaders used a $20,000 grant issued 17 years ago by the EPA to start the cleanup of the blighted Arkwright and Forest Park neighborhoods in Spartanburg. That small grant has been leveraged into $270 million of investment today, which has been used to create hundreds of new affordable housing units for workers and seniors, a state-of-the-art community center, and six new health care centers focused on eradicating racial health disparities in the region. The project won an award this year from the American Planning Association.

Complete system change would no doubt be helpful in addressing these issues as well. That won’t happen overnight. Meanwhile, people living in distressed communities deserve the place-based investments and resources necessary to improve their neighborhoods and lives.

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