Politics & Policy

The Meaning of Place in the Cycle of Poverty

On July 26th, Next American City, The Penn Institute for Urban Research and the Netter Center for Community Partnerships hosted a free, public conversation at the National Building Museum about the cycle of poverty in the United States and what the 10-year-long HUD Moving to Opportunity program did to fight it. The event, which is the latest in the Next American City URBANEXUS series, took its name from a new book co-authored by Xavier de Sousa Briggs, Susan Popkin and John Goerning. Conversation opened with remarks by Penn IUR co-director Susan Wachter, who then introduced Associate Director of the White House Office of Budget and Management Briggs (who also served as moderator).

In his opening remarks, Briggs discussed the essential goal of the Moving to Opportunity program: to move low-income families from high poverty areas to neighborhoods with more access to good schools, employment prospects and social opportunities. The thinking went that if low-income families were removed from poverty-stricken neighborhoods, they would escape the cycle of poverty. The program was executed in five major cities — Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York — and Briggs’ book culls research on the program to assess its success. But as Briggs and Popkin noted on the panel, the results of MTO were mixed.

Popkin said that one of the most surprising findings was that young girls benefited from relocation in greater numbers than boys did. For girls, a place-based program like MTO works: girls are often harassed, feel unsafe or preyed upon in housing projects; in a safe neighborhood they feel a peace of mind and a sense of independence, which will lead to behaviors that can pave a way out of poverty. Why didn’t boys benefit from MTO? There wasn’t a clear answer, but that uncertainty lead to a greater conversation on the panel about how anti-poverty programs must consider elements beyond the built environment.

Roger Williams of the Annie E. Casey Foundation gave the example of the Casey Foundation’s responsible redevelopment work, which in addition to changing the built environment of housing projects, incorporates charter schools, commercial redevelopment and jobs training. Most significantly, these programs redevelop high-poverty areas by making them implicitly mixed income with market-rate rentals. Ira Harkavy of the Netter Center called for anchor institutions, such as medical institutions and universities, to fulfill their civic role in ensuring communities’ opportunities. More than the density of poverty, it is the access to a world outside impoverished neighborhoods that matters.

The question of MTO’s success or lack thereof is ultimately less interesting than the question of what will come next from the federal government to solve our growing impoverished population. And how will those future experiments be informed by MTO, Hope VI and other well-intentioned but ultimately unsatisfying programs? The Choice Neighborhoods program, which looks holistically at how education plays a role in improving high-poverty communities, seems like our best shot. But one wonders if Choice Neighborhoods, with its intention of replicating the seemingly singular Harlem Children’s Zone, isn’t one step behind. Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution cautioned that the demographics of poverty have changed. Poverty is cropping up in the suburbs at a much faster rate than in core cities. If place matters less than the social structures that form a community, diffuse suburban poverty could be just as dire and cyclical as dense, urban poverty.

Eliminating poverty is seemingly impossible — like curing cancer — but even if the MTO experiment didn’t solve all the problems of the families involved, one senses it will inform a future breakthrough on how to repair disadvantaged communities.

Tags: new york, east coast, washington, d.c., governance, d.c., chicago, los angeles, boston, poverty, brookings institution