Putting Poverty in Its Place

The Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) has given new meaning to the adage that failure is an orphan but success has a thousand parents. The zone, a public-private partnership founded and led by the charismatic Geoffrey Canada, has produced significant gains in student achievement in the context of a deeply troubled neighborhood. This has made it both a darling of some conservatives and a supposed paradigm for the Obama administration's approach to urban distress.

It is a worthy model, but utilizing it to make a dent in our national poverty problem will require two realizations: first, that the conservative enthusiasm, most recently voiced by columnist David Brooks, is decidedly partial, and second, that any neighborhood-based approach, including the HCZ, must be nested in a far broader strategy to revitalize urban America -- including everything from the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit to changes in transportation funding to targeted training for the emerging green economy.

Conservatives make the mistake of attributing student success solely to the charter schools operating in the HCZ, which have a longer school day, the ability to dismiss teachers, and an embrace of old-fashioned discipline. But they don't call it a zone for nothing -- the secret of the HCZ is that the charters operate within a full set of neighborhood services, including a "baby college" to teach expectant parents about child-raising, support for community organizing aimed at neighborhood betterment, and even an asthma initiative to tackle environmental health.

The comprehensive nature of Harlem Children's Zone attracted the attention of candidate Barack Obama and elicited a campaign promise to enact a nationwide system of "Promise Neighborhoods." In reaction, some, like David Kirp in this magazine [see "Audacity in Harlem," TAP, October 2008], have been anxious about the feasibility of replication -- are there really that many Geoffrey Canadas in the world? Other observers have expressed concern that this is yet another place-based dead end, like the Enterprise Zones and Empowerment Zones of the 1980s and 1990s, that will fail to really move the needle on urban poverty.

But the administration's approach is far from single-pronged. Both Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan and White House Director of Urban Affairs Adolfo Carrion have embraced a point made by David Rusk in his 1999 book, Inside Game, Outside Game: Poor communities rarely do well if they are part of an overall metropolitan area that is sinking. Buoyed by analysis (and analysts) from the Brookings Institution, the administration has adopted what Rusk called an outside approach, a metropolitan agenda that sees the real solutions to poverty as involving "regional equity" -- the attempt to remake our transportation, housing, and workforce systems to keep cities competitive and spread opportunity.

Promise Neighborhoods are one part of the complementary inside strategy -- and a small part at that. The $10 million in planning grants to be run through the Department of Education are dwarfed by a proposed $550 million increase in the Community Development Block Grant program (up 14 percent from the previous year), with some of the spending geared to a Choice Neighborhoods program from HUD (based on HUD's Hope VI program's conversion of public housing but with a fuller suite of complementary community-based services) as well as a Sustainable Communities Initiative that will incentivize regional planning and inter-jurisdictional collaboration.

Making the connection between the inside and outside game, between inner cities and metropolitan economies, is critical for all of us. An intriguing series of studies -- including one from that well-known bastion of liberal thinking, the Cleveland Federal Reserve -- has suggested that metropolitan areas characterized by high levels of segregation and inequity do poorly in part because they fail to keep up their investments in human capital and in part because they are wracked by social conflict and jurisdictional fragmentation.

It's an inconvenient truth that we have increasingly come to understand at a national level. Who can doubt that rising inequality, which left some so rich they were forced to speculate and some so poor they were forced to borrow, helped feed our financial crisis? Likewise, urban poverty has shackled metropolitan prosperity. While innovative neighborhood approaches are no silver bullet, turning around the pockets of distress that plague urban America will be key to both a sustainable recovery and an effective anti-poverty agenda.

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