Rachel M. Cohen

Rachel M. Cohen is The American Prospect's senior writing fellow. 

Recent Articles

Hillary on Charters: Yes and No

The Democratic presidential candidate spoke to the nation’s largest labor union, and defended both collective bargaining and public charter schools.

(Photo: AP/Molly Riley)
(Photo: AP/Molly Riley) Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton addresses the NEA Representative Assembly in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, July 5. O n Tuesday morning, as the FBI issued a recommendation to not indict Hillary Clinton for her use of a personal email server while secretary of state, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee came before more than 7,500 delegates at the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly in Washington, D.C., and praised public charter schools—to the audible dismay of some of the delegates—while condemning for-profit ones. The moment of tension emerged when Clinton started to discuss replicating the success of “great schools”—including public charter schools. She noted there had been too much focus on so-called “failing” schools. Though Clinton has been a long-time supporter of school choice, and her husband helped to catapult charters to the national stage when he was president, she took heat from charter school...

Education Reformers Reflect at 25

A quarter-century on, challenges loom for the school reform movement.

Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Syda Productions/Shutterstock I t’s been a quarter-century since the nation’s first charter school opened in Minnesota, prompting many self-proclaimed reformers to step back and reflect on their movement’s progress. Charters educated 2.5 million students this past year, in 6,700 schools across 43 states. Programs enabling students to attend private schools with vouchers are expanding . And in February, Teach for America celebrated its 25-year anniversary with a summit in Washington, D.C.—noting that of their 50,000 teachers and alumni, 40,000 are still under 40. But challenges loom for the movement—politically and philosophically. Some tensions can be chalked up to growing pains: a nationwide bipartisan coalition is bound to disagree at times, and certainly policy implementation can be far more contentious than passing legislation. Transforming the public education system, reformers have found, turns out to be hard, messy work. But the problems run deeper than that. Internally, two...

Teacher Unions Are ‘Bargaining for the Common Good’

Unions across the country are expanding their focus to the broader community.

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson Teachers at West Seattle Elementary School begin walking a picket line Wednesday morning, September 9, 2015, in Seattle after last-minute negotiations over wages and other issues failed to avert a strike in Washington state's largest school district. T his week, the Los Angeles school board voted to approve a new bargaining agreement with UTLA, the city’s teachers union. Local community organizations—like Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, InnerCity Struggle, and the Advancement Project—hailed the “groundbreaking” agreement for directing more resources towards students in high-needs schools. Some specific items UTLA bargained for included hiring a Pupil Services and Attendance counselor for high-poverty high schools, and hiring a new teacher for the 55 most needy elementary schools in order to reduce class size. Union members voted overwhelmingly in support of this new contract a week earlier. “We...

Poverty, Not Gentrification, Is the Biggest Barrier to Affordable Housing

When the mainstream media cover housing affordability issues, journalists often hone in on gentrification. Young, mostly white, college educated people are moving into urban cities, they say, followed by yoga studios, coffee shops, and luxury apartments. This influx of affluent individuals allegedly fuels the displacement of the poor.

These narratives may be popular, but research studies have shown that gentrification is rare and, in some cases, beneficial. The biggest housing problems facing America’s low-income residents have little to do with wealthier people moving in and everything to do with low-income residents falling even further behind.

Last month, a new Pew Charitable Trusts report found that just 15 of Philadelphia’s 372 residential census tracts gentrified between 2000 and 2014. Neighborhoods that experienced gentrification had at least a 10 percent increase in the median income during this period, according to the study. All but one of these gentrifying tracts are located in or adjacent to downtown Philadelphia. Pew also found that over 160 Philadelphia neighborhoods saw a significant decline in the median income during this same period.

In the Pew report, Beth McConnell, policy director of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations noted, “This gentrification stuff is happening in very few places, affecting a small number of people.” She added, “We have many more poor neighborhoods where there is no change.”

Researchers have found that even in New York, where high housing prices have crept into once less desirable neighborhoods, gentrification does not fully explain why affordable housing is so scarce. The Community Service Society of New York, an anti-poverty research and advocacy organization, recently released a report that found rents increased well above the rate of inflation even in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

One reason for this development is that landlords have been using loopholes in housing regulations to increase their rents, a problem that tenant advocates are fighting to fix. But crucially, the report states that poorer New Yorkers with stagnant incomes and inadequate safety nets have seen declines in their living standards “whether they live in gentrifying neighborhoods or not.”

Tom Waters, one of the report’s co-authors, tells The American Prospect that although gentrification is not the only housing problem facing New York, it has been “very productive from a tenant advocacy point of view” because it has helped the public understand that lower Manhattan is not the only area that needs rent regulation.

These gentrification discussions have sparked broader conversations about housing affordability. When Waters first began working on housing issues, New York landlords told state and local legislators that rent regulations only benefited high-income white people living on the Upper East Side. According to Waters, now people understand that rent regulations are important tools for diverse groups of New Yorkers.

For low-income families, the housing issues associated with concentrated poverty and economic segregation are far more pressing than those associated with gentrification. City Observatory, an urban policy think tank, found that between 1970 and 2010, high-poverty communities that didn’t gentrify fell even further into poverty, and lost, on average, 40 percent of their population.

Daniel Kay Hertz, City Observatory senior fellow, has noted, “If our concern is displacement, then that number ought to be a major concern. It represents the movement of countless households away from their homes, not because of rising rents but because high-poverty neighborhoods don’t provide the residents with enough of the necessities of a good life: strong schools, safe streets, access to jobs, and so on.”

Last year, journalist John Buntin suggested that one reason we see so many myths about gentrification in the news media may be because much of the gentrification that does exist has occurred in New York and Washington D.C., the two major East Coast hubs for journalists. Another reason may be that gentrification is a proxy for middle-class concerns about steadily rising housing prices, according to Buntin.

Nevertheless, housing affordability problems and solutions vary from region to region, and they cannot be properly addressed by blaming poverty on gentrification. In his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, sociologist Matthew Desmond argues that weak housing regulations are not merely a function of poverty, they actually create it. Many Americans care about growing income inequality and want to figure out ways to reduce the gaps between the haves and have-nots. If we are serious about changing these dynamics, then a more nuanced focus on housing simply has to be on the agenda. 

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