Renee’s Round-up: Poverty and Place

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) conference on Poverty and Place, a dialogue on the role of neighborhoods in persistent poverty. The event brought together a broad coalition of policy makers and researchers—from officials at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to employees of local public housing authorities across the country to economists specializing in anti-poverty programs—to discuss a topic at the core of Every Child Matters’ mission: How to ensure that every child has the chance to succeed, regardless of where he or she grew up.

Below is a round-up of key research and policy proposals to continue the conversation about the individual and societal impact of concentrated poverty and the ways that public investment can be targeted to increase opportunity for children growing up in high-poverty areas.

The jumping-off point for the discussion was new research by Harvard Economists Raj Chetty (who presented the findings at the conference), Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence Katz, which demonstrated that children living in some places—Chetty calls them “high-opportunity” areas—have much better outcomes than children in other areas when it comes to adult earnings, health, level of education, and incarceration rates. The study showed, further, that for children who moved to an area of higher opportunity, their outcomes improved for every additional year of childhood that they spend in the high-opportunity area.

The discussion of Chetty’s research revolved around two central questions:

  1. How can policy-makers use housing vouchers and other affordable housing policies to enable families to move to neighborhoods that will provide better opportunities and improved outcomes for children?
  2. What key factors are present in high-opportunity neighborhoods, and how can these factors be replicated in high-poverty areas in ways that expand opportunity without creating barriers or displacing low-income residents?

Engaging with the first question, Barbara Sard, the conference’s organizer, wrote an excellent analysis of the Housing Choice Voucher Program, critiquing and offering recommendations, while also acknowledging the program’s potential to immensely improve the well-being of children currently living in areas of concentrated poverty.

When it came to the second question, even finding a starting point for the discussion proved surprisingly complicated. While the research showed several neighborhood characteristics that clearly correlate with higher opportunity—including less racial and income segregation, lower income inequality, better schools, lower rates of violent crime, and higher rates of two-parent households—it was difficult to predict which of these factors actually cause higher opportunity, much less to determine what set of policies and public investments would be effective at enhancing these characteristics in low-mobility areas in a way that would ultimately improve outcomes for children.

There seemed to be a consensus among the experts that school quality does in fact have a causal effect on opportunity. Indeed, it is not difficult to imagine that access to better schools improves mobility and boosts outcomes for children. In a recent interview with WGBH, UCLA Professor Pedro Noguera, one of the conference’s panelists, discussed the need for education policy that interrupts patterns of inequality in urban public schools. Exploring these patterns of inequality further, an “abridged history” of education reform, featured in The Atlantic, recounts the barriers to educational opportunity that have faced minority children from the 19th century to the present. Exploring ways to address these deep-seated inequities will be central to improving mobility for children living in areas of concentrated poverty.

Concerns about gentrification were central to the discussion of neighborhood revitalization. In many cases touted as successful neighborhood “turnarounds,” the actual result is that low-income residents are displaced when affordable housing units are demolished and replaced with market-rate (usually luxury) apartments. However, the panelists cited two instances where community-driven development has achieved revitalization without displacement: in the Dudley Street neighborhood of Boston, where residents created a Community Land Trust, and in the Versailles neighborhood of New Orleans, a working-class Vietnamese enclave that rapidly rebuilt after Katrina with almost no government assistance or financing.

The key in both of these cases was that the revitalization was driven by residents and organizers within the communities, not by for-profit real estate developers. Certain public policies can also play a role in protecting low-income residents from displacement in developing neighborhoods, including rent control and legacy business funds like the one recently approved by voters in San Francisco. And federal safety net programs, which cut poverty nearly in half in 2014, are especially important lifelines for families experiencing stagnating wages and rising rents.

Whether through an improved housing voucher program that helps families move to high-opportunity areas, or through thoughtful, community-driven approaches to neighborhood revitalization and poverty reduction, improving mobility and access to opportunity for young children has a tremendous and lasting impact on their lives. The Poverty and Place conference was the start of a crucial dialogue among federal policy makers, local housing authorities, researchers and activists. Now, more voices and ideas need to be brought to the table to develop a meaningful and inclusive strategy to address concentrated poverty and its harmful impacts on children.

The background reading list for the CBPP Conference on Poverty and Place is available here.