Leave No Neighborhood Behind
People or place? Which is the source of persistent poverty and therefore where and how do we intervene?
Variations on this question have occupied social scientists and policy makers for a long time, with one, then the other viewpoint moving in and out of favor. In his recent blog post, Move Up or Out? Confronting Compounded Deprivation Robert Sampson helps us to move past this circular debate and focus on the complex but liberating truth: it’s both.
Few have done more than Sampson to reveal the effects of place and of human agency on the symptoms of persistent poverty in American cities. His monumental study, “Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods,” identified “collective efficacy” as the social glue that underlies healthy communities. Collective efficacy is typically explained as social cohesion, or the willingness of residents to act on behalf of their neighborhood. Will neighbors band together to prevent a firehouse from closing? Will adults hold young people to observance of the neighborhood’s social norms? Sampson’s research documented that neighborhoods with high collective efficacy scores are likely to protect and support their residents’ aspirations, regardless of the neighborhood’s relative wealth.
Yet the presence, or absence, of high collective efficacy is typically reflected in the physical environment as well. Is a neighborhood filled with blighted property? Is the local park well maintained? What does the physical evidence say about the quality of public services in a place, particularly if government is a large local property owner?
The interplay between people and the places they live is complicated. The effects of concentrated disadvantage are undeniable. In the two neighborhoods where Community Solutions works, Brownsville, Brooklyn, NY, and Northeast, Hartford, CT, life expectancy lags that of nearby wealthier communities by ten years or more, and young people are far more likely to spend time in jail than in a college classroom. But you don’t need to see the statistics to know that residents of these communities have been assigned the failure track. Walk around these places and see vacant and poorly maintained housing, poor quality markets, overgrown lots, un-tended parks. Look in vain for a cultural facility in either neighborhood. Take note of the shabby and inaccessible subway station in Brownsville and the absence of any bus shelters in Northeast.
The physical deficits of these places are like marbles thrown in the path of families’ aspirations. Since few residents own their homes, or own a car, they are more dependent than residents of wealthy communities on well functioning public goods and services: vigorous code enforcement to hold landlords accountable for the quality and safety of rental housing; well functioning public transportation to get to decent food markets and jobs; safe and well maintained parks for children who don’t have their own yards to play in. Yet even to the naked eye it’s clear that the opposite is the case: there is inadequate attention paid to the delivery of basic public services or the maintenance of public goods in these places.
In the midst of the longstanding neglect of these neighborhoods, and all the evidence showing that the sensible thing to do is to move out, fast, I’ve come to appreciate that there’s a lot more at stake: the people part.
In Brownsville, our team, made up principally of longtime residents of Brownsville’s (neglected) public housing, ends each team meeting with the cheer, “11212!”, our Brownsville zip code. My colleagues remind me regularly that is possible to want a better life for your children and for your community, and that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice one for the other.
Earlier this year, I was meeting with Erin Boggs of the Open Communities Alliance at our office in Northeast. She was sharing her study on housing segregation in Connecticut, and the grim findings that to an extreme degree, persons of color are trapped in the state’s lowest opportunity neighborhoods. Erin had surveyed residents who were desperate to leave these neighborhoods. That is surely true. Yet just earlier that day, my colleague, John Thomas, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, had introduced me to members of the Northeast youth council, which is cleaning up vacant lots and creating a greenbelt of community gardens, as well as working with the Friends of Keney Park, residents who are determined to renew this grand and neglected part of the neighborhood they love.
Erin and I agreed that what is missing are good options.
We should make it easier for families wishing to move to what are now higher opportunity neighborhoods to do so. And we should make every neighborhood an opportunity neighborhood, to make it possible, as Sampson suggests, to “move up in place.”
This is not some vague dream. I grew up in a well functioning neighborhood where public services worked well, and I live in one now. Most of us do. Delivering effective public services is something that we know how to do in this country. Improving the delivery of basic public services in high poverty neighborhoods is an obvious place to begin.
“Durable investments,” as Patrick Sharkey describes, are also proven tools in the community development toolbox. Why not make major investments in health, library, early childhood, cultural and sports facilities in these communities? Why not focus education, employment and housing initiatives in a coordinated way on the places where the gaps are greatest?
The sad truth is that we currently spend a fortune on managing the effects of neglect in these communities. There is good evidence that a comprehensive investment approach is a win-win. Not only would it enable more citizens to contribute to our communities and economy, but it could sharply reduce the amounts now spent on criminal justice, child protection, and healthcare in these neighborhoods. And these steps to create the conditions that make opportunity an authentic promise would signal hope-a precondition to growing collective efficacy in a community.
Sampson is to be thanked for freeing us from unproductive debate over people or place, and for again pointing the way to a more nuanced and actionable approach to poverty and opportunity.