While many economic indicators paint a rosy picture, the stubborn persistence of concentrated poverty is a serious nationwide problem and a huge challenge for our cities. In 2014, nine million more American were living below the poverty line, and concentrated poverty tends to severely limit upward mobility and hollow out communities. It’s a issue often viewed from a race-based lens, but in many ways, it’s place-based; neighborhoods that see less investment and attention continue to fall behind.
It’s a frustrating, seemingly intractable, problem. Even while unemployment drops and the GDP steadily climbs, concentrated poverty continues to get worse. For instance, while Detroit’s regional economy grew $9 billion from 2009 to 2014, poverty actually increased by 7 percent. The Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) took on the challenge of finding a strategy for success where others had failed, and did so by sweating the details.
The think tank and advocacy group’s new Urban Opportunity Agenda outlines exacting plans for 10 communities that aim to reduce poverty by 25 percent. Each community analyzed for this project, from large cities such as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to smaller areas such as Macon-Bibb County, Georgia, saw the poverty rate increase between 1970 and 2014. The CNT estimates that making a serious dent in concentrated poverty can become an economic engine that benefits the entire community, one that’s potentially bigger than "any sports arena, tech incubator, or business subsidy."
The silver bullet is targeted investments, granular, street-level fixes as opposed to sweeping changes. Most poverty reduction plans offer assistance and increased investment, but don’t multiply the effect of increased income with a similar reduction in expenses that cuts the cost of living. Combining both creates breathing room to save, strategize, and better one’s standing. Accomplish that earnings multiplying effect with smart spending in infrastructure, such as building more efficient transportation networks, cutting energy costs, and improving access to basic services (groceries, childcare, and medical care), and the investment suddenly provides the entire neighborhood with a boost.
Small shifts, properly tracked and adjusted as needed, make a big impact over the long term. Fixating on small inefficiencies may seem to sidestep the scope of the crisis. After all, how can following the general guidelines of the report—making buildings more efficient, planning for location-efficient job creation, and create connections with public transit or transit alternatives—put a huge dent in protracted poverty?
But these targeted investment, especially in oft-overlooked areas such as transportation, add up (and do so without tackling housing, normally one of the biggest annual expenses for any family). A 20 percent decrease in auto travel could save a low-income household $500 to $900 per year, a big bump for families making less than $25,000 annually. A program in Chicago that educated residents about energy conservation reduced expenses by $125/month, the equivalent of an $0.72/hour raise. The vision goes against the idea what all we need to do is raise incomes; simply making infrastructure more efficient can also help boost spending power and opportunities.
The CNT plans to roll out the agenda over the next few weeks, meeting with leaders and government officials in the 10 cities to discuss the recommendations and hopefully creates plans of action.