The Next War on Poverty
Conventional wisdom aside, some ’60s-era inner-city programs have been a success. Now it’s time for Obama to launch phase two.
One evening in early 1966, Senator Robert F. Kennedy met with leaders in New York’s predominantly African American neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. The mood was one of urgency. The Watts area of Los Angeles had erupted in violence the previous summer and dozens had died. Those in attendance were worried about what would happen if nothing was done to reduce the high levels of joblessness and poverty in their own community. They challenged Kennedy to help them.
Just a few weeks earlier, in January, Kennedy had given three speeches laying out his suggestions for responding to the civil unrest in Watts and elsewhere. He had spoken out strongly right after the riots, but now he wanted to follow up with specific proposals. He had denounced the violence, but he also believed the poverty in America’s inner cities raised profound questions of economic injustice–as the major civil rights challenge facing the nation after the historic steps to dismantle American apartheid. I was one of his legislative assistants, and I helped draft the three speeches.
The trilogy of speeches had two major themes: how to accomplish racial and economic desegregation throughout metropolitan areas and how to revitalize neighborhoods of concentrated poverty in inner cities. As to the latter, Kennedy laid out an idea that had been recommended to him by my colleague Adam Walinsky. Outside funding and investment, both public and private, would support economic development and upgrading housing and community facilities. But the visionary thought was that jobs could be created by engaging local people in improving their own housing and other amenities, hiring them to help reconstruct their own community.
That evening in Brooklyn, Kennedy saw an opportunity to put his idea to the test. He outlined the plan and, getting a positive reaction from his audience and others with whom he spoke subsequently, he decided to proceed. In the following months he flew to New York two or even three times a month to work on bringing the project to life. There was extensive community wrangling as people pushed to get a piece of the action, and there were protracted negotiations with Mayor John Lindsay, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and key business and financial leaders over what outside actors should do to help.
When the dust finally settled, the result was the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. Led by Franklin Thomas, who later headed the Ford Foundation, it did not feature Walinsky’s idealistic image of sweat equity rebuilding the neighborhood, but it nonetheless reflected a most ambitious idea: an inside-outside partnership that would revitalize a deeply troubled place. Equally important, Kennedy and his senior colleague from the state, Republican Senator Jacob Javits, succeeded in amending the Economic Opportunity Act–the War on Poverty legislation–to authorize federal funding for initiatives like Bed-Stuy. These funds, distinctive in that they could be used flexibly for a multiplicity of purposes in a revitalizing neighborhood, seeded dozens of similar endeavors around the country during the decade or so that they were available.
With the addition of significant funding from the Ford Foundation and other sources, the result today is more than 2,000 community development corporations, or CDCs, as well as numerous other inner-city development organizations and outside entities that help finance their activities. Organizations like the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, the Enterprise Foundation, NeighborWorks America, and their many individual local counterparts have made a tangible and important difference in building and rehabilitating housing for low-income people and doing some economic development in low-income neighborhoods as well.
The problem, though, is that the sum of all this is not nearly enough. Kennedy and his colleagues never intended these to be panaceas; rather, they were to be cogs in a larger social-policy apparatus that would revitalize the inner city. And yet not long after Kennedy’s death, the nation began a long turning away from the sort of promising, nascent social policy initiatives he championed. He would be shocked to see how little meaningful attention we have paid to the inner city.
We have learned a lot since Bed-Stuy was formed, but the vexing question of concentrated urban poverty is still with us; if anything it’s much worse. It is past time to make progress in unraveling the tangle of problems that enmeshes the people of the inner cities. These are the quintessential places where race and poverty intersect, with terrible results. Forty-two percent of African American poor lived in inner cities in 1990, and half of those who live in these impacted neighborhoods are African American. (Another quarter are Latino.) These are places of unmitigated human tragedy: streets turned into battlefields, staggering AIDS rates, astonishingly few youth graduating from high school, prisons filled with the young men of the area, large numbers of women raising children by themselves–the list goes on. But somehow we do not add it all together. It is an astounding moral catastrophe.
In the meantime, the realities of the inner city have changed. Since Kennedy’s time, we have seen the massive loss of higher-paying jobs that hurt all lower-income people badly and inner-city residents catastrophically, the flight of higher-income people from the inner city, and the conservative drift in our politics, the further decline in inner-city educational quality, the arrival of gentrification, crack cocaine, and the AIDS epidemic. Some of these facts are the behavioral consequences of the resulting concentrated poverty. Some reflect failures of strategy and policy in the design and implementation of the efforts that have been undertaken.
We now have a president who has worked on these issues, and it is reasonable to hope for change. What’s needed, then, is an assessment of what went wrong and what looks promising today. Only in that way can we figure out what to do next (assuming we can muster the political will). As Kennedy was wont to say, we can do better.
Neighborhood Revitalization Strategies: A Brief History
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