The Battle to Boost Opportunity

Concentrated poverty remains a huge barrier to developing the potential of black and Hispanic youth in the United States.

Concentrated poverty remains a huge barrier to developing the potential of black and Hispanic youth in the United States.

Demonstrators gather and protest the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)Of all the issues raised by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, perhaps the most intractable is the challenge of restoring opportunity to the high-poverty, high-crime, racially segregated neighborhoods where police and minority communities often collide most sharply.

Whatever else is done to rebuild trust or rethink policing practices, America will continue to face too many wrenching cases like these unless it can first temper crime in such places by providing more of the people who live in them with plausible chances to advance economically. The catch is that policymakers have long struggled to find sustainable, and replicable, ways to revive neighborhoods isolated by concentrated poverty.

In some ways, the search for "place-based" strategies to renew troubled communities traces back to Jane Addams and the late-19th-century settlement houses that worked to integrate European immigrants into American society during the Melting Pot era, as urban planner Elwood Hopkins notes in an insightful collection of papers on neighborhood revitalization published last week by the University of Southern California's Sol Price School of Public Policy.

The next big wave of neighborhood-based development efforts came during Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, which dispatched a flotilla of new federal programs into struggling neighborhoods. In the decades since, institutions from the federal government to local nonprofits have pursued an ever-evolving array of ideas. These have ranged from funneling private investment for housing and commercial development through Community Development Corporations to offering federal tax breaks designed to attract business investment in places long denied it.

Many of these efforts have tangibly improved the places they've targeted. The Community Development Corporations, in particular, have shown remarkable skill and tenacity in building acres of affordable homes that provide working families with the dignity of clean and safe places to raise their children. But, overall, as Hopkins writes, "over the last 50 years, the field has been humbled by ... the limited effectiveness of the place-based initiatives undertaken to date." Today, the persistence of concentrated poverty remains a huge barrier to developing the potential of the black and Hispanic young people who will constitute a growing share of the future workforce: Studies indicate that about three-quarters of the former group and two-thirds of the latter attend public schools where a majority of their classmates qualify as low-income. (That's true for only about three in 10 whites.)

The United States has usually looked hardest at the problems of the isolated poor after tension between police and minority communities has erupted into violent unrest—as in Watts in 1965, or again in Los Angeles after the Rodney King beating in 1992. A conference at USC last week, which accompanied the release of the neighborhood-revitalization papers, suggested that if the nation is ready once more to examine these enduring challenges, there may be some valuable new approaches to explore.

Two core ideas now animate the best thinking about reinvigorating troubled neighborhoods. One is improving coordination among the array of government programs—housing, education, job training, public safety—already serving low-income neighborhoods. Influenced by the example of the Harlem Children's Zone, which provides a comprehensive suite of services for at-risk children in that New York City neighborhood, President Obama has systematically pushed federal agencies to better align their efforts.

That has generated a series of administration projects, such as Choice Neighborhoods (in housing) and Promise Neighborhoods (in education), that have compelled not only federal departments, but also local public and private antipoverty programs, to cooperate more closely. The capstone of these efforts is Obama's Promise Zones initiative, which seeks to direct resources from 50 federal programs into a few poverty-stricken neighborhoods; earlier this year, the administration picked five, and it plans to select 15 more by 2016. Some states may also soon adopt the idea.

The resources behind public programs, though, won't ever match the level of need, which helps explain the second chord of thinking: finding new ways to connect troubled neighborhoods with market forces. For example, leaders in cities such as Cleveland are nudging inner-city universities and hospitals to buy more from neighboring small businesses. More broadly, the appeal of urban life for many college-educated young people can help cities incubate mixed-income neighborhoods that draw investment and jobs—as long as policy ensures that those new arrivals don't simply displace low-income people who are already living there, says Richard Parks, executive director of USC's Sol Price Center for Social Innovation.

Other conference speakers were more leery of relying on the private sector to lift troubled neighborhoods—especially after the subprime-mortgage crisis badly battered low-income and minority families. But as Hopkins observes in one paper, "the most cutting-edge creativity" is occurring within initiatives that combine public, philanthropic, and private-sector investments to seed change. At a moment when the country is so ominously pulling apart, such inclusive initiatives would offer the added benefit of reminding us that America works best when it transcends its divides.