Poverty has been with us forever. It spans all societies and generations. Despite the best efforts of governments, social service organizations, philanthropy and socially conscious leaders in the private sector, large swaths of people continue to live in poverty around the globe. In the U.S. we are seeing alarming rates of poverty in our rural towns and big cities. Dramatic increases in poverty rates even effect suburbia, which was once thought to be immune from such hardship.
Poverty, it seems, has always been with us—and to some extent, it always will be.
For city leaders, combating poverty is a thorny issue. Big government programs are invaluable for those with the greatest needs, but often don’t move the needle on moving people out of distress. The price tags for programs like job training, subsidized food and housing, and health subsidies are considerable, too.
I claim no expertise in the social sciences. I’m not an educator or a public health professional. And despite a B.A. in economics, I find my own experiences in cities influence my thinking more on these matters than anything I learned in the classroom.
But I do have one bit of advice for local leaders.
While there is no silver bullet that will end poverty, we can weaken its impact when we don’t concentrate it in certain places. According to Wikipedia, “Concentrated poverty refers to a spatial density of socio-economic deprivation. In the US, it is commonly used in fields of policy and scholarship in reference to areas of “extreme” or “high-poverty” defined by the US census as areas with ‘40 percent of the tract population living below the federal poverty threshold.’”
Concentrated poverty wreaks havoc on those who live in it. Wherever one turns, you experience others who suffer from the same affliction. Poverty, and all that comes with it, shows up in the home, on the street, at school, in churches, and eventually in the seats of government. And because of the centralization of poverty, people who live in it see nothing else.
There are plenty of studies out there that show the cruel effects of concentrated poverty.
Local leaders can do things on their own that can have lasting effects. Inclusionary zoning sets the table for development that addresses housing needs for people from different income brackets- encouraging them to live and work together. Allowing for mixed-use (in addition to mixed income) development helps, too. Recent studies show that mixed-income development works well for those at the bottom of the economic ladder as well as those at the top. The mingling and mash ups that occur can result in an increased quality of life for everyone who lives in or frequents the area. Organic ideas flow freely when diverse people address challenges together. Some of the best neighborhoods that I have been in are celebrations of diversity—in race, in economic status, in age, and otherwise. Targeted placemaking helps, too. Improving a street, a park or a common space can be a catalytic breakthrough if the vision is developed by those who live there.
Simply put, diverse experiences make us stronger as a people and double as some of our best weapons to combat the effects of concentrated poverty in our communities. Laying the foundation to cultivate such places in your community doesn’t require huge amounts of money, only thoughtful leadership.