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Solutions to Concentrated Poverty Require Sharp Programs

building with open and boarded-up windows, a situation that begs for solutions to concentrated poverty

We need to consider the solutions to concentrated poverty, if having more than 20 percent of a neighborhood comprised of poor people is such a problem.  Elsewhere on the site, in the concentration of poverty page and one on community poverty,  we tell you why and how research shows this to be a social issue we need to remedy.

The options seem to be just two:

1. Lower income people can identify the need to move to a somewhat more prosperous and economically diverse area, and then formulate and execute a plan to do so.

2. Government or strong non-profit organizations need to sponsor and facilitate such a program.



Anecdotal evidence (word of mouth) suggests that households opt for the first solution to the extent that income gives better neighborhood options, destination neighborhoods are known and feel comfortable, and the household is functional.

Functional households is the most complex element of the equation.  Our umbrella term covers traits such as mental health, including the absence of depression and the presence of a sense of hope for a better life.

Functionality also may mean executive function and impulse control sufficient to form and carry out a plan for the multi-stage activity of moving.

Being functional in this context also means having some ability to learn and process new information about neighborhoods and their characteristics, as well as rents or home prices. 

Lastly, the household must be able to overcome family factors, such as extended family opposing the move, and possibly legal factors in the case of illegal immigrants or others who fear law enforcement, or perhaps are limited by a divorce decree in where they can move.

All in all, we think that depending on individual household initiative will not produce large-scale change.  So we pivot to considering government or non-profit sponsored programs.


The Need for a Great Assisted Housing Mobility Program

Since this website is focused more on neighborhood and community activism than on individual and family characteristics, we turn now to programs that could and should be sponsored by government with either support or leadership from the nonprofit sector as community dynamics warrant.

This story may start in the U.S. when a court case in Chicago, known as the Gautreaux case, was settled by ordering that public housing residents be given the opportunity to move to areas with less concentrated disadvantage.  This pretty much accidentally set up a good social experiment when some public housing residents used housing vouchers in the early 1990s to move to better neighborhoods, while others remained in the old neighborhood.  Enterprising researchers studied the differences between the two types of households.

Results showed markedly better outcomes for those who were moved to the more mixed-income neighborhoods.  Children performed better in school, and so on through the list of socially desirable outcomes.

Consequently HUD (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) decided to do a five-city pilot program called Moving to Opportunity, in which some households were deliberately allowed to use their vouchers only in an overwhelmingly moderate-income neighborhood.

This time the results were mixed.  Chicago and Baltimore saw decidedly better results for families moved to the higher-income areas, whereas there was little effect in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles.

Even the researchers don't know all the reasons for this inter-city difference.  We decided to look into the Baltimore experience further to analyze why its Moving to Opportunity program would be considered a success.

After reading available material and talking with some folks, we think their program design probably explains the success.  This educated guesswork on our part wouldn't pass muster in academia, but for practitioners who must soldier on while research sorts out the factors, we think that decision makers should proceed to imitate some aspects of the Baltimore program.


Apparent Keys to Successful Solutions to Concentrated Poverty

Their program, a partnership between the Baltimore City housing authority and the County's community action agency, suggests the following elements to using a moving program as one of the solutions to concentrated poverty:

  • Applicants who pass background checks are routed into a housing counseling program to help them present themselves as desirable tenants.
  • Program participants attend financial education classes and receive financial counseling.
  • Households in the program take van tours to become familiar with employers, schools, and amenities in higher opportunity neighborhoods.
  • Next program participants save for a security deposit and work with a counselor to find housing that meets their needs.
  • Definitions of a higher opportunity neighborhood are rather stringent.  In Baltimore program participants receive a federal Housing Choice Voucher targeted to areas where less than 10% of the population falls under the poverty line, fewer than 30% of residents are minorities, and where public housing or government housing assistance complexes comprise less than 5% of all housing units.
  • Two or more years of post-move counseling are provided to help households adjust to living in their new neighborhoods, and even second move counseling is offered free.
  • The non-profit partner (the community action agency) markets the program to landlords.
  • Employment-related transportation assistance is provided, as program managers regarded Baltimore as having a weak public transportation system.
  • Key also may be the involvement of private groups, including civil rights groups, and a housing authority contractor that is committed to the success of the program.

Other Ways to Help the Dispersal of Concentrated Disadvantaged Populations Go Smoothly

In addition to running explicit Moving to Opportunity types of programs, cities and neighbors could make it easier for lower-income households to afford housing in better neighborhoods through some other measures.



First, transit efficiency and effectiveness are important to successful relocations..  Adequate frequency of service and reasonable cost, routing that reflects resident needs, and even good flexible transportation options (called demand-responsive) all support the mixed-income housing outcome that is healthy for many households.

We're saying all of this because quality transit is an important means of stretching a household budget.  In addition, even in the most distressed cities, transit usually is available in the inner core and often becomes less and less tenable as one moves away from the downtown area.

Better transit options in suburbs can contribute to solutions to concentrated poverty.  Another strand of thought that may be useful in finding solutions to concentrated poverty would include embrace of transit-oriented development.

Second, energy efficient must be a consideration.  In all but the most moderate climates, energy for heating and cooling is a major expense.  By requiring cost-effective energy efficiency innovations in new construction, over time a jurisdiction can bring about a lower energy cost structure. 

Obviously there are some serious limitations to what a "built out" area can do.  Requiring retrofits of existing housing is fraught with so many complicated variations, it is not a practical policy in most situations.

However, both the still-building and the built-out communities can encourage energy conservation through a variety of educational and campaign-building tactics.

Third, governments should make every effort to reduce the regulatory burden on housing.  We think that on average, jurisdictions need more regulation, particularly the sensitive fine-tuned kind.  But it is just as true that some jurisdictions either have gone overboard on too much of a good thing, or perhaps they have not updated their thinking and laws to reflect current construction practices, materials, and technology, and up-to-date  land use planning principles.  Maybe they are requiring a costly practice or tep that really is not necessary for building an inclusive community.

Fourth, we suggest thinking about a suburban retrofit.  Creating town centers, cutting through the ends of cul-de-sacs with walking paths or new streets, adding sidewalks, and redeveloping strip malls into more vibrant mixed-use projects all can be helpful in providing solutions to concentrated poverty. 

This is true because of the desirability of creating new, less expensive transportation options and also the better opportunities for allowing lower-income familiar to blend into the fabric of the community when economic differences are not as easy to spot as would be the case in a typical homogeneous subdivision of tract houses.


Why the Remedy for Concentrated Poverty Remains Elusive

In short, there is some promise in the Moving to Opportunity experiments and also a dispersal program in Montgomery County, Maryland, that showed much improved math test scores several years later among kids who were moved to moderate-income areas.  A well-run program that includes extensive supportive services would be imperative.

Yet the solution to concentrated poverty seems to be not that simple.  As Thomas Edsall's op-ed in the New York Times points out, young children who are regularly exposed to violence and other harsher impacts of poverty may develop different brain architecture.  Adults with chronic unemployment or underemployment issues do not suddenly become money-making machines when they move to the suburbs.  Children who start school in poor educational systems do not quickly overcome those educational deficits.

While there is much more work to do at the policy level, let's dedicate ourselves to preventing children from growing up in concentrated disadvantage, including high rates of poverty, unemployment, welfare receipt, single-parent households, and racial segregation.  It just seems that a "moving to opportunity" approach, while necessary, is not sufficient.

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