Thursday, April 9, 2009

Poor Bashing

"For the past 40 years...urban policy in America has essentially meant one thing: dealing with the problems of the poor...Not anymore. Both President Obama and his chief urban adviser, Valerie Jarrett have made it clear that federal urban policy is about to evolve into something very different: a means of helping cities and their regions become instruments of American economic strength."

Alan Greenblatt, "Obama and the Cities," Governing, April 2009

I can't think of a more an unfortunate way to begin an article about President Obama's new approach to urban policy. Pivoting off an essentially untrue "blaming the victim" premise is right out of the right-wing playbook of demonizing the poor.

Three obvious lessons from public policy analysis are relevant. First, look at all the policies that have an impact on cities and regions, not just those policies carried out by HUD or those with the word "urban" in their program title. Think about highway building, home ownership tax deductions, airports,historic preservation, education, infrastructure, defense spending. Think about what happens in cities from faulty federal policy -- housing foreclosures is the best, worst current example. Think about the decline of federal housing subsidies for affordable housing. So, you need a "policies" not "policy" framework.

Second, count them all up. Have federal urban/metro policies really been tilted towards the poor? I doubt it.

Third, not all poverty programs are the same or even make things better off for the poor. Hope Vl redevelopment of public housing has recaptured valuable land for cities and developers and created mixed income communities -- not necessarily helping the poor. On the other hand, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is one of the largest anti-poverty programs ($40 billion+ annually) and is loved by mayors because it's federal money in the pockets of working families who in turn pump up the local and regional economy -- sort of a stimulus thing.

A final point that the article avoids is the evidence that more tolerant,equitable regions do better economically. Helping the poor has positive economic and regional consequences; it's not just an equity thing.

I've got no big quarrel with the rest of the article -- except for the lack of specifics about what this new federal urban/regional role will be. More coordination, etc. Sounds good. We need some outcome targets.

I did get a chuckle out of the line, "..Obama started his career working on the urban anti-poverty programs of the Great Society..." I guess our societal conversation about community organizing during the recent presidential election didn't make an impression. The roots of community organizing go back to the Depression, not the Great Society. Check out Saul Alinsky's colorful descriptions of Great Society programs.

1 comment:

Jack said...

Thanks for the comments on the point of view in Greenblatt's article. Also, the important point about the broad set of policies that affect cities, and their low-income residents.

And, please post sources of evidence that, as you note, more tolerant, equitable regions do better economically and that helping the poor has positive economic and regional consequences in addition to increasing equity. I find that it's a crucial point for moving positive policy. For instance, it brings local and state-level support for efforts to move low-income people to good jobs through industry-sector focused workforce development ("sector initiatives"). Hopefully it now will have similar traction at the federal level. I'd like to have as much evidence as possible, and think it would be helpful to organizers, advocates, etc. who care about a wide variety of policies.

Jack Mills, Director
National Network of Sector Partners

Save the date! 2009 NNSP National Conference – November 11-13, Washington, DC.