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WELCOME. I'd like to present some thoughts that I've had over the years about urban poverty and attempts to mitigate it through community development. I'm not an academian, but I did volunteer and then work for a community development corporation in an eastern city for about 12 years.
If you are a college student taking an urban affairs course and are looking for some thoughts to help fill out a paper, well, I'm honored that you're here. But whether you are or aren't a student, remember this: poverty and community development are ultimately separate issues. Since the early 1960s and the "community action" movement (where community development got its start), many people believed that fixing the neighborhood was (and still is) the best way to help poor inner-city people. But not everyone agrees. Other thoughtful observers, especially academic researchers specializing in poverty issues, think that government policies regarding welfare and negative taxation (i.e., the earned income credit) have a stronger influence on poverty levels both inside and outside the cities. And then the economists come along and say "it's the REAL economy, stupid, not the community or the political economy; when the tide comes in, all boats are lifted" (of course, some get lifted higher and faster than others).
So, if you are interested in the overall question of poverty in an affluent society, there's more to think about than community development. See my "Poverty 101" page for a summary of theories and issues regarding poverty in America. I myself will argue here that "development" efforts are a good way to address poverty (but are certainly NOT the ONLY means; political economy issues such as welfare policy and health care availability must lead the way). However, "community", interpreted as a specific geographic neighborhood, is the wrong target for direct development efforts. The target must be the person and the family, not the place. Even within a small neighborhood, families are poor for many different reasons. If the poor person or family would be better off moving from the poor neighborhood, then our "development" efforts should support that, even if it means giving up the romantic, Alinsky-ian notion of a community coming together and defiantly lifting itself by its bootstraps.
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY. Over the past 100 years or so, urban neighborhoods in America have been the place of social and economic transition for poor people hailing from a wide variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. A group of poor people and families move in from a poor agrarian region (or from oppressive conditions in a foreign land) and live and work in crowded, unluxurious conditions. However, after 20 or 30 years, their children learn to make their way into the higher social and economic levels of American society, and thus leave the old neighborhood. They have been assimilated. The old generation eventually leaves or passes on, and a new generation of poor people from another culture and ethnic group move in, to repeat the assimilation process. For example, the block of tenements where my Eastern European grandparents lived with their fellow immigrants from WWI through the 1960s is today a Dominican neighborhood.
Unfortunately, this assimilation process has not worked as effectively for the progeny of American slaves from the South, who left "dirt-poor" farm communities in North Carolina, Mississippi, etc. from WW2 through the 1960s to gain jobs in the northern industrial cities (the "black migration"). Although many of the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these urban pioneers eventually left "the 'hood", a significant number didn't. Some black families have lived in impoverished urban neighborhoods for four or five generations. Some Hispanic populations have also experienced multi-generational urban poverty. There are a variety of reasons why the assimilation process has not worked as well for these groups. Two obvious and undeniable factors are racism and the extreme changes to the American and international economy of the past 40 years.
Another factor that has slowed the assimilation process, somewhat controversial in academia but easily observed by anyone who has spent time on urban streets is the "culture of urban American poverty of the late 20th / early 21st Century". Notice that I didn't say "culture of poverty"; that's an overly broad, elephant-gun concept that I'll leave to the crypto-racist/classist conservatives. Sociology generally recognizes that when people live under poor and oppressive conditions for several generations, they sometimes build up survival mechanisms that help them get through the day, but make it harder to escape the root causes of their poverty. See, e.g., William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged (1987). However, what the conservatives won't admit about this "culture" is that it is very specific to a particular set of circumstances, and is not simply "the bad side of humanity" (or genetic predisposition, as hinted at by Herrnstein and Murray in The Bell Curve). There is good evidence that negative cultural habits are quite easily reversed when better conditions and opportunities present themselves. See the book Poverty Knowledge by Alice O'Connor, discussed in the footnote below.
A lot of things have been tried to fight urban poverty over the past 4 decades. One of the most popularly hearlded approaches has been the "community develpment corporation" (CDC), which is generally a grassroots organization dedicated to pulling poor neighborhoods up by their bootstraps through housing, social services and economic development programs supported by government and foundation grants or subsidies. CDCs have done quite a bit of real estate development in the inner city (affordable housing, day care centers, training and counseling sites, stores and small businesses, etc.), and in the process have helped a lot of people. But they haven't really affected the dysfunctional sociology of the poor neighborhoods they serve; high levels of crime, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and unemployment go on and on.
I argue here that CDCs haven't gotten to the heart of the matter -- which is assimilation. I believe that CDCs should come to understand the assimilation process and refocus themselves away from their traditional forte as real estate developers, toward making assimilation work effectively for those urban residents who face the shortage of entry-level opportunity in today's economy (and thus become stuck in the inter-generational "cycle of poverty"). I personally think that CDCs can become effective change agents, if they were to refocus their vision of "lifting the neighborhood" to "lifting each person and family", even if that means that most families will leave the neighborhood behind and the neighborhood will remain poor, as new cultural and ethnic groups enter it for their shot at the assimilation process. Hopefully, society and its institutions will be wise enough in the future to avoid imposing structures and conditions (such as racism and anti-urban policies) that impede the assimilation process and subject poor but aspiring communities to a dysfunction way of life.
Poverty 101: Overviews, Theories and Questions
Barriers to Assimilation
Good Things in the ‘Hood, But Bad Economics
What Holds the Inner City Back?
Assimilation in America
Skin Color and Speed of Assimilation
Slow Entry Into The Middle Class
Social Heterogeneity, Multiple Factions
Economic Re-Empowerment: What Has Been Tried
Community Development Corporations (CDCs)
CDCs: Not The Magic Bullet?
Effects, 35 Years Of Government Intervention
Public Support Ending
The Native American Precedent
Welfare Reform '96
The Underground Economy
Militias in the Streets?
Welfare Reform Effects
The Mainstream Strikes Back
Are CDC's Still Community-Based?
Other Current Theories On What Might Help:
Public Schools And Urban Poverty
What About Encouraging Families To Leave?
Thirty Years Of Buildings & Business: A Failure?
The Politics Of Assimilation
Can CDC's Become Person-Based Assimilators?
New Urban Upheavals?
CDC's: Becoming Irrelevant
CDC's And Housing
HUD's MTO Program
The Real Estate Game
Human Development: The Path To Assimilation
Can Economics Be Developed By CDCs?
Middle Class Help On The Road To Assimilation
HDCs: Do Fewer Things, But Do Them Well
Place-Based Versus Person-Based
Afterthoughts . . .
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. . . if you'd like to talk about this: eternalstudent404 AT gmail DOT comFOOTNOTE: An interesting book regarding 1.) the overall question of poverty in America, 2.) the often misguided efforts by smart people to find an answer to poverty by academic analysis, 3.) the formation of a poverty analysis industry here in the US during the 1960s and 70s, and 4.) the relatively small place that community development plays in the overall anti-poverty picture is Poverty Knowledge by Alice O'Connor (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2001). I don't completely agree with Prof. O'Connor's conclusion that "structural inequality" is more important than "behavior and culture of the poor". In fact, I argue that focus on neighborhood-based development should be reduced because of the social and cultural reverberations that occur when a lot of poor people live close by. In the end, I feel that both political structure and cultural behavior must be reckoned with. But Prof. O'Connor's book is certainly an excellent overview of the basic questions and the ultimate objective -- which is to free families and individuals from the debilitation and wasted human potential caused by life in poverty, as opposed to "saving a neighborhood".