Racially concentrated areas of poverty remain a permanent fixture of American society. In 2013, 62 percent of African Americans lived in neighborhoods where at least 20 percent of residents fell below the federal poverty line; in comparison, the same was true for just 4 percent of whites. Moreover, the number and proportion of people living in poverty has actually been increasing in the aggregate.
Concentrated poverty is neither accidental nor the product of market forces. Instead, existing policies have directly contributed to these outcomes and led to persistent oppression in neighborhoods of color. Past practices such as redlining and current ones like exclusionary zoning have confined minorities to specific neighborhoods in which poverty is pervasive.
The Legacy of Oppression
Although issues around segregation have improved slightly in recent years, the power structure that perpetuates inequities at large has not. Structural racism and bias continue to impact the choices provided to people of color. Numerous studies, the most recent being one by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), confirm that minority home seekers continue to face discriminatory practices in housing, from being shown fewer units to receiving fewer offers for assistance financing loans.
Even policies that are intended to alleviate the strain of inequity have largely failed; for example, the traditional voucher model, which provides families with housing subsidies designed to help them afford safe, decent housing, is largely ineffective. Housing Choice Vouchers only reach one in four households with the need for them. For those who do receive vouchers, a lack of information, racial steering, and landlord discrimination still limit housing options. All of this is evidence that additional support and guidance are needed to supplement vouchers, and the development of new, more effective programs is required.
The issue is pressing: housing inequality creates a lack of opportunity that in turn influences outcomes in areas such as employment, education, and health. Fortunately, effective methods of addressing this oppression are known. Research in residential mobility and place-conscious investment have revealed a toolkit of model practices that, if implemented and funded properly, may provide significant improvement for our nation’s most marginalized neighborhoods. The place-conscious approach provides opportunities to residents who wish to move outside their neighborhood, while simultaneously investing in the neighborhoods where some wish to stay.
The Place-Conscious Approach
Margery Austin Turner, senior vice president for program planning and management at the DC-based Urban Institute, has outlined a framework of place-conscious strategies that concurrently address both mobility away from distressed neighbors and investment to improve them. This begins by connecting those in marginalized areas with opportunities, such as employment or education, in nearby areas. Resilient change within marginalized spaces requires sustained efforts from city, state, and federal officials, as well as private and nonprofit partners. By engaging a diverse group of stakeholders, careful consideration of the scale needed for success can be achieved. Furthermore, improvement efforts must take into account the assets and concerns of a neighborhood’s current residents during both the decisionmaking and implementation processes. This ensures that the community will have a greater investment in the interventions, and that efforts will adequately resolve the problems that are considered most pressing to residents.
Intervention programs must also acknowledge the diverse nature and purpose of neighborhoods. For example, whether the neighborhood is an incubator—an area where residents have and will remain over the long-term—or whether it is a launchpad—a safe-place for new migrants to land before moving on to higher-resource areas—affects what sorts of programs are needed, and how success should be measured.
The Place of Race: Moving Toward a Better Voucher
All efforts, however, must recognize the distinctive position of race in society. Structural racism has long assured that generational poverty occurs along stark racial lines. As we redesign initiatives to amend past policies rooted in racial oppression, we must focus on equity and reorient our practices toward providing justice. If we fail to account for structural racism, we will only continue to sustain the uneven distribution of benefits and burdens.
Case studies including Chicago’s Gautreaux Housing Program, Baltimore’s Housing Mobility Program, and housing programs in Texas are all voucher programs that provide vital clues on improving housing equality moving forward. These case studies show that it is crucial to assist housing aid recipients in identifying their housing options, to facilitate communication between families and landlords, and to mediate disputes.
Moreover, innovative strategies that lift traditional ceilings on voucher amounts encourage families to move into neighborhoods with lower crime and poverty rates, while making the program more valuable to landlords in higher income neighborhoods. Unfortunately, such programs will be hard to implement, as these models require a restructuring of priorities and a realignment of funding. HUD recently found that the majority of public housing authorities are significantly underfunded due to limitations imposed by Congress. New effective strategies will require renewed emphasis on resilient, sustainable interventions to be capable of creating real change for our nation’s most vulnerable populations.
Place-conscious strategies offer a promising road forward—if implemented and funded properly. Ultimately, it is up to the will of the American people and government whether these interventions will be initiated. Either we begin to dismantle our separate and unequal society, or we continue to live in a hypocritical middle ground, where certain lives are valued over others.