Balancing the Bold and Mundane: Thoughts for the Next Administration

by Kimberly Burrowes and Maya Brennan

The US population is divided, not just by ideologies, but also by deep inequalities. From President Roosevelt's New Deal and President Johnson’s War on Poverty to Speaker Paul Ryan’s antipoverty plan, many federal policy tools have been developed or proposed to lift people and neighborhoods out of poverty. Our knowledge about effective program elements has grown over time, but every change in administration poses a challenge. Will promising policies remain? Will policies and programs seek rapid results or give sufficient time to achieve long-term outcomes? As the president-elect prepares to serve the needs of a changing nation, the next administration can seize this opportunity to build on past efforts, spark sustainable systems change, and continue to make progress on alleviating poverty and increasing opportunities for all Americans.

Studies show that moving to lower-poverty areas improves outcomes for children from low-income households. Differences in college attendance and long-term earnings suggest that the opportunities present in a neighborhood set the stage for children’s futures. Neighborhood quality may be the key to breaking the cycle of generational poverty. Where people live matters.

The nation has far too many economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. An analysis by Elizabeth Kneebone found that neighborhoods with a 20 percent poverty rate could be found in nearly every congressional district, and 86 percent of districts had at least one neighborhood in which the poverty rate was at least 40 percent.

What should the next administration do?

Conversations about poverty—especially neighborhoods of concentrated poverty—often declare defeat from the start. The problem is so big. The challenges are so entrenched. The solutions are so unrealistic. In the face of seemingly intractable problems, policy advisers and advocates may start small when what is needed is big.

But the start of a new administration is the time for bold solutions.

One approach is to open the door for families who want to leave. Despite other federal efforts to reduce concentrated poverty and affirmatively further fair housing, the dominant forms of federally funded affordable housing continue the pattern of economic segregation either through siting affordable housing in low-income areas or through program rules that limit families’ mobility. Reforms to the Housing Choice Voucher program could quickly get results, albeit for a relatively small portion of low-income households, by regionalizing voucher administration to allow easier choice across jurisdictions, modifying rent limits and voucher utilization rules that steer families to low-income areas, and assisting families with mobility counseling and supports.

That level of reform, while big, is not quite as bold as the new administration should go. Not everyone will have the opportunity and desire to move to a better-resourced area, nor would it be equitable to continue the pattern of disinvestment that created neighborhoods of last resort. Long term, the federal government can invest in low-income communities, building the necessary infrastructure for job access, strengthening schools, controlling crime, and increasing their internal capacity through community development corporations.

Federal programs such as HOPE VI, Performance Partnership Pilots for Disconnected Youth, and the Choice Neighborhoods program have had modest success improving resources and outcomes in persistently poor communities. The evaluation of the Choice Neighborhoods program demonstrated positive outcomes in beginning redevelopment and connecting residents with services even in the first year of implementation. However, as with any competitive program, the neighborhoods most likely to receive Choice Neighborhoods funds are those with some initial capacity.

Without sufficient capacity to plan and implement effective programs, low-income communities are at a disadvantage in accessing federal resources and in strengthening from within. The next administration should identify the communities most in need of intensive supports and help them increase the capacity to benefit from reinvestment assistance. As a different Kneebone analysis points out, federal programs such as the US Department of Agriculture’s StrikeForce program do just that.

The next phase of Choice Neighborhoods or successor programs will need to help struggling communities build capacity and continue effectively allocating resources by targeting interventions based on market value analyses or neighborhood typologies. Any new initiative should build on the effectiveness of the cross-sector and interagency solutions tried before. It should also recognize that new programs can be knowledge incubators for understanding whether and how interventions work and how they differ in different contexts. Incorporating an evaluation in designing new programs is critical for ensuring that the evidence base exists for future administrations to continue, modify, or abandon an approach.

The time is also right to seed long-term changes in the way the federal government operates. As described in the report Revitalizing Neighborhoods: The Federal Role, we must be willing to tackle even mundane barriers built into law, regulations, staff training, and job descriptions. This may be the hardest and least exciting of the tasks that lay ahead, but understanding and tackling the problems inherent in the current system may be the surest pathway to sustainable changes.

Correction, 11/10/16: The article initially said "President Roosevelt's War on Poverty."