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Dr. Gary Orfield is a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University, and directs its Project on School Desegregation. He served as a scholar in residence at the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. He has published numerous journal articles and books, including The Closing Door: Conservative Policy and Black Opportunity, and is the co-author of Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. We asked Dr. Orfield to use his extensive research on poverty to situate CBIs in the context of larger social and economic factors which may affect the initiatives' long- and short-term success.

What do you think we have learned from past antipoverty strategies?

We learned from the War on Poverty that, while several programs like Head Start and Job Corps worked well, we never provided resources so they could be seriously scaled up. These are good programs with inadequate resources and insufficient follow through. However, today we are talking about these strategies in communities that are much more devastated economically and socially than they were in the 1960s. These strategies that had limited effects in the 1960s—because of lack of resources—are much less viable now.

Community empowerment strategies are not new. In fact, several federal and state social policies have come with a mandate to involve residents (e.g., Title I money). What we have learned from these past strategies is that it is not community activism that creates the middle class, but the other way around. Middle-class communities tend to create luxuries that foster desirable activities. Simply creating organizations designed to provide empowerment to people who are desperately poor and jobless will not create equitable communities in any significant way. Many of these efforts have failed because people primarily wanted jobs and education.

Many people want to think that there are local solutions to big structural problems. It is not enough to make changes and organize residents at a neighborhood level. Having people involved is obviously crucial, but it is not enough in and of itself. You have to talk about broader policy issues to give these communities a decent opportunity for long-term renewal.

What kind of broader policies do you see as being most effective in terms of their impact on communities?

The most important single thing to do for communities that are devastated is to get people employed. I came to this conclusion based on research I conducted on Chicago Labor Markets and this is consistent with the conclusion in William Julius Wilson's latest book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. However, the private sector is not going to move into poor communities to provide necessary jobs. This was true even before the welfare reform bill was signed and, now with the new work requirements, many more jobs are going to be necessary. This means we have to think about a serious strategy for either getting jobs—probably public jobs—into these communities or getting people out (in terms of their residence or employment). In short, we need a national public jobs program.

What do you see as the ideal relationship between government and citizens in revitalizing poor urban areas?

First, we need to have national economic policies backed with sufficient resources. States have put almost nothing into urban development. Cities don't have any discretionary money to speak of.

Second, we need to be more proactive. When we have only a small amount of money, we have to invest in neighborhoods that are in the early process of deterioration to stabilize them. It is important to focus on some of the positive things in these neighborhoods, such as neighborhood housing services and other reinvestment strategies, where there is still a private market in the community.

Third, encouraging racially and socioeconomically diverse communities should be a conscious goal, but we can't do that without talking about strategies. We need bigger housing subsidies for lower income people. As this is unlikely to happen, we need to think about redevelopment goals, such as making more neighborhoods a mix of middle-class and lower-income families. Part of the strategy is building stronger institutions. For example, we should be designing schools that middle-class people will use and stay in. Schools will be better not only for middle-class citizens but for poor people in the community as well. This will create a center for revitalizing the community.

Fourth, it is also very important that we try to diversify and stabilize more neighborhoods that are deep into decline. There are many ways to do this. In addition to job programs, we need to have much more intelligent housing policies. For example, we should think about manufactured housing on vacant lots and we should look at aggressive economic strategies to increase home ownership.

We should try very imaginative initiatives, combining policies and resources, to redevelop city neighborhoods. Because every neighborhood is replaced every six years (that is how often the average family moves), you have to address the long-term attractiveness of the neighborhood. You have to hold people who are there, and create enough confidence so people continue to move in. You have to have a conscious policy to deliver high quality schools and other services so that families can make commitments to their communities.

Cami Anderson, Research Assistant, HFRP

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