Urban America Forward | “Dismantling Urban Poverty”

“Economies with lower inequality have stronger and more sustained growth.” – Kalima Rose, PolicyLink

“Instead of good faith legislation, we need more state mandated legislation, with a pipeline for youth and displaced communities included.” – Neva Walker, Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth

“An agenda that is just about opportunity is insufficient. We need to shift from demanding equal access to equal outcomes. It is not about just needing more, it is about demanding better and different.” – Bryan Samuels, Chapin Hall

“Title VI is a legal hook that can work at the front end to shape inclusion.” – Olatunde Johnson,  Columbia University

Poverty lies at the complex intersection of race, unemployment, housing, education, and violence. It is not a singular problem and has no silver bullet solutions. 

  • Poverty is not evenly distributed. The nation’s 100 largest metro areas are home to 70 percent of all distressed census tracts (meaning at least 40 percent of residents live below the poverty level).  
  • Historically, concentrated poverty has been a largely urban phenomenon. However, since the 2000s, concentrated poverty is increasingly a regional challenge.[1]

​Below are the overarching themes and the corresponding policy recommendations to address urban poverty that emerged during the Roundtable Series.  


Overarching Themes

Litigation is not the answer to poverty. Devastating Supreme Court doctrine in the 1970s undermined the ability of civil rights litigation to address two pillars of poverty. The Supreme Court held that, as a matter of federal law, education is not a fundamental right and poverty is not a suspect class. 

Housing plays a tremendous role in reinforcing poverty. Housing shapes the patterns of segregation, concentrated poverty, and spatial inequality in America. 

Spatial mismatch and distribution of jobs continues to influence poverty. The types of jobs available in urban neighborhoods do not always match the skills of job seekers. Job creation, housing, and community development should be an integrated part of urban planning. Worker retraining must be culturally appropriate to ensure that all communities are engaged in the modern economy.

To craft effective policy responses, paint an accurate picture of poverty. For example, the publicized unemployment rate is an inaccurate barometer of how the economy is faring because it overlooks part-time workers and those never employed.

Policy Recommendations

Use two-generation programs to interrupt the cycle of generational poverty. Such programs help children and their parents simultaneously. Reinforcing the social safety net programs that serve the entire family would ensure that children are primed to take advantage of opportunities before they show up at schoolhouse door.

Adopt inclusionary directives in federal, state, and municipal policy. The modern urban civil rights agenda should leverage funds to address historic patterns of racial and economic exclusion. Although funding has declined for many federal programs, existing federal money can have inclusionary directives. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in the delivery of services, can help ensure that federal money has inclusionary directives.  Apprenticeships and other workforce programs should include this directive as well. States and localities can attach these affirmative approaches through community benefits agreements, zoning, and licensing. 

Models and Tactics

Inclusionary directives in federal policy. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) guidance on the obligation of federal agencies and grantees to affirmatively further fair housing is an example of adopting inclusionary directives in federal policy. The rule facilitates local decision-making by HUD grantees to expand equal access to opportunity for all Americans.[2] Another example is the Sustainable Communities Program, a joint initiative of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, HUD, and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Local hiring. Brightline Defense Project successfully lobbied for the passage of San Francisco's landmark Local Hiring Policy for Construction. Five years after passage, San Francisco's local hiring has jumped from 20 percent in 2010 to 45 percent, and construction worksites saw increased gender and racial diversity. Brightline Defense Project is expanding in California and New Jersey.[3]


[1] E. Kneebone, “The Growth and Spread of Concentrated Poverty, 2000 to 2008-2012” (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2014), http://www.brookings.edu/research/interactives/2014/concentrated-poverty#/M12580.

[2] U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “HUD Rule on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing: Executive Summary” (Washington, DC: HUD, 2015), https://www.huduser.gov/portal/sites/default/files/pdf/AFFH_Final_Rule_Executive_Summary.pdf.

[3] For more on the Brightline Defense Project, see http://www.brightlinedefense.org/.