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Access to opportunity: the biggest regional challenge.

When we were growing up in Philadelphia in the late 1950s and early 1960s, my grandfather would take us for rides in the "country." A new highway had been built connecting our city neighborhood with small towns and wide-open farmland. Even though the highway extended only about twenty miles or so outside the city line, the countryside seemed like another world to us. It didn't take very long before many of the families in our neighborhood followed the highway out of the city to new homes and communities. Most of the people who grew up in my neighborhood back then now live in suburban towns along that same highway. New black families moved into our old neighborhood. My story isn't unique. Millions of Americans in regions all over the country can tell a similar tale.

In most regions, people, jobs, and wealth were dispersed ever further out from our cities after World War II. Since 1950, population density in America's central cities has declined by 50 percent. (1) This decentralization has yielded real benefits, enabling many Americans to pursue the dream of having a single family home with a car in the driveway.

But the downside is only now being fully understood. Today, many regions are struggling with tough problems connected with decentralization. We face governance challenges in balancing the traditional authority of numerous local governments with a growing need for regionwide solutions. New environmental concerns about protecting key assets (watersheds, ridgelines, farmland, open space) require regional action. We are growing increasingly impatient with traffic congestion, but many of us oppose any proposal of a new highway or road widening. This phenomenon even has a name: the asphalt revolt. Finally, this decentralization has separated Americans along lines of race and income in many regions. It has caused severe concentration of poverty in many cities, which in turn has cut many people off from access to decent schools, jobs, and housing.

Bill Dodge, former executive director of the National Association of Regional Councils, has described a governance disconnect in American life that is becoming ever more apparent and problematic. Our formal government structures are set up at the municipal, state, and federal levels. But an increasing number of our most pressing problems exist at the neighborhood, regional, and international levels. Issues such as workforce and economic development, transportation and infrastructure investment, water supply protection, housing supply, open space and farmland preservation, and access to opportunity require regional strategies if they are to be resolved.

For example, competition in the new global economy increases the need to ensure that local public services are provided in the most cost-effective way. Is the public's money being used prudently when roads, water lines, and other public infrastructure (including schools) are built in a less-populated area while there is still underused capacity in our cities and older suburbs? Does this pattern of resource expenditure contribute to the decline of cities and older suburbs?

Many of us worry about the damage done when watersheds, ridgelines, and prime agricultural land are used for new commercial and residential developments. Some say this worry is unwarranted, but many highly productive agricultural areas, such as Lancaster County in Pennsylvania and our own Connecticut River Valley here in New England, are among the most threatened in the United States thanks to development pressures.

Traffic congestion and related issues have neared the top of the list in recent years in responses to surveys asking Americans to identify their biggest concerns. As a society we know we have a problem, but we have no consensus on how to fix it. This situation is complicated by the fact that although most meaningful solutions require greater coordination of land use planning as well as transportation investment decisions at the regional level, in most areas land-use decisions are the exclusive responsibility of a local government.

But the greatest concern related to decentralization is that it has increased the concentration, and isolation, of low-income people in our country's urban areas. David Rusk, former mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a highly regarded commentator on cities and regions, documented this separation in his book Cities Without Suburbs. (2) He demonstrated a growing disparity in the city-suburb income ratio, from 1979 to 1989, in a number of regions in the Northeast and Midwest. Places like Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, and Cleveland all experienced a decline in the city-suburb income ratio during this time. But the steepest declines and lowest ratios were registered in such smaller northeastern cities as Trenton (50 percent), Hartford (53 percent), and Newark (42 percent).

In a subsequent book (Inside Game/Outside Game), Rusk showed that there is a racial component in this separation of rich and poor in our country. (3) Using an unweighted average for fifty-eight regions across the nation, Rusk found that only 26 percent of whites who are classified as poor under federal poverty guidelines lived in a poverty area (defined as a census tract where more than 20 percent of residents fall under the poverty line). By contrast, 54 percent of poor Latinos and 75 percent of poor blacks lived in a poverty area. In many places, this disparity is even more striking, and the concentration of poverty has grown over time. Among the fifty-eight metropolitan areas he studied, Rusk counted 421 high-poverty tracts (more than 40 percent in poverty) in 1970 and 1,179 in 1990. (4)

Ongoing concerns over traffic congestion, loss of open space and farmland, damage to watersheds and ridgelines, and additional cost to taxpayers for infrastructure and public services are all real and important ingredients in our future economic vitality and quality of life. But as argued by others before me, the biggest and toughest regional challenge--the one likely to have the greatest long-term impact on our nation's economic vitality and social fabric--is the concentration of poverty in our cities and resultant loss of access to opportunity for many Americans.

Access to Opportunity: Why Should We Care?

There are at least three easily identifiable reasons why we should care about whether some among us are denied access to opportunity, such as good schools, good jobs, and decent housing choices: (1) regional economic performance, (2) the impact of concentrated poverty, and (3) making good on America's promise.

Economic Performance: The City-Suburb Economic Link. Since the late 1980s, a number of studies have assessed the economic links between cities and their suburbs. In a recent article entitled "The Effects of Poverty in Metropolitan Area Economic Performance," Paul Gottlieb analyzes eighteen studies on city-suburb economic links, among them work by notable researchers such as Richard Voith, H. V. Savage, and Roland Benabou. (5) A number of the studies indicate a positive correlation between city and suburban per capita income or income growth, and a few find a positive correlation between cities and suburbs for population growth or for employment growth.

Gottlieb raises questions about some of the work and suggests areas for additional research. But ultimately, he writes that these studies "generally confirm the hypotheses of (1) a positive correlation between central city and suburban economic performance; (2) a positive correlation between central city and metropolitan economic performance; and (3) a positive correlation between greater spatial equality and metropolitan economic performance." (6) Gottlieb goes on to say that the studies indicate this interdependence is more complementary then competitive. In other words, cities and suburbs today are not involved in a zero sum competition (I win, you lose). A better analogy is the overused but appropriate "we are all in this together."

In my experience, these findings make sense because of how education is provided in many regions around the country. Certainly throughout much of New England and the Northeast, school districts are usually aligned with municipal boundaries. With the continuing drain of middle-income and upper-income families from our cities, the proportion of low-income students in city classrooms has steadily grown. A major factor in the performance of city schools is the high rate of poverty among its students.(7)

Some have argued that top-heavy, ineffective school administration and powerful teacher unions that focus more on teachers than students are the cause of this poor performance. This may or may not be true, depending on the city and the school district. But the mixed results being reported from state takeover of urban school districts around the country argue that the fundamental problem goes much deeper. Aside from the occasional example of heroic efforts to educate young people in a school in a poor neighborhood, generally speaking the larger the concentration of poverty-level students in any classroom, the more remote the prospects of success for many students.

Some researchers, most notably Roland Benabou, are looking carefully at this dynamic.(8) Their work is helpful in improving our understanding of the relationship between the productivity of a region's workforce and the likelihood of children getting a decent education. Because students from city schools represent a significant part of each region's workforce, the long-term economic vitality of the entire region depends on young people in a city having an opportunity to get a good education and then access to a decent job. We need all hands on deck if our regions and our nation are to stay competitive in the new global economy.

Impact of Concentrated Poverty on a Region. In an early analysis of how the growing concentration of poverty affects many cities, Mark Hughes demonstrated that such concentration leads to greater isolation of people living in poverty and therefore greater persistence of poverty.(9) It is difficult for people to move out of poverty if they don't have the physical and personal connections that help them get a decent education and then find a good job. The result is great hardship for those living in such isolated poverty. The by-products of concentrated poverty--poor schools, decaying neighborhoods, crime, high unemployment, teen pregnancy, and so on--make life very hard for even the most resilient.

Let me illustrate this with a little story. When I lived in Trenton, I coached a basketball team at the local YMCA. One day, my cousin invited me to a picnic at his home, about twenty miles up the Delaware River on the Pennsylvania side. I brought one of my players, age twelve, and his nine-year-old cousin, with me to the picnic. I picked them up at their home in a poor neighborhood in Trenton, and as we began our trip up the river it was apparent that neither of them had traveled very far beyond the edge of the city before. They both remarked on the trees and the green lawns, and as we drove through a small town they were impressed with how clean and how quiet it was. Finally, the younger one pointed to some people and asked, "Do those people speak the same language as us?" This was an eye opener for me, demonstrating the extent of the isolation of these kids and many others in our cities. It would not surprise me if kids from some of our suburbs reacted the same way on a trip into the city This kind of sep aration and isolation certainly hurts all of them, and it cannot be in the best interest of our society as a whole.

The impact of this concentrated poverty can also be felt in the suburban areas and outer reaches of many metropolitan regions. Regions continue to be identified nationally and internationally by the name of their hub city Cities remain the flagships of our regions. Increasingly, we realize that the image of a region depends in large measure on the image of its central city When business magazines and business locators rate a metropolitan area and its business climate, they often look at social and economic conditions in the central city as a key indicator of the health of the entire region. Most regions whose central city has a high concentration of poverty are fighting an uphill battle to project an image that attracts talented people and new investment.

Myron Orfield, a Minnesota state senator and a keen observer of cities and regions, uses a series of compelling maps to demonstrate how rapid decline in cities and older suburbs places real stress on communities at the edge of the region, especially as a result of school overcrowding and strain on limited infrastructure such as roads and water and sewer service. (10) As an example, a number of the towns I serve in the Hartford region are struggling to accommodate rapid student population growth even while Hartford's school enrollment drops. Likewise, some of our towns are grappling with serious traffic congestion, one of the unforeseen consequences of their success in luring new residents and commercial development into town.

Making Good on America's Promise. As jobs, stores, educational opportunities, and other amenities continue to be dispersed further and further out, many people are denied access to them because they do not have a car. This barrier affects the young and the old, people who are disabled, and those who cannot afford an automobile.

This lack of access can affect regional economic performance, if suburban employers cannot get the workers they need. An October 2000 White House report estimated that two-thirds or more of the new jobs being created in the United States are in suburban locations. Access to these jobs, many of which are service and entry-level, is difficult for people who do not own a car, since the new job location is usually poorly served by mass transit. Many regions have instituted reverse-commute job-access transportation services, which have helped connect some people to these suburban jobs. But we are only touching the tip of the iceberg.

While many low-income people still cannot get transportation to a distant job, others struggle to learn the skills they need to get a good job because their only option for education is in a school with a high level of poverty Developing the good work habits needed to keep a job is tougher for someone living in a neighborhood with high unemployment. Neighbors and family members with good jobs make for good role models. They are often the best source of job leads, too.

This lack of access to opportunity raises real concern about equity. An axiom of life in America is that if you work hard you can make it. Barriers to opportunity created by lack of physical and personal connections work against the basic American principle of equality of opportunity. When we work for better access to opportunity for everyone, we recommit ourselves to America's promise. It's the right thing to do.

Former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley said it this way in a speech to the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 7, 1991:

White America's frequent reaction to our cities is to move physically farther and farther away. But having moved away we cannot leave the city behind in our minds, evading its tragedies with the comforting thought that we no longer live there.... When we put up mental walls between our lives and the lives of our cities, we destroy the very connections that could potentially enrich and strengthen our society. When those walls are erected, they separate us less from violence than from our destiny as a nation that can lead the world by example. The higher the mental walls go, the more cities seem like prisons as America's promise of freedom, mobility and individual fulfillment drifts farther and farther away.

Reconnecting People: Public Policy Responses

The debate over which public policies work best to address the serious problems we face from separating people by income has been full and lively. In his book New Visions for Metropolitan America, the Brookings Institution's Anthony Downs breaks out the basic policy strategies into five categories:

1. Adjustment strategies, which do not address the root causes of the problem but offer assistance to city governments and city residents

2. Area development strategies, which include neighborhood revitalization and job-creation projects

3. Human capital development strategies, which make training and education available to residents of a poor neighborhood, whether or not they move elsewhere

4. Household mobility strategies, which assist residents of a poor neighborhood in moving out to neighborhoods and towns with more socioeconomic balance

5. Worker mobility strategies, which help residents of a poor neighborhood get to jobs outside the neighborhood, especially in suburban towns (11)

Bruce Katz, the head of the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Brookings Institution, offers some recommendations in a report called "Reviving Cities: Think Metropolitan." (12) It suggests a number of policies that could be enacted at the state level and in Washington, D.C. They include state policy initiatives to address land use and infrastructure investment in a smart growth context as well as tax-base sharing. The report also suggests reform in federal policies and programs, including transportation investments to reinforce cities as the center of a region, fair housing enforcement, wider use of housing vouchers, and better job training and placement.

David Rusk argues that focusing only on programs directed at poor neighborhoods is a losing strategy and even the best such programs must be matched by a strong "outside game," or regional, strategy. He suggests that four policies are essential if we are to address separation by race and class, which he describes as the "toughest political issue in American society": (13)

1. Fair-share housing, encouraging low-income and moderate-income housing in all towns

2. Policies designed to ensure full access by minorities to jobs and good housing

3. Policies designed to help low-income families move into small units of scattered site housing and private rentals with rent subsidies in more balanced neighborhoods

4. Tax-sharing policies to address fiscal disparity between cities and their suburbs (14)

Myron Orfield is one of the most successful figures on the scene at achieving progress on some of these tough issues because of the tactical approach he takes. An advocate of a new "metropolitics" designed to emphasize the common interests of cities and suburbs, he is a strong proponent of both property tax equity (primarily through tax-base sharing) and shifting public infrastructure investment toward cities and first suburbs. Like others, he also advocates more housing choices for low-income and moderate-income people and addressing problems in land-use practice.

This is only a sample of the discussion and recommendations addressing decentralization and the concentration of poverty in cities. These four experts emphasize different points and disagree on some strategies, but I believe they and others would agree that we need both an inside game and an outside game, to borrow David Rusk's basketball analogy To be sure, we must strengthen neighborhoods that low-income people live in, but mostly what we need is an outside game that connects people in poverty to opportunity throughout a region.

The Ultimate Measure of Success for Regionalism

My own experience over twenty-five years of working in the trenches in state and local government and now for a regional council of governments convinces me that this concentration of poverty and lack of access to opportunity must be addressed if we are to flourish as a nation and as a people. When I started my career working in Trenton City Hall, I was sure we could handle all our challenges on our own. We didn't need help from any do-gooders, and we sure didn't need suburban towns looking over our shoulder. But I came to realize over time that most of our toughest problems were far beyond our reach in city hall, and that we lacked the resources and policy authority to make the kinds of change that would promote better socioeconomic balance in our city and open up access to opportunity for more city residents. Despite our best efforts, the prevailing trends made these changes more necessary and less reachable for us as time went on.

Then, while serving in state government in New Jersey, I traveled up and down the state working with local governments and community-based organizations to help low-income people move to self-sufficiency. It became quite clear, because of the growing concentration of poverty in our cities, that any long-term hope for success depended on creating stronger city-suburban linkage and opening up access to opportunity for city residents throughout a region.

I soon came to realize that cities such as Trenton and Hartford, and even larger cities such as Philadelphia, couldn't do it on their own. We need a strong outside game, one that removes barriers to opportunity for city residents and allows a better mix of income groups throughout the region. We need to deconcentrate poverty in cities and give many of the people who live in them a better shot at pursuing the American dream. Make no mistake: this will not be easy To quote Anthony Downs, "From concentrated minority poverty comes the inner core problems that I believe are the most serious of all long-term threats to our political stability and economic prosperity." (5)

At the same time, it is by far our toughest challenge. On this point, David Rusk says that "redeeming the inner city and the urban underclass requires reintegration of city and suburb. This is the toughest political issue in American society. It goes right to the heart of America's fear about race and class. There will be no short-term, politically comfortable solutions." (16)

Downs and Rusk are right. It will be very hard to tackle this seemingly intractable problem, yet the future well-being of many regions depends on our working toward better socioeconomic balance in our communities. Without it, and without the access to opportunity that is implied, we will all eventually pay the price. Providing access to opportunity and achieving better socioeconomic balance is the ultimate measure of success in regional initiatives. It is a prerequisite for success in many of the other challenges we face, such as building a good workforce, sustaining our economic competitive edge, fighting crime, and using public tax dollars cost-effectively Providing better access to opportunity for low-income people and especially city residents should be our overarching goal in all regional initiatives.

We should ask ourselves each time we make a decision that will affect our region and its communities, "How does this decision help or hinder us in the effort to deconcentrate poverty and open up access to opportunity?"

Many have suggested that among the major regional challenges, it might be easier to deal with congestion, open-space protection, and related smart-growth issues and to implement governance strategies designed to provide more cost-effective public services. This is because there tends to be good political support from suburban residents for these issues. But as Rusk has argued, "Regional arrangements usually avoid policies and programs that share the social burdens of inner-city residents ... Areawide compacts on transportation planning, solid waste management, sewage treatment, and air quality management may be 'good government,' but they address the urban problem only if they attack racial and economic segregation." (17)

I agree. These good government initiatives are important and must be pursued, but they are not enough if we are honest with ourselves about our greatest challenge.

Similarly, many people, myself included, have jumped on the smart-growth bandwagon in the hope that it can be part of the answer to racial and economic segregation and the resultant lack of access to opportunity. Many of us have worked quite hard to promote proposals that fall under the smart-growth umbrella. Even so, I fear that at the end of the day, we may not have made a meaningful contribution toward achieving better socioeconomic balance in our region's communities.

In fact, some have suggested that certain smart-growth policies might actually impede creation of new affordable housing units in wealthier communities, or even reduce the supply of affordable housing in a region. The Brookings Institution and the Harvard Institute of Economic Research both looked at this question in recent publications. The Harvard study argues that an affordable housing shortage is not necessarily a problem nationwide; the price of housing is significantly higher than construction costs in only a few areas. Further, using a series of tests, this report suggests that land-use controls play a "dominant role in making housing expensive." (18) The Brookings report argues that many factors, but especially market demand, have an impact on housing prices. Smart-growth management policies can raise housing prices, but so do traditional land-use practices that have often excluded low-income people. Therefore the Brookings researchers write that the real choice is "between good and bad land use regu lation to improve housing choice." (19)

As time goes on, we will get a better picture of how smart-growth policies affect the concentration of poverty in cities. I still believe that smart-growth efforts can help address the problems associated with the separation of rich and poor. But we proponents must be honest about what we hope to achieve, and we must be alert for indications that our work might not secure the hoped-for outcomes.


If you believe, as I do, that strengthening connections, for residents of a poor neighborhood, to opportunity throughout a region is our most important challenge, then it is important to keep your eyes on the prize. This phrase, borrowed from the civil rights era, is fitting because real progress in addressing the concentration of poverty requires a campaign of the magnitude and reach of the civil rights movement. The appeal it must make to people's sense of what is right and to people's enlightened self-interest is also similar. John Powell, the director of the Institute on Race and Poverty says it well and succinctly: "The civil rights movement in the twenty-first century is about space." (20) He goes on to say that the way to end segregation is through regional approaches connecting people to opportunity.

We know what's needed to deconcentrate poverty: more affordable housing units in more places; stronger fair housing enforcement; better use of mobile housing vouchers; more options for K-12 education, especially for children in neighborhoods with poorly performing schools; and better access to jobs in terms of hiring practices and transportation. It is also important, in offering low-income people more housing choices, that we not create new pockets of poverty.

The flip side of this coin is that we must also build or maintain a strong middle class in our cities. We must work to make the city a place in which more middle-income families live. School options are especially important in accomplishing this.

But how can we build the broad support needed to achieve better balance in our communities and wider access to opportunity? Some of us in the Hartford region are working now to create a regional citizens network, which would address these and other regional issues. We are looking at some great models from around the country including such places as Jacksonville, St. Louis, and Portland (Oregon). Our work in the Hartford region is in part a follow-up to a civic participation project we conducted in five towns with the help of the National Civic League. There we learned the value of strong citizen participation and informed, engaged citizenship.

It is our hope that people from all walks of life and all points of view will come together through a regional citizens network to have an honest discussion about the consequences of decentralization, and particularly the separation of rich and poor in Hartford. Then we might be ready to work together to secure the public reforms and the changes in how we live our lives that allow meaningful change in the separation of rich and poor--our most important regional challenge. Strong, hopefully broad, public support is a prerequisite for real progress in this endeavor.

Because of how we separate ourselves, many Americans are not fully aware that this separation prevents hundreds of thousands of people from making a good life and contributing to society in the process. The indirect impact on the overall well-being of a region is even less well known. I believe that most people would respond positively to this appeal if only they could see the big picture of how the concentration of poverty hurts many people and works against nearly everyone's long-term interest. The first step entails compelling, defensible information that documents trends in separation by income and the cost that this separation exacts on all of us. Myron Orfield's work (referred to earlier) in mapping out the impact of these issues can be compelling.

Then people need a forum to come together to discuss these tough issues with others from different walks of life. The goal is to arrive at a shared understanding of what serves their common interest and then to advocate together for reforms to achieve it. Some may say it is naive to hope for this. But major changes in public attitude and public policy on tough issues have been achieved before in our nation's history. They mark points of great progress for our nation, and they represent historic events of which most Americans are justly proud. The successful civil rights movement in the 1960s is recent testimony. The critical importance of building more balanced communities and opening up access to opportunity demands we do it again. If we succeed, we will recommit our country to the fundamental principle of equality of opportunity. In the bargain, we will ensure a more prosperous and stable future for our regions and our nation.


(1.) Rusk, D. Cities Without Suburbs. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1993.

(2.) Rusk (1993).

(3.) Rusk, D. Inside Game/Outside Game: Winning Strategies for Saving Urban America. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1999.

(4.) Rusk (1999).

(5.) Gottlieb, P. D. "The Effects of Poverty on Metropolitan Area Economic Performance: A Policy Oriented Research Review." In R. Greenstein and W. Wiewel (eds.), Urban-Suburban Interdependencies. Cambridge, Mass.: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2000.

(6.) Gottlieb (2000), p. 28.

(7.) Heffley, D. "Education ReCAPT." Connecticut Economy (University of Connecticut Quarterly Review), Spring 1998.

(8.) Benabou, R. "Workings of a City: Location, Education and Production." Quarterly Journal of Economics, Aug. 1993, pp. 619-652.

(9.) Hughes, M. A. Poverty in Cities." (Research report.) Washington, D.C.: National League of Cities, 1989.

(10.) Orfield, M. American Metropolitics. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2002.

(11.) Downs, A. New Visions for Metropolitan America. Washington, D.C., and Cambridge, Mass.: Brookings Institution and Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 1994.

(12.) Katz, B. "Reviving Cities: Think Metropolitan." (Policy brief no. 33.) Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, June 1998.

(13.) Rusk (1993), p. 122.

(14.) Rusk (1993), p. 122.

(15.) Downs, A. "Some Realities About Sprawl and Urban Decline." Housing Policy Debate (Fannie Mae Foundation), 1999, 10(4).

(16.) Rusk (1993), p. 122.

(17.) Rusk (1993), p. 123.

(18.) Glaeser, E., and Gyourko, J. The Impact of Zoning on Housing Affordability. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Institute of Economic Research, Mar. 2002.

(19.) Nelson, A. C., Pendall, R., Dawkins, C. J., and Knaap, G. J. The Link Between Growth Management and Housing Affordability: The Academic Evidence. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institute Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, Feb. 2002.

(20.) From a speech to the Greater Hartford Interfaith Coalition for Equity and Justice: comment published in the Hartford Courant, June 27, 2002.

Richard J. Porth is executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments, Hartford, Connecticut.
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Author:Porth, Richard J.
Publication:National Civic Review
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Date:Sep 22, 2002
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