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NLC survey studies local officials' perception of poverty: results reflect the severity and seriousness of the issue.

In order to better understand how elected city officials perceive the problem of poverty in their cities and their capacity to bring about economic development, NLC conducted the Urban Poverty and Economic Development Opinion Survey. The findings of the survey were used to develop an implementation plan to assist city officials to address urban poverty issues through economic development strategies.

Over half of survey respondents describe their cities' poverty as severe or serious.

When asked to describe the problem of poverty in their cities, 12 percent indicated "severe," and 38 percent "serious," while 39 percent indicated "moderate," and 11 percent "slight." When the number of responses were tabulated according to poverty rates of respondents' cities, responses fell into four almost equal groups. Since 25 percent of the responses came from cities with poverty rates in excess of 20.5 percent, the number of responses in the "severe" category was lower than expected.

Perceptions of city roles for bringing about economic development and for reducing poverty differ.

Respondents were asked to select the answer that best described whether and to what extent they thought city government had responsibility for (1) taking action to reduce poverty and (2) taking action to bring about economic development. Nearly 85 percent responded that taking action to bring about economic development was indeed a city government responsibility and a "very important" one compared to 47.5 percent who thought reducing poverty was a city government responsibility and a "very important" one.

Survey responses indicated that local elected officials overwhelmingly see the federal government as having primary responsibility for reducing poverty, with local government having the major role in bringing about urban economic development.

Respondents were asked to rank on a scale of 1 to 5 the impact they thought city government actions could have on bringing about economic development and on reducing poverty. Elected officials were much more confident about their ability to bring about economic development than to reduce poverty, with 68.2 percent indicating that city actions could have a "significant" or "substantial" in bringing about economic development compared to only 28.5 percent who thought city actions could have a comparable effect on poverty reduction.

These findings are reflected in responses to questions asking whether the respondents' city government had a department with responsibility for local economic development (90.3 percent responded affirmatively) and a department with responsibility for reducing poverty (40 percent said yes).

Linkages between economic development and poverty reduction strategies weak in many cities.

Economic development efforts were perceived by almost half of the respondents as unconnected to their city's efforts to reduce poverty. When asked "to what extent is local economic development activity in your city integrated with your city's efforts to fight poverty?" less than 13 percent replied that strategies were integrated "to a great extent," while another 40 percent said they were integrated "to a modest extent." The remaining 47 percent said they were integrated "very little" or "not at all."

The findings also reflect the political realities perceived by local elected officials. Asked which was most important to their chances of gaining reelection, 48.2 percent responded "being associated with strategies to bring about economic development," while only 2.9 percent chose "being associated with strategies to reduce poverty." The remainder chose "being associated with strategies to do both equally."

Opinions regarding the connection between local economic development and poverty reduction showed little consensus. When asked to respond to the statement "Local economic development programs and poverty reduction programs are essentially two different program areas pursuing different objectives," 49.2 percent agreed or strongly agreed, while 50.8 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Poverty reduction was not perceived as one of the three "most important goals for economic development activity" for the majority of city officials. Respondents were given a list of possible goals for local economic development policy and asked to choose what they thought were the three most important goals for their cities. Only 12.8 percent chose "reducing poverty" as one of their cities' top three goals.

Some strategies identified as effective for both economic development and poverty reduction.

Respondents were asked to rate the effectiveness of a variety of programs first for promoting economic development and then for reducing poverty. The programs receiving the highest ratings for effectiveness in promoting economic development alone were infrastructure development, small business assistance, improving the quality of city services, job training, tax exempt financing for business development, and tax abatements.

The programs receiving the highest rating for effectiveness in reducing poverty alone were job training, education programs linking schools and business, incentives to attract business to locate in specific low-income neighborhoods, targeting CDBG funds to low income neighborhoods, and neighborhood revitalization programs.

The activities and programs that received the highest ratings for their potential for achieving both economic development and poverty reduction were job training, incentives to attract business to specific low income areas, education programs linking schools to business, neighborhood revitalization programs, small and minority business assistance, and neighborhood crime prevention.

Causes of poverty

Most respondents saw causes of poverty rooted in the inability of the poor to participate effectively in labor markets or in the poor performance of labor markets. Poverty was seen as largely an employment problem and therefore potentially susceptible to an increase in employment opportunities. Asked to identify what they thought were the three most important causes of poverty from a list presented to them, respondents most often chose: inadequate skills and education of workers; long term shortage of employment opportunities; and number of jobs paying low wages.

Barriers to effective activities

Finally, respondents were asked to rate the importance of several factors as barriers to bringing about effective local economic development and, separately, to reducing poverty. Insufficient city resources (82.8 percent for poverty reduction and 68 percent for economic development) and economic factors which the city government cannot affect (76 percent for poverty reduction and 74.6 percent for economic development) were seen as by far the most important barriers for both poverty reduction and economic development activity.

Even though a "lack of knowledge about most effective strategies" was the third most important barrier in both cases, the responses indicated that elected officials had more confidence in their knowledge of economic development strategies. More that 50 percent ranked lack of knowledge as a barrier to effective poverty reduction strategies compared to only 34 percent ranking this as a barrier to effective local economic development activity.

Respondents were then asked to rate the importance of each of a variety of barriers as a factor preventing their city from engaging in local economic development activity specifically to reduce poverty.

A number of the findings suggest that an emphasis on local economic development within the city's boundaries may also be a barrier to dealing with the poverty of city residents. In this regard, economic development and poverty reduction goals clearly differ. A concern for reducing the poverty of city residents would focus on increasing employment of these residents regardless of where the jobs were located. Yet when asked to select the three most important goals for economic development, over 65 percent identified "increasing or retaining the number of jobs located in the city" as one of the top three, while only 25 percent chose "increasing employment of city residents regardless of where those jobs are located." There was also consistently low support for transportation strategies to take city residents to jobs in the suburbs, as either an economic development or a poverty reduction strategy.
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Title Annotation:Special Report: Cities and Towns Tackle Heavy Issues of Poverty; National League of Cities
Author:Furdell, Phyllis
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Sep 13, 1993
Words:1252
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