Over the past decade and a half, the Harlem Children’s Zone has revolutionized the way sociologists and planning officials approach entrenched urban poverty. By focusing first on a single New York City block -- then expanding to 24 blocks, and today covering almost 100 -- the nonprofit Harlem Children’s Zone has pioneered a new way to fight poverty, breaking the generational cycle through a series of intense programs that follow children from birth through high school and beyond.
Now the federal government is hoping a comprehensive, “cradle-to-career” approach like the Harlem Children’s Zone’s will be the key to rescuing poverty-stricken urban neighborhoods countrywide. The White House’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative didn’t receive much fanfare when it was announced earlier this fall, but it represents nothing less than a wholesale revision of the federal government’s approach to combating urban poverty.
“It is a huge shift,” says Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a national nonprofit that seeks to connect federal anti-poverty policy with state and local efforts on the ground. Blackwell, who has been active in urban equity issues for three decades, says the new White House initiative represents “a deep understanding of the complexity of persistent poverty.”
The revamping of policy doesn’t come with a lot of new dollars. Rather, the focus is on coordinating federal initiatives across multiple agencies, leveraging the combined efforts of different government programs to create greater impact in specific distressed neighborhoods. That means bringing together several existing programs to work jointly in communities of need, including the Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhoods, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Choice Neighborhoods, the Justice Department’s Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Community Health Centers, as well as efforts within the Treasury Department. Those agencies will coordinate grant efforts, share performance data and metrics and even, possibly, adapt regulations to give local communities the flexibility they need to effect change on the ground.
That’s a big difference from previous ways of thinking, says Larkin Tackett, deputy director of the Promise Neighborhoods program. In a Web video conference discussing the new initiative, Tackett said the revised approach finally aligns federal policy with the true needs of chronically impoverished communities. “For years, we have worked in silos at the federal level. And, quite frankly, we have forced local governments and local communities to work in the same silos, because we have provided our funding in different ways with different requirements. That way of doing business has got to stop.”
It all makes intrinsic sense: New low-income housing can’t transform a neighborhood if the children who live there don’t have access to a decent school. And the quality of the school doesn’t matter much if the neighborhood is still riddled with crime. Transportation, health care, access to fresh vegetables -- they’re all essential for revamping a locale. “The issues are interconnected,” says Blackwell, “so we need interconnected solutions.”