By Clarence Hightower
The Anti-Poverty Soldier
ST. PAUL, Minn. (Dec. 28, 2015) — It has been more than two decades since the United States federal government initiated its Empowerment Zone Program, designed to reduce poverty and unemployment while promoting economic development in some of the poorest urban and rural areas throughout the nation. Congress identified these areas over the course of three rounds and by three separate designations, which included Empowerment Zones, Enterprise Communities, and Renewal Communities.
It was during the program’s second round that the City of Minneapolis received a 10-year designation as an Empowerment Zone community. Designated in 1999 under the Federal Omnibus Reconciliation Act, the Minneapolis Empowerment Zone included several neighborhoods that at the time were among the most impoverished in America.
In North Minneapolis, such neighborhoods included Harrison, Hawthorne, McKinley and Near North, while some of the Empowerment Zone neighborhoods in South Minneapolis were Central, Longfellow, Phillips, and Ventura Village. Additional Empowerment Zone neighborhoods that lay east of the Mississippi River included Beltrami, Logan Park, Mid City Industrial Area, and Prospect Park.
The city’s status as an Empowerment Zone community officially ended on Dec. 31, 2009, just as America was coming out what economists have come to call “The Great Recession.” Of course poverty sharply increased throughout America’s cities, suburbs and rural areas during that time.
Recent data demonstrates that the neighborhoods included as part of the Minneapolis Empowerment Zone continue to be scarred by large pockets of concentrated poverty. In fact, the most recent five-year snapshot of Minneapolis by the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey reveals that a considerable number of the city’s census tracts have concentrated poverty rates of approximately 60 to 90 percent.
This certainly should not be news to anyone. We have witnessed the rampant poverty and its associated disparities that blight the Twin Cities urban centers, particularly communities of color, continue to persist for decades.
Recently, Miriam Axel-Lute, editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute penned a provocative column on the issue of concentrated poverty. In her Shelterforce commentary, Axel-Lute addressed two rather conspicuous elements that elevate the discussion on concentrated poverty. As such, I believe they are worth mentioning again.
The first element she discusses is that of “resilience” by referencing an essay by Los Angeles-based writer Melissa Chadburn. Both authors explore the resiliency of those living in poverty, but caution that our tendency to champion perseverance in the face of suffering is somewhat short-sighted.
While there are many examples of those whose irrepressible spirit helped them to climb out of poverty, encouraging others to do the same is not enough. Axel-Lute notes that “making a certain kind of resistance the goal, as opposed to reducing the causes of poverty and trauma,” is not sufficient to help the majority of those in poverty escape its clutches.
The second element Axel-Lute addresses is the issue of “blame.” She cites another essay, this one by Russian-born and Chicago-based freelance writer Maya Dukmasova, who rails against the term “concentrated poverty,” suggesting that it fallaciously blames the poor for their own plight.
Here again, each author points out that the presence of poor people themselves is not at the root of concentrated poverty. Rather it is the structural deficiencies and the harmful policies and practices that preserve such deficiencies that isolate impoverished communities and deny them access to the social and economic resources that others may take for granted.
Historically in communities where there has been a high concentration of poverty, other terms such generational poverty or the cycle of poverty are frequently applied. In my estimation, those descriptions further exacerbate the notion that poverty begets more poverty.
It is not that simple, nor is it at all logical. As the three authors cited in this column contend, the structural inequities that exist in poor communities make it exceedingly difficult for anyone to rise above their circumstances.
A multitude of social service and community-based organizations continue to help improve the lives of many living in poverty. Nonetheless, the systems, structures and social policies that breed these disparities must be adequately addressed for us to successfully eliminate poverty.
Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University.