Almost any worthwhile discussion of poverty and how to overcome it will create lively debate and, at least sometimes, useful tension.
We have enjoyed our share of this hopefully friendly argument here from time to time.
I have noticed that whenever it is suggested that public solutions or even public contributions must play an active and strategic role in addressing and overcoming poverty, many people respond negatively.
There are many reasons behind such negative responses, I know. Some are valid, some not so valid in my view.
From a community development standpoint here is what I do know.
Some neighborhoods can decline so precipitously and can become so ill and weak that only a massive effort can reclaim them for health and life. Such efforts by definition require public engagement at the policy level and public investment in funding renewal efforts.
Earlier this week I was involved in an exploratory meeting about just such a neighborhood here in Dallas. The average income in the community in question is well below the federal poverty level. Half or more of the residents of the community earn much less than $10,000 annually.
The housing stock in this community is old, dilapidated, unsafe and deteriorating. Except for a liquor store or two, an over-priced convenience store and a washateria, retail establishments are non-existent. The public infrastructure is in grave disrepair. The suggestion of improving city code enforcement makes people who live in the community laugh. Crime is high. Educational opportunities are low grade. The concentration of poverty is staggering. Measured by any indicator this community is in the throes of death.
How can it be turned around? What must happen here in order to change the deadly reality of this neighborhood in its current condition?
First, we must admit that the problem is far too entrenched and too complicated to be adequately addressed by charitable solutions alone.
Philanthropy will likely be called upon to play a part, but not at this point. Habitat for Humanity has built a few homes in the area, but even they recognize that their housing stock cannot be the only effort if community turnaround is the goal.
Second, public forces and resources must be directed toward the community.
A major injection of capital will be required to revitalize the area. For example, the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has developed an effective neighborhood renewal strategy in HOPE VI. HOPE VI is a development funding product that allows local housing authorities to redevelop and redesign communities around public housing strategies.
The Dallas Housing Authority has received several of these multi-million dollar grants and has effectively brought renaissance to a number of neighborhoods in other parts of Dallas.
The neighborhood in question here is home to two very large public housing developments. Both should be torn down and redeveloped. HOPE VI funding would make that possible. If the density of the housing were reduced and if home ownership became an option via this mechanism, the neighborhood would begin to change.
Various service providers, churches, community-based organizations and community development corporations could come alongside the public effort to provide other much needed elements of the community make over, including employment training, after-school opportunities, health and wellness offerings, crime watch organizations, family support services and neighborhood organizing.
As the housing renewal takes hold and as homeowners come on the scene, the possibilities for new retail and for job opportunities in the community become much more feasible.
But the fact is, this neighborhood is effectively dead for another two decades or more without a massive infusion of funding to jump start the market forces that could carry the renewal forward to a positive conclusion.
I think most of us understand the importance of charity, of volunteering to help people and of good will in the private sector.
What we must come to grips with is the fact that some community problems, shaped by poverty, are of such a depth and scale that effective responses demand public involvement marshaled for deployment at an equally grand scale.