Tuesday, June 21, 2011

People or places?

Too many officials in troubled cities wrongly imagine that they can lead their city back to its former glories with some massive construction project--a new stadium or light rail system, a convention center, or a housing project.  With very few exceptions, no public policy can stem the tidal forces of urban change.  We mustn't ignore the needs of the poor people who live in the Rust Belt, but public policy should help poor people, not poor places.

Shiny new real estate may dress up a declining city, but it doesnt' solve its underlying problems.  The hallmark of declining cities is that they have too much housing and infrastructure relative to the strength of their economies.  With all that supply of structure and so little demand, it makes no sense to use public money to build more supply.  The folly of building-centric urban renewal reminds us that cities aren't structures; cities are people.

After Hurricane Katrina, the building boosters wanted to spend hundreds of billions rebuilding New Orleans, but if $200 billion has been given to the people who lived there, each of them would have gotten $400,000 to pay for moving or education or better housing somewhere else.  Even before the flood, New Orleans had done a mediocre job caring for its poor.  Did it really make sense to spend billions on the city's infrastructure, when money was so badly needed to help educate the children of New Orleans?  New Orleans' greatness always came from its people, not from its buildings.  Wouldn't it have made more sense to ask how federal spending could have done the most for the lives of Katrina's victims, even if they moved somewhere else? 

Ultimately, the job of urban government isn't to fund buildings or rail lines that can't possibly cover their costs, but to care for the city's citizens.  A mayor who can better educate a city's children so that they can find opportunity on the other side of the globe is succeeding, even if his city is getting smaller.
Edward Glaeser
Triumph of the City, page 9

I'm enjoying the thought of Edward Glaeser

At the same time, I'm wondering how his theories may fit in addressing the continuing challenge of bringing renewal, life, health and opportunity to a "geography" like that of the Southern Sector, a huge section of undeveloped and underdeveloped land here in Dallas, Texas?

For starters, this particular area of our city is not monolithic, or homogenious in any respect, save that of its basically depressed eoconomic vitality.  That said, there are regions of the sector that are severely depressed, as compared to others parts of the area that appear to present more hopeful possibilites. 

Glaeser is right about education.  For sure it presents the greatest, seemingly intractable challenge facing the southern part of our urban area.  Until public education in Dallas is "fixed," nothing of much significance will move forward or change in any substantive, positive manner, especially to the south.  The education problem in Dallas strangles progress, paralyzes the economy and dashes whatever hope might remain or be created along the way to "more of the same." 

As public education goes--in reality and in perception--so goes the housing and retail markets along with jobs and eoncomic vitality.  Our city has seen the flight of middle class families of all complexions from the city to the suburbs on the outside in search of better educational options for their children. 

While building programs, rail lines and infrastructure improvements will not answer the call to renovate public education (shoot, no one's thinking of building anything much to the south of Dallas anyway) some combination of vision, investment, community restructuring and focused attention seem in order. 

What if. . .

. . .Dallas developed a program for educaiton reform equivalent to some of the incentivized economic development vehicles that are in place Downtown and around the community (i. e. enterprise zones, TIFs, etc.)?  Why not block out a target area for special consideration with real attention given to managing entire "feeder patterns" where schools historically under-perform?

. . .Dallas overlaid such target areas with existing economic development tools and a real long-term commitment to public investment?

. . .Dallas courted area and national corporations to relocate to the south to build new, positive, planned developed, "company towns" where new, healthy economies could be built alongside renewing schools.  In exchange for tax abatements, companies would agree to train and employ a % of low-income wage workers alongside middle class wage earners. Such special enclaves would be defined by their commitment to great public schools, no exceptions, no excuses.

. . .the City of Dallas petitioned the state for some measure of involvement/control in managing the public schools in these special, target areas?  Many have argued that the DISD is too large.  By peeling off a portion of the responsibility, the city might contribute to the improvement of the entire system.  I know it's a radical idea, but, in my view, we are in need of a complete overhaul.

. . .principals were held accountable like other CEOs in the community on the basis of clear and meaningful metrics around student improvement, performance and university readiness

. . .every new "big project," like those Glaeser mentions, was vetted first for its role in improving the quality of life for these new, planned "excellence in education communities"?  Could we actually plan housing development and variety, community spaces, convention centers, and highway/transportation infrastructure around educational attainment goals and current "low-performing" areas?

. . .Sustainability, quality of life, communication, grassroots democracy and public health measures became first rate community priorities? 

Sorry, but I just wonder.


rcorum said...

Larry, this is my third attempt. One wrong keystroke and poof it's gone. I love my iPad, but one wrong move and o ff in goes into cyber neverland. What. Yow are saying sounds good on paper, but in my opinion it fails to address, in my opinion, the core problem. My wife has been a dedicated public school teacher for 21 years, and six of those years was spent teaching kindergarten in an inner city school. She loved that job in large measure because she could see that she actually made a difference in the lives of her students , many of whom should up the first day of school not knowing their colors. By the end of the school year they were reading. If you were to ask her what was the key issue she would say little about inadequate funding, but a mouthful about the breakdown of the family. These same children who were so full of promise so often fell by the wayside not from a lack of funding, but from the breakdown of their family. It was not uncommon for my wife to have students of single moms who themselves were little more than eighteen. Having a child out of wedlock used to be a big deal. Those days are long gone,but until something is done to strengthen the nuclear family all other efforts are destined to have little long term effect.

Larry James said...

RC, I think I understand your point. The question it begs is "where to start?" Further, why the problem at this scale in the first place? Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Parental failure or a heritagge/legacy of poverty? What so many don't understand about the demise of the family unit in the inner city is the role of factors such as racism, severe poverty in a culture that asseses human value on the basis of net worth, unemployment/underemployment, white flight, public policy that channels the most benefit uphill, etc.

If we really want to see family strength improve, we must invest in parents and in poor families and we must give up the notion that more sermons on "personal responsibility" or more classes on parent education void of any consistent, courageous stnad for social justice will ever make real, lasting difference.

Anonymous said...

It's really difficult to get past the power of an orgasm with a class on parenting.

foodforthought said...

I agree with rcorum, but i do support the post as well. It is not unusual that the answer is multi-sided. It is never just one thing, especially on such a large scale. Very thick post, i love it. Thanks for sharing.


rcorum said...

Sorry for all the typos. I will be careful with this post. I for one have no illusions about preaching sermons, but the stark reality is that in the early 60s I believe, the single parent birth rate in the black community was less than 30%. Today it is over 70%. How was the black community able to stay so strong in the face of unrelenting racism. I don't buy your racism argument. There is plenty of blame to go around, but I also don't quiet understand how white flight causes young African American teenagers to get pregnant at alarming rates. Could it have anything to do with a government check? I think we have basically de-stigmatized unwed parents, both black and white. To me it is so condescending to say that if you are poor you lack or cannot attain the ability to make good choices.

Anonymous said...

I don't think anyone would say you "can't" make good choices when you're poor. Some do. But the cultural influences all around you in impoverished areas predominately push people toward bad choices. Those of us lucky enough to be raised in loving, two parent households in nice neighborhoods would most likely have turned out quite differently if we instead came from an impoverished single mother household in a scary neighborhood.


rcorum said...

Ken, in my mind you are missing my point. I grew up in what would be call a lower middle class environment at best, but the culture as a whole so stigmatized an out of wedlock birth that few happened, and this was true also in the black community. It sounds very much like you are making an excuse for poor decisions, and I am convinced that pouring in more money from the government only exacerbates the problem. What if there was no check waiting on the teenage girls who get pregnant? What if her best option was to give up the child for adoption? Ken, I couldn't agree more with your last statement. We all would have turned out differently so doesn't it stand to reason that we need to address this blight of illegitimate births, because when a child is born in such an environment he starts out at a profound disadvantage, and until this issue is dealt with and viewed as primary instead of a secondary causal event nothing will change.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree that unwed, especially teenage, motherhood is an enormous problem. The correlation between that status and poverty is far too high to deny.

The problem is - what do you do with a child that is actually here? 'Not giving the mother a check' (assuming for the moment that would work) would undoubtedly take a decade or generations to change behavior. And, in the meantime, you would have 10 or 20 years of kids growing up even more impoverished, and growing up in poverty is also highly correlated to current poverty.

And adoption is not an option for most of these kids. Adoptible Black children, for instance, are plentiful, but takers are few.

So, what do you do with the human 'product' of a bad choice who did nothing wrong, but was simply born into bad circumstances?

Anonymous said...

Oh .. that was me ...


Anonymous said...

Takers are few. When I ask a black university student where s/he lives they nearly always respond "I stay at Richardson" or some other town or city. "I stay at..." is another way to say I live with someone who is not my family or with some distant relative. There is evidence of both generosity and tragedy in this kind of reply.

It is out of the question for white families to adopt black children. If a poor black mother, perhaps with social or even addiction problems, considers having someone else raise her child, why is a suburban white family out of the question? Is the urban, poverty-stricken black culture a better deal than a suburban middle class culture? Can white suburbanites provide help in any form other than higher taxes that go into community rec centers, welfare checks, and overprices/underused public transportation systems?

rcorum said...

Anon 9:47, you make an excellent point, but I believe there will always be resistance in the black community to whites adopting black children, and some of the rationale I understand. Ken, I would never be for leaving children out in the cold, but what is actually being done to significantly reduce unwed teen pregnancies? Statistic after statistic shows that the unwed teenage mother basically has no chance and will only repeat the cycle of poverty. This might seem a bit off topic, but my brother-in-law benefited from unemployment checks. He learned how to get by with his check. Only when the check stopped did he go and find a job. I continue to be amazed at what people can do when they know the government is not there to save the day. Again, I am not against government programs for the poor. In fact, I think it is a crime that anyone in this country would every go hungry, but if someone could find some way to make having a baby as an unwed teenager a negative I believe great strides could be made in communities where that is a problem. ay.

Larry James said...

Anything that advances hope in impoverished communities will improve the reality/data around teen pregnancy. Draconian moves to "starve out" social/public benefits and opportunities for the poor to improve their lot only increases/deepens the problem that is a concern to all. Much, much, much more is at work here than a failure of "personal responsibility." Why does no one ever speak clearly to "public/community/social responsibility on the part of us all?

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:47:
I was not suggesting white families could not raise black children, only that they do not choose do to so. Ask almost any adoption agency. If you want to adopt a white child you will wait a year or more. You could have a black child almost the day you qualify to adopt. My point was that adoption is not an answer for many (or most) teenage/unwed mothers, even were they to make that choice.

qb said...

Tying administrator performance, measured by university readiness or by other metrics, to pay and retention is all well and good, provided that the administrator is given enough latitude to be creative. And that means unshackling them from a wide range of FedDeptEd and state constraints. If he or she cannot administer the way he or she wants to administer, performance-based pay is irrational and unlikely to work. Charters, vouchers, tuition tax credits, and/or experimental privatization, with significantly loosened constraints, might have a shot, ISTM.