Albany Times-Union, March 9, 2008: Combat poverty with a regional approach

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First published: Sunday, March 9, 2008

Moving the regional economy in the right direction is a common theme in our local news these days. Local leaders understand the competition involved in luring a company here and the importance of offering strong incentives.

As regional investments abound, we must be careful not to miss the opportunity to address the equally prominent and important local news stories of neglected city neighborhoods, crime, poverty and failing urban schools.

Local advocates for low-income families cite Austin, Texas, where poverty indicators actually worsened following the high-tech boom. We can learn from Austin’s mistakes.

A hollowed-out urban center benefits no one. In fact, it has been well established that any decline in the inner city has a profound effect on neighboring suburbs and rural areas. According to a 1997 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report, 87 percent of the new jobs created in the early ’90s in the lower-paying and lower-skilled service and retail sectors were located in the suburbs.

Perhaps after many years of cut-throat competition and major economic development outside the inner cities, Capital Region communities will cooperate with their neighbors.

Myron Orfield of the Metropolitan Area Research Corporation in Minnesota says, “Concentrated poverty increases significantly in the face of relatively weak, often evaporating local tax base and declining state and federal support for urban programs. Virtually everywhere in a metropolitan region where social needs are growing rapidly, the tax base is uncertain or declining; everywhere in a given region where the tax base is accelerating dramatically, social needs are stable or declining.”

One way to address this problem is creation of a regional tax base sharing fund. A community’s contribution could be set as a percentage of overall growth in its tax base or limited to commercial-industrial growth. The money could be used to address problems in less prosperous communities. Otherwise, new communities will grow wealthier at the expense of older ones.

Catholic Charities of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese recently released a report on the astonishing amount of poverty in the Capital Region.

“The tolerance of widespread poverty in our midst undermines our social contract and weakens our democracy,” the report states. “It violates our basic sense of fairness and equity, and it diminishes our legitimacy as a beacon of political values that are admired around the world — freedom, justice, equality and ‘liberty and justice for all.’ “

Regional organizations, whether public or private, are the only way a real difference will be made. Crucial and invaluable work is done every day by Catholic Charities and other organizations like the Albany Community Action Partnership, the Commission on Economic Opportunity, Equinox, Literacy Volunteers of Rensselaer County and many others.

But comprehensive results cannot be attained when budgets are severely constrained. Those results will occur when we can harness the region’s resources.

Suburbs and rural areas have a vested interest in cities’ health. Cities are our cultural centers and in many ways reflect the future diversity of our country. They are still our government centers.

We tackle problems that affect our nation with the full force of the federal government using its vast resources. The same logic must be used when addressing inner city troubles. One city cannot solve the blight, poverty and neglect on its own.

We seem to understand on an international basis that there is a direct relationship between poverty, disenfranchisement and instability. A basic principle of our foreign policy is stabilization of certain countries to cure civil and social unrest, provide economic assistance and establish mutual national security benefits. The same reasoning must apply to our inner cities.

Staying our current course means spending extraordinary amounts of money for public safety and jails.

A regional approach to solving these problems is essential. Let the regional conversation begin.

Charles Moore is an urban and regional planner. He lives in Rensselaer.

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