Spotlight Exclusives

March 23, 2009: Reduce Poverty by Investing in America۪s Cities, By Ben Hecht, President and CEO of Living Cities

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The continuing economic crisis has forced our nation to soberly reconsider basic questions from how we regulate Wall Street to how we support homeownership. Less discussed, but arguably as important, are the ways that we support America۪s cities. If we really want to help the economy recover and deliver opportunity to low-income Americans, it is time to transform our approach to cities. A renewed focus on cities will help us restore their capacity to drive our economy and deliver social mobility to millions of poor Americans.

There is no question that our nation۪s health depends in large part on the health of our cities. Our cities now contain 65 percent of the national population, 68 percent of all jobs and produce three-quarters of our gross domestic product. Despite their increasing importance, we have not adapted urban policy to account for the vital role our cities play in American life and in promoting national prosperity. If we want to help our cities succeed in the 21st century, we must focus on people, place and opportunity simultaneously.

Living Cities has produced “The American City Agenda” which outlines how we can help advance America۪s cities. The agenda includes five areas of focus.

First, we need to promote individual opportunity and wealth. Our cities will only thrive when all their residents have education, can save money, and have adequate work support such as childcare.

Second, we must provide adequate capital to expand business and drive investment to our cities.

Third, we need to build strong neighborhoods through affordable housing, good schools, and access to quality healthcare.

Fourth, we need to support sustainable communities by meeting basic needs such as abundant nutritious foods and affordable transit. We also must help communities address environmental problems like climate change.

Fifth, we must maintain and improve critical infrastructure in our cities. This includes basic infrastructure like roads and sewer systems, but also access to communications technology like the Internet.

When we survey the many problems plaguing impoverished urban communities, these five areas of focus help explain what is missing. Children don۪t have access to affordable, nutritious foods. Families cannot get the quality health care they need. Schools are understaffed and under-funded. Hard working people search for jobs that don۪t exist or for which they have not been sufficiently prepared through real training and education.

If we promote these core pillars of strong urban communities, we can make cities spaces that both drive national economic prosperity and provide real economic opportunities to millions of citizens who for too long have been shut out of the American Dream. To achieve this integrated vision, the government, philanthropies, advocates and the private sector will need to adopt an equally comprehensive plan, one that enables them to work together to harmonize policy and make substantial investments in cities and urban communities.

The first step is to help cities and states adopt proven policies that target the areas of focus.

The second step is help cities and states identify and remove policies and programs that prevent this integrated, comprehensive approach.

The third step is to implement key federal policies that will help new and innovative measures succeed.

The fourth step is to leverage philanthropic resources to spur private investment.

The last step is to learn as we go by fostering an ongoing dialogue about what works best.

There has never been a better moment to rethink our approach to America۪s cities. President Obama has made a clear commitment to urban issues and substantive responses by appointing experienced urban leaders such as HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. He has close advisors such as Valerie Jarrett who have first hand experience on what it takes to make cities work. He’s even heightened the visibility of these issues by creating a White House Director of Urban Affairs and appointing a Special Assistant to the President for Urban Affairs.

As perhaps the first truly urban president in decades, Obama has already put into place key policy makers who can partner with and coordinate other federal agencies, local governments, philanthropies, and business to embrace and implement the integrated approach outlined in the “The American Cities Agenda.”

There is real public support to help catalyze this newfound political will. A May 2008 poll conducted by Living Cities and CEOs for Cities found that 85 percent believe America will not be competitive economically without dynamic cities. In addition, an overwhelming majority (90 percent) said that our country۪s economic future is intertwined with that of our cities.

The new administration and the public clearly recognize this unique moment for our country۪s cities. Investing in our cities will help us recover from the current recession and fuel our nation۪s return to prosperity. Yet it will also deliver economic opportunity and hope to millions of urban Americans too long ignored.

Ben Hecht is President and CEO of Living Cities, a partnership devoted to America۪s cities.

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