Spotlight Exclusives

Moving from Poverty to Prosperity: An Integrated Approach to Community Development

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As a nation, we have been working since the 1960s to address poverty in neighborhoods and communities. In the early days, we knew little about what worked or what was possible, and we experimented boldly. In the past decade, the field has achieved scale and professionalism and we now have examples of projects that are helping communities thrive despite difficult circumstances.

We believe an analysis of these projects illustrates a powerful principle: the most effective way to help low-income families is to attack poverty on multiple fronts, while at the same time making the most out of our existing resources and targeting them in ways that we know work.

Take Purpose Built Communities, which combines mixed-income housing, a cradle-to-college education pipeline, and community services to lift up families in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Atlanta. This project in East Lake has achieved impressive resultsincreasing employment rates among low-income adults from 13.5 to 70 percent, promoting an extraordinary improvement in school achievement, with 94 percent of the local charter school students performing at or above grade level for reading, and a 95 percent drop in violent crime. The project has been so successful that it is now being replicated in Indianapolis and New Orleans.  

Neighborhood Centers, Inc. in Houston also employs a holistic approach to fighting poverty through integrated clusters of programs that range from schools and early learning, to health services that tackle the problem of physical blight. 

What these approaches have in common is that they tackle poverty on many fronts at once health, housing, education, transportation, crime, jobs which is exactly what we believe the community development sector must do moving forward. 

Research points to a several key principles, in particular:

First, we need a coordinated, holistic approach to putting people and places on a path to economic prosperity. This is important because, as we all know, a family in poverty doesn۪t just have a problem with housing, or a problem with schools, or a problem with healthcare. Families have complex problems and need more than piecemeal solutions.

Second, we۪ve also found that effective solutions don۪t necessarily have to involve big investments or take a decade to see results.

When the Low Income Investment Fund invested $78,000 to enable a child care center serving low-income families to make several improvements replacing 20-year-old carpet with linoleum flooring, repainting the walls, and installing new changing tables and sinks in each classroom attendance rates increased by 15-20 percent because kids were experiencing fewer asthma attacks. The changes to the program reduced health care spending because fewer kids were going to the emergency room, and it also meant parents didn۪t have to take off work to care for their sick children and risk losing their jobs. The center also estimates it saved tens of thousands of dollars per year because of fewer disability claims by teachers as a result of better equipment and use of space.

Third, we can do more with existing resources. Combating poverty is not just about spending more money, but also about being smarter when it comes to our existing investments in housing, health, and transportation. 

Fourth, we need to set bold goals for community development work, like doubling the high school graduation rate, halving the number of people living in poverty, cutting emergency room visits by 75 percent, and making sure all kindergarteners arrive at school ready to learn.

Finally, we need a new player for community development, a “quarterback,” who helps coordinate efforts, prompt collaboration among all the sectors, and integrate them in ways that achieve measurable goals.

Poverty has been stuck at high levels for some time. It۪s true that the sluggish economy, coupled with a recent change in the needs of low-income communities is partly to blame. But the nature of poverty   inequality is worsening and corroding the foundation that supports the middle class. As the new Census report on U.S. poverty rates shows, we must shift the paradigm of how we address poverty if we۪re going to influence any change. 

When 46 million people, including one in five children, are living in poverty, it has significant implications for our economic competitiveness. We have a way out of this crisis. Let۪s commit to working together to make inroads now or we۪ll pay a much greater price later.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

David Erickson is the director of the Center for Community Development Investments at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

Nancy O. Andrews is the president and CEO of the Low Income Investment Fund.

They recently co-edited the book Investing in What Works for America۪s Communities, released on September 18, 2012.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty.  If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

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