July-August, 2011; Source: City Limits | The July-August issue of City Limits magazine is dedicated to the theme “Remember Poverty?” One of the articles describes the Obama Administration’s anti-poverty agenda, focused on three programs:  the Promise Neighborhoods program in the Department of Education, Choice Neighborhoods in HUD, and the Byrne Criminal Justice initiative in the Department of Justice. In budget negotiations for fiscal year 2011, Promise Neighborhoods got $30 million, Choice Neighborhoods $65 million, and Byrne a goose egg. 

If these programs add up to the president’s anti-poverty agenda, the City Limits piece provides useful insights into what “anti-poverty” means today compared to the heyday of anti-poverty work during the Johnson Administration. Promise Neighborhoods is, as everyone must know by now, modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone program of school-centered neighborhood change to a 97-block area keyed to charter school hubs.  Choice Neighborhoods is the Obama Administration’s substitute for the HOPE VI program of the Clinton and Bush administrations, meant to replace and reinvigorate distressed public housing. Choice Neighborhoods is  an ostensibly more HCZ-comprehensive version of HOPE VI. 

The elements of the Obama Administration’s anti-poverty conception seem to be these: (1) commitment to place-based strategies; (2) cross-agency programming (including pooled funding); (3) different federal agencies taking lead roles; and (4) leveraging significant private (and philanthropic) dollars to supplement federal appropriations. 

Do they add up to an anti-poverty agenda? City Limits suggests that “Choice and Promise are greeted universally as interesting ideas,” but cites poverty researchers such as Sheldon Danziger of the University of Michigan suggesting that there are limitations on many successful replications of HCZ. Plus he notes, according to City Limits, these tiny programs really don’t add up to much compared to traditional safety net programs such as food stamps and the EITC which he says “are smashingly successful and more successful than those [new] programs could ever be.”

Promise and Choice supporters have high hopes for the incremental successes of the early planning efforts that HUD and DOE are funding. But between new programs and big safety nets are anti-poverty programs such as the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) program that the president has signaled a willingness to slash drastically. 

An anti-poverty agenda needs a three-legged stool:  programs that test new concepts; programs that focus resources on poverty-fighting institutions like community action agencies; and programs that constitute a safety net for low-income people. The Obama administration’s agenda doesn’t seem quite whole yet.—Rick Cohen