A Strategy for Alleviating Poverty: Why there is a renewed sense of urgency and optimism about place-based initiatives

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This blog was originally published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review on December 4, 2014 

When most people speak of place-based efforts to alleviate poverty, their definition is the same one used for the last half century—ever since the Ford Foundation undertook its 1964 Gray Areas Project and the federal government launched its corresponding Community Action Program. They envision a multi-year initiative focused on a small, distressed neighborhood. Sometimes the area is expanded to encompass a contiguous set of neighborhoods or even a municipality; but there is always a well-defined, contained target area. A comprehensive array of programs—such as affordable housing, social services, small business assistance, educational reform, and job training—is targeted to improve socio-economic indicators.

There have been some standout examples of successful place-based initiatives, such as the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, which transformed 1,300 abandoned land parcels in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston into more than 400 homes, schools, and businesses, and the celebrated Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, which serves 70 percent of youth living in its target areas and gets 95 percent of them into college. But most initiatives have left funders and community leaders alike struggling to claim victory.

The consensus among most of those involved has been that place-based initiatives can never approach the bold goal that motivated their emergence in the first place: the reduction of spatially concentrated poverty in our society. The grandeur of their ambitions far outstretched most funders’ resources and capacities, forcing them to focus on a limited number of communities...

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