Monday, August 17, 2009

The Toxic Impact of Concentrated Poverty

Where do we start our discussion about public housing? One of the underlying problems in any such discussion is that it always starts in the middle.

As a nation, we have never agreed on the source of the problem. That’s understandable – as a nation, we are uncomfortable about the issue of poverty. We are unsure about why people are poor, we vacillate about the following: Are people poor because they are incapable? Are people poor because they are “minorities, primarily black people”? Are poor people capable of moral behavior? Are the projects crime-ridden because the people are “bad” people?

We must address these issues. An obvious statement is: People are poor because they have fewer resources than they need to live a more affluent life. If you believe that objective assessment, as opposed to believing that poverty is a punishment or natural state for some people, then we can make a bold conclusion: Poverty does not have to be a permanent condition.

How we, as policymakers and administrators, approach issues of poverty makes all the difference. The fact of the matter is that in order to solve the issue of poverty, we must accept the “truth” of the “universal humanity of all human beings.

The second “truth” that we must accept is that “environment matters.”

To solve the issue of poverty and how best to address the need for housing that is affordable to people who are poor, we must diagnose objectively and with integrity the problem with “public housing.”

To attempt a solution, without understanding the root cause of the problem is to insure continued failure. That is exactly what we did in Atlanta. We took an honest look at the symptoms and found the following about each and every housing project in Atlanta:

  • Deteriorated physical conditions;

  • Dangerous, crime-ridden, drug-infested places;

  • Hopeless, dispirited and stigmatized residents who were disconnected from, and afraid of, the mainstream, because they rightly felt they were labeled and marginalized;

  • Children being poorly educated and socialized because they were taught in "captive elementary schools" located as part of each public housing project campus;

  • And tragically low participation in the work force and high rates of illiteracy and/or

Rather than address the real issues, many would prefer to debate whether the projects are really communities and these "incapable" poor people would be better off in the projects because as bad and destructive as they are, these are their "communities." Therefore, the issues are intentionally debated around the margins: e.g. "where will the people go?" Will the people be capable of living in "mainstream" America? Will they destroy the communities into which they move? Will they choose to move to better communities? Will they move next to me? Are they moving to places that they have not earned or deserve? Will crime go up when they bring their low morals and incapacity to my neighborhood? What is the best "next" for public housing residents?

No doubt, these questions are important, and they must be answered. But as the starting point for decision-making, I think we can all agree that doing nothing or continuing to do things that have failed in the past makes no sense. There is simply too much at stake.

Affordable housing is not just a bricks-glass-and-steel consideration. The physical aspects of affordable housing are important, but these issues are dwarfed by the sociological design.

And that sociology can be summed up in two concepts: Concentrated poverty and low expectations. When we comprehend the full implications of those two phenomena, we then begin to understand the reasons we felt compelled to provide radical alternatives to old-style housing projects.

The importance of asking these first questions can’t be overemphasized. Often, those of us involved in providing affordable housing to the very poor are faced with concerns from Congress or the federal administration. Questions from many officials – well-meaning officials – assume that the best place for public housing residents is in conventional public housing. Thus, any solution or next step is wedded to the belief that anyone who requires assistance to pay their rent can’t function in mainstream society and cannot meet civil standards of law-abiding citizens and of a civil society and must be kept where they are. And, of course, as we have learned, "where they are" is the wrong solution! I find it incredible that so many people don’t comprehend the awful, corrosive impact of intensely concentrated poverty and de-humanizing low standards and expectations.

Let me state up front that the linkage of the grinding poverty in public housing projects with failed sociology of concentrating poverty and low expectations and standards is not a uniquely American experience. Nor is it, as some would have us believe, a matter of race. Elsewhere in the world, notably Europe, the findings are the same. Confine any group in a virtual prison of poverty, coupled with low expectations and standards, and social failure is the result. National Public Radio, for example, reported in 2005: "Analysts blame recent rioting in France on the discontent and alienation fostered by bleak housing projects on the poor outskirts of French cities. The location and architecture of public housing can contribute to a sense of isolation and hopelessness."

"Isolation and hopelessness" is one way to define "concentrated poverty". There are others. I wasn’t content to read reports and studies. I went to all of the housing projects AHA owned and managed. I vividly recall hundreds of conversations, one with a woman living at East Lake Meadows. She told me about the death threats she faced on a daily basis, about worrying day after day because her children were threatened by the violence and crime that preys on public housing residents. I realized that she had become exactly what society expected, someone whose life was doomed to failure. I recall the dismal epiphany when I learned that no child (black or white) living in Techwood Homes during its entire 70 year history had ever crossed the street to attend our state’s most prestigious university, Georgia Tech.

It struck me that there was something fundamentally wrong here. And it was wrong at many levels. For example, many in Congress believe that social design doesn’t matter. Well, it does matter.

In the mid-1990s, Atlanta was cited as one of the most crime-ridden and violent cities in the nation. That’s bad – but what’s unacceptably horrible is that in one of Atlanta’s housing projects violent crime was 35 times greater than the entire city. In another community, known in the 1990s as "Little Vietnam" there was a $38 million drug trade being operated from that site. Those horror stories are repeated over and over.

Other statistics were equally appalling. Just 10 percent of the children attending schools embedded in the housing projects passed basic reading comprehension tests. We found unemployment rates at a staggering 70 percent to 80 percent. And, about 80 percent of our residents were women and children, along with the men who illegally resided with them.

In short, families were broken or non-existent. Education was broken. Economic success was unattainable. The threat of crime was a daily, sometimes hourly, reality.

We know that the people are not inherently bad or defective. I personally believe that all people are children of God with unlimited human potential.

We know with 100 percent certainty that peoples’ lives will transform if their environment is transformed and we invest in the people. Environment matters. We not only believed that, over the last 15 years we have been innovative with our programs and we have believed, challenged and invested in the people, and we have measured their successes.

The good news is that the successes number in the thousands!

What we did will be detailed in this series of newsletters. In closing this first one, however, I want to say that while much of what I write in the future will be heavy with statistics and analysis, what we did in Atlanta began with matters of heart and spirit. I’ll never forget my promise that, as a community and nation, we can do better than allow the horrible conditions at housing projects to go unchallenged.


  1. I appreciate your insight on poverty and public housing. I studied Sociology in college and remember studying the social and psychological effects on people who reside in the old concept of public housing. Now as a policymaker in the metro area I continue to pay close attention to what you are doing in Atlanta. I think this notion of low expectations is a powerful truth that permeates not only among those outside of public housing but can also be seen within the Education system. Thanks for these lessons learned and telling the truth about the damage we do when we uphold the status quo for the sake of low expectations and doing things the way we've always done them whether they breed violence, unemployment and hopelessness or not. If we are to ever create the generational shift where expectations are high and individuals work to exceed those expectations we have to start with our basic public policies. We will surprise ourselves with what people can do when we provide opportunity and a real level playing field like we say we believe in. Thanks for your courage.

  2. Its very interesting to read perspective from policy makers on this. Very interesting, also is the statistic of the 80% being female and children. I believe what the AHA doing is a right thing, but it is not the only action that has to be taken. Without using the actual language of the 60's I think you were speaking of the "culture of poverty". The imprint that is left on people who have been raised in the environment that you have described are real manifestations of a created poverty culture. Removing the people from the Petri dish of concentrated poverty is only 1 step. We must also remove that imprint of the poverty mentality. Being amongst the fruit is not enough, we must also know its benefits and be ready to recieve them. To grow a plant you need sun (something to aspire to, reach for), water (nourishment), and soil (stability of environement).... believe that your work is helping and continue inspiring others to aid those in need.



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