Cities, schools can battle poverty
Lack of affordable housing requirements in region fuel problems
Concentrations of poverty shown on Myron Orfield’s maps lunge into the suburbs, suggesting a dynamic that could leave cities like Brooklyn Center, Columbia Heights and other suburban communities as beleaguered as north Minneapolis, Orfield believes.
“Probably (with) worse problems,” said Orfield, director of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota and Minneapolis legislator from 1991-2002.
Suburbs are vulnerable, according to Orfield, because many of them don’t have the “horsepower” of the central city.
“It has a big downtown tax base. It has wealthy neighborhoods. There’s a certain stability in these big cities that these first and second-ring suburbs aren’t going to have,” he said.
As for third-ring suburb Burnsville, its school district has encountered budget challenges as its student population has become more diverse and poor.
While the district has a broad residential and commercial tax base, it has had to pare it budget and consider changes like a four-day school week and closing a school building in order to save money.
The Minnesota Department of Education found that nearly 50 percent of elementary school students in District 191 are minority and 48 percent of students receive free or reduced price lunches.
Last school year, the department labeled Sky Oaks “racially identified,” which means it has at least 20 percent more minority students than elementary schools districtwide.
Orfield views a debilitating cycle at work in a growing area of the inner-ring suburbs, one creating low-opportunity neighborhoods, struggling schools and stressed local government.
He depicts it as fueled to a great extent by a failure at providing affordable housing equitably across the entire metro area, a failure he places at the doorstep of the Metropolitan Council.
Beginning in the late 1980s, the council began to backslide from policies it followed for more than 20 years, such as affordable housing being a prerequisite for gaining regional amenities in outer-ring suburbs, Orfield said.
“They really defeated this (concentration-of-poverty) problem, and then they just dropped the ball,” Orfield said. “And it wasn’t racists who did it; it was just dumb.”
In the book “Region,” by Orfield and Institute on Race and Poverty researcher Thomas Luce Jr., the men argue that ill-directed federal housing programs have contributed to concentrations of poverty.
The authors argue that Low-Income House Tax Credit Program and Section 8 housing units and vouchers are disproportionately centered in Minneapolis, St. Paul and “stressed” inner suburbs where the population of minority and low-income people is already high.
More than three-quarters of metro area residents of color live in the central cities and stressed suburbs – such as Crystal, Fridley, Robbinsdale and Coon Rapids – with two-fifths of the region’s white residents living in “low-opportunity” communities.
“People may be fleeing increasing concentrations of poverty as much at they’re fleeing black people or Latino people or Asian people. I think that’s what people are really choosing against,” Orfield said.
Concentration of poverty – the creation of low-opportunity neighborhoods – has a corrosive effect on the middle-class attitudes and values many people of all races strongly feel.
“You live in a community that’s upwardly mobile, it pulls you up,” Orfield said. “A good kid in a bad neighborhood can get pulled into trouble.”
Public schools reflect the concentration of poverty afflicting the metro, Orfield argues. An unhealthy synergy exists between the two. Metro schools are segregating, Orfield said.
According to Orfield and Luce, two decades ago, just nine elementary schools in the metro were nonwhite segregated. By 2008, the number had jumped to 108 – 23 percent.
Almost all of these schools have high poverty rates, the men point out.
Over the same time, the number of integrated schools increased from 22 to 37 percent, reflecting that white students were less likely to attend all-white schools.
At the same time, the percentage of black and Hispanic students attending nonwhite segregated schools almost quadrupled for blacks to 51 percent and increased for Hispanic students from 3 to 43 percent.
Students of color increasingly attend segregated schools with other students of color but not with whites, Orfield and Luce argue.
Despite growth in the concentrations of poverty and problems with schools, Orfield is upbeat about reversing current trends.
The Twin Cities remains the second whitest, second most affluent metro area in the country with the smallest percentage of poverty, he said.
“Our challenges are not huge,” Orfield said. “We have the laws in place to do it. We just don’t use them.”
If the older suburban areas would unite with Minneapolis and St. Paul and insist newer suburbs do their fair share in terms of affordable housing, the tide could be turned, Orfield said.
“(But) I don’t see that happening right now,” he added. “You’ll see a lot of those northern suburbs become poorer, and more disinvested, and have more empty stores.”
The days of traditional “white flight” are over, he explained.
“You don’t really have ‘white flight’ from cities anymore. You have it from suburbs to other suburbs,” he said.
A renewed sense of regionalism, besides being more just, can save money, Orfield explained, but it takes collective action.
Minnesotans in general are welcoming to new groups of people, Orfield said.
“I think Minnesota people are more hopeful and decent than the rest of the country,” he said. “It’s polarized (right now), but in general we’re better.”