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Mixed and Matched

November 15, 2012

Jennifer Rodríguez

On the importance of investing in people and places

by Jennifer Rodríguez

In his essay “From Community to Prosperity,” Ben Hecht calls for the re-examination of the role of the place-based approach as a strategy to alleviate poverty.

It is true that community development corporations’ traditional focus on physical development has not yielded the reduction in poverty or the large-scale community transformations originally sought.

Better housing and new and improved amenities have not proven to be sufficiently effective in the long run because children, youth and families have not been supported through corresponding investments in quality education, youth development programs, skills training, affordable health care, etc.

The work that we perform at Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM) in Eastern North Philadelphia recognizes that people and place are inextricably linked. Place influences people, and people inform their environment. Therefore, in order to achieve a positive impact in one, both must be addressed simultaneously.

At APM, our programs not only protect and nurture children and youth, but also support families through housing and other social services; and as a community development corporation, we also invest in the physical environment that ensures that families live in communities that support all their needs.

Poverty is a human condition with symptoms that are palpable in the physical environment. Traveling through a community dotted by vacant lots, deteriorating buildings and lack of amenities, one can easily determine that its residents are poor. Naturally, one’s desire is to remove those visible attributes of poverty.

The refurbished Borinquen-La Placita Pocket Park in Eastern North Philadelphia.

Eliminating blight, improving housing, revitalizing parks—what CDCs have traditionally focused on—provide relatively quick and certain outcomes, but treating these symptoms alone will not alleviate poverty.

A revitalized physical environment without the corresponding gains at the human level may result in the further marginalization of low-income families, though. As revitalized areas become attractive to higher income families, there is the risk that rising rents and property values will result in the displacement of low-income families, just when ensuring that they remain in the newly improved community becomes imperative.

The challenge becomes how to manage change so low-income residents have the opportunity to benefit from a revitalizing community. The programs and strategies developed should be multi-pronged and must address the root causes of poverty.

At APM we invest in solutions that help families move up the economic ladder, better positioning them to take advantage of the benefits associated with neighborhood improvements.

One of the key initiatives we are implementing is LISC’s Financial Opportunity Center model, a comprehensive one-stop-shop approach to wealth creation. At our FOC, residents receive support in three key areas: financial management, employment readiness and income supports.

Residents who enroll in the program have access to financial coaches that help them develop an action plan to build net worth, the ultimate measure of wealth. They work with employment coaches who provide access to resources and a network of employers ready to hire and with benefit enrollment specialists who assist in the time-consuming and complex process of applying for subsidies and other financial aides.

Digital Connectors is a youth program that combines IT skills with personal and leadership development.

The center also operates a computer lab, where clients have access to computer literacy instruction. Clients meet with coaches on a monthly basis and their progress is tracked over time.

Ultimately, a place-based approach will continue to be essential to addressing poverty and cannot be forgotten. Families will always have the need to dwell in adequate housing, preferably located in safe neighborhoods with access to basic needs and services.

As long as there are place-based needs, there will be a role in community development to invest in the physical environment in a manner that improves the lives of low income families.

However, to eliminate poverty, placed-based strategies must be complemented by corresponding investments in programs that address its root causes.

Jennifer Rodríguez is the deputy vice president for programs and sustainable communities at the Asociacion Puertorriqueños en Marcha in Philadelphia.

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Click here to see Rodríguez’s original article, part of a series of essays by community practitioners about ideas from the book Investing in What Works for America’s Communities, published by the Institute for Comprehensive Community Development. Click here to see the list of other articles.

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