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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Edward Glaeser: Where Edwards Is Right

I don't generally link or present things from the NY Sun, but since it's Edward Glaeser writing about poverty programs, a topic worthy for discussion, I'll make an exception:

Where Edwards Is Right, by Edward Glaeser, Commentary,  nysun.com: Last week in the New York Times, David Brooks compared the anti-poverty programs of Barack Obama and John Edwards. Senator Obama's plan focuses on making impoverished places more successful with funding for public transportation and community centers while Mr. Edwards wants to give housing vouchers directly to a million people. ... Should the government focus on fixing poor places or should it provide poor people with the resources to leave those communities?

Mr. Obama's poverty proposal includes some person-based policies, like expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, but he also is awfully fond of place-based strategies, like Community Development Block Grants and a "promise neighborhoods" program, which uses national resources to develop 20 impoverished areas. Mr. Edwards is a bigger fan of person-based strategies like housing vouchers and temporary jobs. I am no supporter of Mr. Edwards, but he is right to focus more on helping poor people than poor places.

Mr. Brooks, however, disagrees. He claims that vouchers are ineffective and lauds Mr. Obama's "more developed view of social capital." I think that means that Mr. Brooks likes the Harlem Children's Zone that is the model for Mr. Obama's "promise neighborhoods" program. I like HCZ too, but its success says as much about the government's ability to build communities as Google's success says about the government's ability to develop Internet search engines.

The Harlem Children's Zone is an entrepreneurial nonprofit that receives most of its money from private donors. Saying that the federal government is going to fight poverty by developing its own HCZs is like saying that the government is going to increase GDP growth by starting its own Microsofts.

If we want to understand what future federal place-based policies will look like, we should turn our eyes from private nonprofits to past governmental forays into place-making like urban renewal and the Model Cities program. The track record of these place-based programs gives us plenty of reason to be skeptical about this approach.  ...

The Great Lakes were once a great place to make cars and now they aren't. Federal aid for the Motor City can't change that. ...[B]y subsidizing impoverished areas the government essentially is bribing people to live in economically unproductive areas. Even when these policies do make a place more attractive, it isn't obvious that the poor will benefit. ... Building strong communities is critically important for poor children, but lumbering federal bureaucracies are not particularly good at building strong communities.

Mr. Brooks' view of place-based aid is too rosy and his view of vouchers is too negative. ... [V]ouchers ... look better than most federal place-based projects. At least, the bulk of the money actually will go to poor people, not to politically connected banks and builders.

We should focus on helping people not places, although we can continue to use some place-based tools, like schools, to help poor children. Better schools and safer neighborhoods are the most important things we can give to poor children, which is neither an easy task nor exclusively a Democratic Party agenda. ...

I haven't yet formed a strong position on the person-based versus place-based issue, though if I had to choose the arguments for person-based policies sound pretty good. So here's the question: Is there any reason not to make person-based strategies the primary (though not exclusive) focus of anti-poverty programs? What do you think will work and why?

    Posted by on Wednesday, August 8, 2007 at 12:24 AM in Economics, Policy, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (33)


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