Expanding Opportunities in America’s Urban Areas

Center for American Progress

San Francisco skyline sunset

SOURCE: AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez

The sun sets behind the city skyline on January 7, 2015, in San Francisco.

The nation’s cities are the engines of the U.S. economy, creating opportunities for the entire country, including suburban, rural, and tribal areas alike. America’s top 100 metro areas alone account for at least three-quarters of the nation’s gross domestic product. Cities bring people and firms together in relatively close proximity, which in turn drives innovation and leads to positive economic benefits and growth. In addition, many American cities are leaders in global sustainability due to their population density. New York City, for example, has a larger population than most states but uses less energy than any of them. Cities are also on the cutting edge of culture and, as such, tend to attract residents who are accepting of people of all backgrounds and lifestyles. For these reasons, among others, urban areas create rich economic, educational, and social opportunities that foster and encourage diversity.

It is not surprising, then, that more Americans are moving to urban areas in recent years. Between just 2010 and 2013, Los Angeles alone gained 65,000 people compared with 97,000 over the entire previous decade. In fact, according to a study by the Urban Land Institute, some of the largest segments of the U.S. population, including Millennials and Latinos, express a higher than average preference for living in cities. In addition, roughly 62 percent of Americans who are planning to move in the next five years would prefer to settle in mixed-use neighborhoods, which are prevalent in urban areas.

Despite the resurgent popularity of city living, many urban neighborhoods face a number of ongoing challenges from the shortage of affordable housing and inadequate infrastructure to income inequality and poverty. According to the 2009 to 2013 American Community Survey, more than 13.9 million Americans live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty—defined as an area where the poverty rate is 30 percent or higher. The concentrated poverty rate remains highest in big cities, where almost one in four poor residents lives in a distressed neighborhood. Furthermore, while poverty is increasing in the suburbs, a larger share of the poor population still lives in cities. This concentration of poverty hurts not just urban areas, but also the entire nation. Research shows that high-poverty communities have lower social mobility, which places a drag on the overall economy.

A growing body of research shows that being raised in such high-poverty communities undermines children’s long-term life chances. This is particularly troubling for African Americans, who are disproportionately more likely to live in distressed urban areas. The effects of living in high-poverty communities—such as poor health and educational outcomes, as well as limited employment opportunities—are far reaching and generational. According to research by Patrick Sharkey of New York University, more than 70 percent of the African American residents in the nation’s poorest urban neighborhoods are the children and grandchildren of those who lived in similar neighborhoods and conditions 40 years ago. As a result, he states, “any interventions designed to address neighborhood disadvantage must reach multiple generations of family members.” However, reductions in federal and state funding, along with restrictions on municipalities’ authority to raise local revenues, mean that local governments are expected to do more with less.

Fortunately, leaders at all levels of government are dedicated to addressing these disparities and ensuring that more Americans benefit from the opportunities cities create. As the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, approaches its 50th anniversary next year, department officials have outlined a vision to position the agency to become a “Department of Opportunity.” HUD plans to build on existing place-based efforts such as the Promise Zones initiative and to partner with cities to help them prepare for anticipated growth, address the impacts of climate change, and help families succeed.

In order to effectively implement this vision, federal leaders must continue refining the government’s role as a partner on these matters and provide support to local leaders who are on the forefront of addressing these complex issues, often with limited resources and capacity.

To help more clearly frame this conversation, below are five key policy strategies, which include recommendations from recent American Progress reports, that outline specific ways to address some of the challenges facing urban areas.

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