Metropolitan regions and the communities within them have a symbiotic, cause-and-effect relationship. Conditions within thriving communities not only help foster and contribute to the success of residents and the community but also to the economic output of the greater metropolitan region. Conversely, in underserved, disinvested communities, the conditions have a negative impact on both residents and the greater region.
Research published by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and other national organizations show how concentrated poverty and extreme disparities of income and opportunity are not only devastating to those most directly impacted—they have a rippling and negative impact on the greater region in multiple ways.
These impacts range from a labor force that cannot fill the employment needs of the region to the economic and human toll of premature loss of life due to unmet health needs, reduced regional GDP, sluggish economic growth, reduced regional competitiveness resulting in lost economic opportunities, and increased crime rates.
Here in St. Louis, research published by Washington University’s Health Equity Works, Forward Through Ferguson, Greater St. Louis Inc., and the University of Missouri-St. Louis show how segregation, systemic racism, and economic redlining of people by color and zip code have perpetuated the cycle of poverty and significantly reduced our region’s growth.
Even without all the supporting data, the mere persistence of our high concentrations of poverty in predominantly Black, underserved communities and our region’s continual slow economic performance suggests the two are strongly correlated, if not directly intertwined.
For decades, the area within the Normandy school district, as well as North St. Louis City which it adjoins, has had the highest concentration of poverty in the St. Louis area.
We believe this area provides the most immediate return on investment because so much of the initial work of creating the necessary infrastructure of partner, programs, and relationships have already been created, along with significant momentum and results.
This is important. We know that transforming underserved communities requires a comprehensive, multipronged approach that addresses multiple areas from housing to employment, education, health, and economic development. This requires an extensive infrastructure of organizations working together across these multiple areas as well as establishing deep, trusted relationships within the community.
This is not something that can be created and turned on overnight. Beyond Housing has spent several years building an infrastructure of staff, partners, and programs—along with establishing close, trusted relationships with residents, local mayors, school administrators, police, and other community stakeholders—that are essential for creating real change.
Once the work in this area is sufficiently completed, this model and infrastructure can be replicated in other communities. These communities will also benefit greatly from the experience and learnings from transforming this area of North St. Louis County.
As a nationally recognized community development organization, Beyond Housing has more than 40 years of experience in strengthening families and twelve years of experience in comprehensive community development. Through this experience, we know that addressing these complex issues effectively requires a broad coalition of organizations, resources, and the community itself working together.
Though this work is certainly bigger than Beyond Housing, no other organization in St. Louis, and few organizations nationwide, have this kind of experience in orchestrating and leading this kind of comprehensive effort. Beyond Housing’s experience over the last ten-plus years in leading a large-scale change effort that engages civic leaders, targeted nonprofits, corporate partners, and residents—as well as the organization’s proven comprehensive, holistic model—makes it uniquely suited to lead an initiative of this scale and complexity.
A Comprehensive, Holistic Model
Based on our own experiences as well as the learnings from other national thought leaders, we know that transforming communities and strengthening the people who live within them cannot be achieved by one single area such as housing or education on its own.
Families and communities have many needs that must be met in order to thrive. For example, Families need a living wage, housing that’s affordable, access to healthcare, successful schools, transportation, and more.
Thriving communities need an adequate supply of housing that people can afford, successful schools, economic development to provide jobs and access to essential goods and services, sound infrastructure from sewers to roads and parks, effective local government and essential services, and thriving families.
What’s important to understand is—none of these needs exist on their own; they are all interrelated. Addressing any one single need can only go so far when there is a deficit in so many other areas.
As an example, if we just build more housing that people can afford, parents working multiple minimum wage jobs will still struggle to earn a living wage to afford utilities, transportation, clothing, and food. In the area of education, if we only focus on improving what happens in the classroom, teachers and administration will still find it difficult to improve education outcomes with students whose basic needs outside the classroom are not being met.
This is why creating real change requires a comprehensive, holistic model that addresses the needs of families and communities across multiple areas—from housing to health, education, employment, financial advising/wealth creation, economic development, and community governance.
A New Approach
There are many government programs and nonprofit organizations working to address these issues. It has been estimated that in 2018, federal and local governments spent nearly $1 trillion on poverty reduction programs. This doesn’t even include the hundreds of billions of dollars that Americans spend in philanthropy to help low-income people and communities in the U.S. each year.
Government safety programs have helped prevent millions of Americans from falling into poverty. However, even with all this spending, as a nation we have not made the kind of progress hoped for in reducing poverty, particularly in recent years. There are many potential reasons for this, but we clearly need a new approach—one that goes beyond treating the symptoms of poverty to address the underlying conditions.
Because of the complexity of this issue, it’s also clear that we cannot expect federal and state government or any other entity to solve these problems for us. The good news is that addressing this issue on a local and regional level is nowhere near as complex and daunting as on a national level.
We believe that a comprehensive, holistic model addressing the root causes of poverty that is supported by a broad coalition of partners and resources working together can make a significant and lasting change in the St. Louis area for generations to come.
The St. Louis area has suffered with high concentrations of poverty, particularly among our underserved, predominantly Black communities, for several decades. Many St. Louisans have witnessed the correlation between our inability to address these issues and the negative impact and continued decline in prosperity and national influence of the greater region.
What is different about this present moment is both here in St. Louis and across our nation, society has reached an inflection point and is calling for change by eliminating systemic racism and creating greater equity of opportunity for people of color. More people are also becoming aware and education about the damaging impact of these issues on everyone—from increased discord and unrest within our greater society to the toll of human suffering and decreased potential and productivity.
The time has come where we must finally address this issue—and we have to get it right. This will require more than simply throwing money at the problem and or addressing the issue in a superficial manner. In order to create real change, we must take meaningful action that addresses the root causes of these issues.
We believe this is also a tremendous opportunity for St. Louis to reinvent itself on a national stage. St. Louis’ issues are well known across the country—but they are not unique. Many metropolitan regions across the U.S. are also struggling with these same problems. By addressing these issues once and for all, St. Louis can rebrand itself from a rustbelt city of rustbelt region of racial segregation, high crime, and slow regional growth to a beacon of progress and innovation for other metro regions across our country to follow.
Aside from our moral responsibility to help lift our fellow St. Louisans up, there are practical reasons why each of us should care. No community in the St. Louis region, no matter how successful, exists as an island or is immune from what happens elsewhere in our region. There is extensive research that shows how our high concentrations of poverty and racial and economic disparity have harmed our entire region—from failing schools to increased crime and decreased economic growth.
Most of us of a certain age who have lived in this area for any considerable amount of time have witnessed St. Louis’ gradual decline in national prominence and influence. Though we still have much to be proud about, our region has steadily declined on a number of different metrics, from the number of Fortunate 500 companies headquartered in the area, the number of direct flights from Lambert International Airport, and the decline of large portions of our geography.
At some point, all of us have to ask ourselves how much more are we prepared to lose?
We have seen what happens when we do nothing or too little to address these issues. When we continue to ignore the problems around us, those problems invariably become our own.
This issue is bigger than Beyond Housing or any other single organization. Achieving scale with this effort on a level that produces significant change will require the expertise, experience, and resources of a broad coalition of partners—from nonprofit organizations to corporations, civic leaders, foundations, organizations of faith, and individuals—who are committed to working together to create a stronger St. Louis for all.
There are many great organizations in St. Louis whose work and experience are vital for creating a stronger St. Louis. For this reason, we always welcome other nonprofit organizations and others who are interested in being part of a comprehensive, holistic approach to partner with us to create lasting change.
No. This is an issue that transcends political party and ideology. What happens in our region’s underserved communities has an impact on every one of us regardless of demographics or political views.