What Cities Can Do

Yesterday, I attended a “lunch and learn” session of Indianapolis’ Department of Metropolitan Development. I was asked to address the impact of poverty on the City’s efforts at neighborhood revitalization. Regular readers will recognize much of what I said.


One of the criticisms of academia is that we are “siloed”–focused so narrowly on our own research we fail to see the larger picture . In a way, divisions of government face a similar challenge. Urban revitalization efforts—what we used to call urban renewal– especially requires “connecting the dots,” because those efforts have to include public safety, transportation, sanitation, parks and recreation, economic development…the term “holistic” gets overused, but it’s definitely apt in this context.

Blighted neighborhoods are a reflection of poverty. We need to realize that 80 percent of Americans are currently trapped in the low-wage sector, and those are the folks who disproportionately inhabit these neighborhoods. These are areas where human possibility is shrinking, often dramatically. Most of the people who live in distressed areas are burdened with debt and anxious about their insecure jobs– if they have jobs at all.

Recent research tells us that inhabitants of the low-wage sector are getting sicker and dying younger than they used to. They rely on inadequate public transportation and/or cars they have trouble paying for. Family life is crumbling; people often don’t partner for the long-term even when they have children. If they go to college, they finance it by going heavily into debt. They aren’t thinking about the future; they are focused on surviving the present. As one scholar put it, members of America’s (shrinking) middle class act, these people are acted upon.

Worst of all, recent studies tell us that most of those in the low-wage sector have no way out. American social/economic mobility may have been real once, but it is a myth today. And I see no evidence that either this Congress or this Administration is interested in policies to ameliorate any of this.

In the wake of the House healthcare vote, one of my former students, now a government employee, posted a diatribe to Facebook, and I want to share it because I think it sums up where policymakers are right now:

The United States has more citizens in prison than any country in the world. Even more than China, which has four times as many people. Republican legislators chose to focus on eroding healthcare protections.

The United States has a public education system ranked lower than Russia. Republican legislators chose to focus on eroding healthcare protections.

The United States has average Internet speeds three times slower than Romania. Republican legislators chose to focus on eroding healthcare protections.

The United States has infant mortality rates nearly twice as high as Belarus. Republican legislators chose to focus on eroding healthcare protections.

The United States has 2.5 million citizens without access to improved drinking water. Republican legislators chose to focus on eroding healthcare protections.

The United States has a youth unemployment rate of 13.4%. Republican legislators chose to focus on eroding healthcare protections.

The United States has 50 million citizens living below the poverty line. Republican legislators chose to focus on eroding healthcare protections.

The United States has greater income inequality than Morocco, Jordan, Tanzania, Niger, Kyrgyzstan, East Timor, and 95 other countries. Republican legislators chose to focus on eroding healthcare protections.

The United States is responsible for nearly twice as much CO2 emissions as the entire European Union. Republican legislators chose to focus on eroding healthcare protections.

The United States has more railways than any country on Earth, by more than 100,000 kilometers, but has virtually no long-range public transportation system. Republican legislators chose to focus on eroding healthcare protections.

The United States spends more on national defense than every other nation on Earth COMBINED, yet seems to be in perpetual warfare and has a barely functioning veteran-support system. Republican legislators chose to focus on eroding healthcare protections.

Local governments can’t do much about defense spending or national healthcare policy, but cities can address, at least, most of the other deficits my former student identified, from transportation to drinking water to youth unemployment to criminal justice. And every one of those improvements would help address urban blight.

Let me just share some statistics closer to home. A couple of years ago, the United Ways of Indiana took a hard look at “Alice.” Alice is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed; it describes households with income above the federal poverty level, but below the actual, basic cost of living. The report is eye-opening.

Here are some “highlights” (highlights being something of a misnomer here):

  • More than one in three Hoosier households cannot afford the basics of housing, food, health care and transportation, despite working hard.
  • In Indiana, 37% of households live below the Alice threshold, with some 14% below the poverty level and another 23% above poverty but below the cost of living.
  • These families and individuals have jobs, and many do not qualify for social services or support.
  • The jobs they are filling are critically important to Hoosier communities. These are our child care workers, laborers, movers, home health aides, heavy truck drivers, store clerks, repair workers and office assistants—yet they are unsure if they’ll be able to put dinner on the table each night.

For families living on the edge, families struggling just to feed the baby and keep the lights on, saving money is a pipe dream. There is nothing left to save. These families are vulnerable to any unexpected expense—a car repair, an uninsured illness, even an unexpectedly high utility bill can be enough to plunge them into debt or worse.

What does this rather grim picture have to do with community redevelopment? Let’s leave our silo and connect the dots:

For one thing, there is no money to paint the house or repair the gutters, or otherwise tend to the appearance of the property. Rundown and blighted neighborhoods send a variety of messages to those who drive through them—most visibly, no one cares. That may be unfair—they may care, but feeding the baby comes first. When unkempt houses are in neighborhoods the city has neglected, the problem is compounded. You don’t have to be a proponent of “Broken windows” theory of criminal justice to understand that broken sidewalks and weed-filled lots encourage littering and worse, and abandoned houses tempt squatters.

Research tells us that financial and personal insecurity increase all sorts of social dysfunction, from out-of-wedlock births to crime, drug use and gun violence.

Pew researchers recently confirmed that financial insecurity causes a range of so-called “secondary effects” for communities, including diminished participation in civic and political life. As we all know, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and these are people who rarely squeak. When I was in City Hall, the Hudnut Administration really did care about addressing blight and helping the poor—but the streets that got plowed first were those between the affluent area where the Mayor lived and downtown. Ditto with chuckholes that got filled and streetlights that got repaired.

Low-interest loan programs are important, but most ALICE families have neither the time nor the energy—let alone the resources—to take advantage of them. “Affordable” housing is affordable primarily for those above the ALICE thresholds—there is very little truly affordable housing available for those below it, and none at all that I’m aware of for what my husband—who used to be Director of DMD—calls “no income” families.

In Indianapolis, as you all know, transportation is a huge problem. Automobiles eat up an enormous percentage of a low-income household’s income, and the lack of a car puts a majority of job opportunities out of reach. Without reliable public transportation with reasonable headways, poor people, old people and disabled people are stranded.

There’s actually a lot that cities can do, assuming the existence of political will: improved infrastructure in poor areas, vastly improved public transportation, beefed-up, timely enforcement of building codes and weed ordinances. Working with public safety to minimize criminal activity is critical. Ditto working with IPS to improve educational opportunities, and support for raising the minimum wage.

As my husband likes to say, we should do everything we can to make poor neighborhoods livable. That means ensuring convenient access to public services, to parks, to efficient public transportation. It means attention to public safety, not just through increased police presence, but by promptly taking down dangerous abandoned structures, providing adequate street lighting, and actually rebuilding decaying infrastructure—not just haphazard patching of streets and sidewalks when the holes become too big to ignore. It means paying attention to alleys, which the city ignores, so that their extreme deterioration doesn’t degrade whole neighborhoods. It means walkable neighborhoods with access to wholesome food and health care facilities.

Some of these measures are easier than others, but they all take money, and we live at a time when tax is a dirty word. We can’t easily make up for dwindling federal dollars, thanks to what I consider Indiana’s worst public policy decision during my lifetime–the constitutionalizing of the tax caps. I don’t have to justify that opinion in this room. But we also shouldn’t minimize the importance of political will. Until those of us who remain privileged members of the middle class understand the importance of economic and racial integration to our own well-being, significant improvement to depressed neighborhoods will remain elusive.

We often hear that a rising tide lifts all boats. But it is also true that an ebb tide lowers all boats. Investments in the built environment and in human capital help to raise the tide; continued disinvestment and neglect will ultimately hurt us all.


  1. There is no single “fix” to any of this country’s problems. We can divert money spent unnecessarily—spent to play upon a general fear—on weapons systems that stand only as a symbol of protection against terrorism. In fact, our frequent use of drones and other items to kill with “collateral damage” rates—i.e., hitting people and things other than intended targets—at best of 80 percent, by other estimates 98%, has an effect opposite that of protection of our security. We need to change priorities and spend that money on schools, roads, bridges, and healthcare. That is where our national security will be best protected.

  2. Well done, Sheila.

    I’m curious…what percent of workers at your university are adjunct or temporary? Are the existing professors speaking up about the trend in the USA to use temporary professors to save money?

    It works out great for junior colleges like Ivy Tech since they can get PhD’s to teach where Master students used to teach or where those who had experience in the actual field would teach.

    I believe Guy Standing referred to many of those 80% working poor as “precariats”, but Capitalism always has taken advantage of workers. We used slaves during the inception of this great country.

    In Muncie, we need a fleet of bulldozers to wipe out neighborhoods and relocate the residents. However, as you said, it all takes political will and right now, the Capitalists are in charge and using their influence to inflict pain on those they feel aren’t rowing hard enough. 😉

  3. So very well written, but my hope that we in Indiana and the US will rise up to the challenge to make positive change is almost gone. As a nation we have become selfish, self-centered and hateful towards ‘others’.

    Your student’s words should be copied and sent to every single Senator and Rep in Congress. Sheila, may we have permission to copy and forward them to our members of Congress?

  4. Indianapolis should take a look at what Mayor Pete has done for South Bend. He has brought about major improvements.

    I hope he runs for Governor in the next election and then eventually runs for the highest job in the nation.

  5. “For one thing, there is no money to paint the house or repair the gutters, or otherwise tend to the appearance of the property. Rundown and blighted neighborhoods send a variety of messages to those who drive through them—most visibly, no one cares. That may be unfair—they may care, but feeding the baby comes first. When unkempt houses are in neighborhoods the city has neglected, the problem is compounded. You don’t have to be a proponent of “Broken windows” theory of criminal justice to understand that broken sidewalks and weed-filled lots encourage littering and worse, and abandoned houses tempt squatters.”

    The above copied and pasted paragraph from this blog is the one I was looking for, and had faith in Sheila that it would be here. Having worked in the Department of Metropolitan Development; I was familiar with many of the problems referred to but Abandoned Buildings is an ever increasing problem in Marion County with the same senseless tax law, still in effect, that was a major part of the problem in 1991 when Mayor Hudnut asked DMD Deputy Director Eugene Lausch to head up a study on Abandoned Homes specifically. We; Gene and I and others in all Divisions of DMD and other City Departments, took this request to heart and began by contacting neighborhood businesses, churches, organizations, etc., who passed the word throughout neighborhoods and it gained unbelievable support. At that time, there were 4,500-5,000 abandoned homes; there are now approximately 10,000. The tax law at the base of many of these sites prohibits outright purchase of an abandoned house (or building); the purchaser only “buys” (pays off the tax debt) but has no legal right to protect their investment for one year. This leaves it open for the escalating neglect and the intrusion of squatters, which is a source of escalating criminal activity. This city, and most cities, will not invest in neighborhoods where squalor and crimes are rampant and are not fully addressed. Those in homes in need of repair have no incentive to simply maintain cleanliness and resolve the trash filled yards of their own homes and those around them. Purchasing the tax debt but not the property is no incentive to invest money and work to protect and improve property you do not own and there is no law forcing you to do so which, at the same time, prevents your legal right to remove anyone from the property.

    Our study in 1991 began with the belief this would be a simple, quick project, ending in the requested report to Mayor Hudnut. Instead, we were overwhelmed with calls and requests from schools, churches, neighborhood organization and residents in blighted areas, wanting to be actively involved. The “report” came out in book form due to the amount of interest, number of meetings, people actively involved and resulted in a one-day conference requiring a fee to attend the workshops, meeting, speeches and luncheon. That “report” is also in book form; I still have my copies.

    People do care and want to help but the struggling economy today for the vast majority of residents here with the apparently unending control by Republicans whose interests lay with the wealthy maintaining their low percentage tax base. This leaves the bulk of physical and financial responsibility to our struggling Democratic Mayor Hogsett to rely on decreasing security in our already low economic situations and keeping our own heads above water.

    This in depth study; with full City government and public support was one of many issues trashed beginning in January 1992 when Goldsmith moved into the Mayor’s Office. “What Cities Can Do” here, is for our elected officials, including City-County Council members, to get out into the actual city areas where need is greatest; let their presence be publicized and known by those neighbors who ARE trying and the criminal element now in control. One of my neighbors, in HER 70’s; clears trash, dirt and weeds from the curb areas in front of 2 or 3 homes on either side of her and on the opposite side of the street.

    “…continued disinvestment and neglect will ultimately hurt us all.” It is hurting all of us NOW; it is stealthily edging into quality areas NOW; moving further away from it will not resolve this problem but is escalating it daily.

    I offer no apology for the length of my rant on this issue; my home value has dropped along with all other homes in my very small east side neighborhood and the infrastructure continues to crumble and is ignored.

  6. JoAnn,

    Re: The tax law you mentioned that allows a purchase of unpaid property tax debt without full ownership for one year.

    Is the one year wait for full ownership in place to allow the indebted owner to come up with the unpaid tax money and then keep their ownership after all? That is the only reason I can think of to have such a law.

    That is definitely a problem that needs to be addressed in those blighted areas if there is to be any hope for improvement.

  7. Here’s one idea. Pass an ordinance that allows use of vacant lots as community garden plots, then create an organization of high school kids to work in those neighborhoods to plant and tend those gardens. Get all of the neighborhood involved. Anyone in the neighborhood who works in the garden gets free produce. Disabled in the neighborhood get free produce. Neighborhood churches should be recruited to help can vegetables and fruits and teach people to do it at home.

    We need to get back to a time when a neighborhood was truly a neighborhood.

  8. Nancy; mea culpa, I should have included that information in my comments. You are exactly right regarding the (un)reasoning for that law; property is only attached for tax lien after 3 or 4 full years of non-payment of taxes. Many of them are abandoned and sit empty much of that time, deteriorating and being vandalized. One issue that came out at the study meetings was the complaint by developers was that, too often they put money and work in repairs and upgrading the property only to have the original owner pay ONLY the back tax bill near the end of that year and regain ownership. Brian Eason at the Indianapolis Star ran a series of articles over a year ago on this issue; using one couple to follow them through the system after buying the “tax lien” to a deteriorating house next door to their home. They learned they could do nothing but call police to report squatters and criminal activities while the home continued to deteriorate and be vandalized.

  9. Thanks again, Im a white boy who just passed in the thought of where i lived when i grew up, Newark,nj, 1967. Im no stranger to inner city life,Los Angeles in the 70s and im working class. If im to look back, it was better in some ways,but, after 37 years since reagan, its really worse. If no one can concieve a better plan, go back to what worked. Wages will always create a tax base suffictant to the people,if, they are fair. Wall street gets everything they want, with the goldman sachs game in the cabinet,and a clown for entertainment for the rich, we lose. If we see the fall out of 2008 reduce the points of the dow to 8400, and they rebound 9000 points in 7 years of a recession,something is really wrong. wages stagnate since 1980 and taxes on a poverty level to support this country, its fair to say, the republicans have ran this game in favor of power and money, sure we have corprate demos,hietkamp for one, but unless theres a major shameing of these people for what they have reduced our country to, for the greed of wall street, we go nowhere. very few people who i work with dont even care or understand, many are of the last few generations,and feel this is how life is. We have our ownselves to blame. weve squandered our vote,intelligence and some cheap rants to go down hill fast. unless we can move some masses here, we will never see,America again… mentor, help,organize,and move on… Thanks for this blog.

  10. A number of today’s respondents have offered very reasonable suggestions about how to offer more balanced ways to help middle and lower income families. But there’s one thing that seems to be overlooked. Specifics.

    The Republicans have been trying all kinds of tactics to change ObamaCare. They seem to be willing to revise everything … except the tax break for the top 2% income earners. How much are we talking about? Specifics, please. Hundreds of dollars? Thousands of dollars? Millions of dollars? Specifics, please. Let’s put the actual figures out in front so the bottom 98% can see how they’re being screwed.

    Specifics, please. You may have noticed I also believe in redundancy.

  11. Sheila and group, I’m jumping into this particular post with an unrelated addition that relates directly to earlier conversations re: the bleeding of expertise, the disregard for professional expertise in favor of decision making based on gathering populist beliefs.

    The below ‘copy and paste’ is from Facebook on the morning of 7/14/2017 where a known civically engaged Gen X mom in Indianapolis tosses out her daughter’s physical ailment for a group diagnosis by her FB friends. By the way, I did not include the Mom’s picture of her daughter’s swollen foot.
    [Gen X civically engaged mom]
    17 hrs ·
    Ok FB medics. The top of [xyz’s] foot is swollen and has been sore for about 4 days. We are doing a LOT of walking. We’ve been icing it. I think she just pulled something. She can walk. It hurts after a bit. Buying a new pair of shoes can be an option. But if the majority thinks something could be a bigger issue-happy to hear the advice.

  12. I call it reverse culture shock when I visit south tucson. That’s where these unkept homes are and crime is most likely to happen. It’s so hard to see this in my country after living abroad in the past decade (for 5 yrs total). I was fortunate to see many of the European countries and their ‘blighted’ areas too. It’s really hard for me because we’re the RICHEST country in the world and yet our people are suffering worse than they were 40 yrs ago.

  13. America is well on the way of becoming a third world banana republic and the process is hurried along by us electing a third world banana republic federal government focused on sweeping up the tiny bit of wealth still found in half the population and getting it on up there to the top 1%. Guess who owns the government now? How do they get enough votes to own it? Like you feed a dog a pill. You wrap it up in tasty treat and stand back.

    Our treat? Entertainment in every living room, pocket and purse. Fake news and science, consume more advertising, “reality” shows, the opium of the masses. We’ve been made pliant, tenderized, apathetic. We’ve been 1984’d.

    Everyday I “talk” to the victims on Facebook and they come out of the factory all the same. Angry, fearful, angry, ignorant, angry, misinformed, angry and out for revenge. Poor people did this to us. Yes, that’s the ticket, poor people who don’t look like us. Mr Trump is such a great liar he will steal the past back and return it to us.

    They have been sold the dream that votes out solutions and votes in the third world banana republic that is the nightmare.

  14. Republicans are in the majority in Congress. They are so hell-bent on taking away the crowning achievement of the first black President that they have resorted to bribing the 2 senators from Alaska with a benefit package worth almost $2 billion, just to get their votes so they can say they “won”. This is so the fat orange slob who’s squatting in our White House can point to a “victory”. This puts the 2 Alaskan senators in a severe dilemma: vote against Trumpcare and lose this big pot of money for Alaska, or throw the rest of the country under the bus and take the cash. In either scenario, Medicaid will suffer severe cuts and people will die. The extra cash will be used to soften the unusually high cost of premiums in Alaska because of a shortage of health care providers. They charge whatever they want because its a seller’s market.

    The focus of the piece by Sheila’s student didn’t emphasize the racist element behind the push to repeal the ACA. That absolutely cannot be ignored, and it’s high time someone called them out on this aspect of their agenda. If Congress really wants to provide quality, affordable care for everyone, only a single-payor system will work. Improved health care has so many benefits beyond avoiding premature death and unnecessary suffering: people will be freer to change jobs, get married or divorced when loss of health coverage isn’t a factor, it will reduce anxiety over needing treatment someone can’t afford, it would provide mental health and substance abuse care, which will improve the quality of family life and reduce deaths. It’s a huge start to addressing the other problems. Of course, improved health care won’t help with crumbling infrastructure, but studies prove that in other countries with universal coverage, the cost of health care goes down and the quality of life goes up. Maybe the savings could help cover the rest. Getting rid of the Aetnas, Wellpoints, Blue Crosses, Cignas and their overpaid CEOs and investors will help, too.

  15. To begin > Nancy, I’m with you on running Mayor Pete for governor, and while we’re at it, let’s run Elizabeth Warren for the Oval Office. Now to Sheila’s speech > excellente! I agree that the three letter word tax has become a four letter word, as though government services should somehow be delivered for free! The answer to getting around this Norquist-Trump mantra of next to nothing taxation is a substantial raise in wages across the board in America, as I have often blogged. Sad and even scary tales of the sort Sheila has so nicely put in her speech could evaporate if people were paid a living wage. People who live in broken down housing could buy lumber and paint to make ramshackle housing a thing of the past, and given a Dow of 20,000 and trillions in corporate cash lying around here and in offshore accounts, we could well afford to pay labor their just due, which we have failed to do for some four decades as median wages adjusted for inflation have not moved and even increased worker productivity has been skimmed off the top and assigned to stock values by Wall Street. Wage inequality, as I often blog, is our greatest domestic issue, and until that issue is satisfactorily resolved, these patchwork attempts to resurrect the poor with soup kitchens and neighborhood preachers are doomed to failure. Sheila has cogently outlined via contrast the horrors that Republicans have unleashed on all of us and especially the poor with their (literally) homicidal healthcare plan, but even a good healthcare program will not solve the problems of the underclass. Members of that group need the wherewithal to go to market which, ironically, would make rich merchants richer with such an uptick in demand. A five dollar an hour raise across the board for every working American would amount to over 500 million dollars PER HOUR in aggregate demand and such additional costs to employers would be wiped out by demand for their goods and services, so what are we waiting on? A Democratic Congress and President.

  16. Natacha is of course right, referring to the “…racist element behind the push to repeal the ACA. That absolutely cannot be ignored.” The same racist sentiment may have enabled rejection of 2014 federal funding of high speed rail (HSR) in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin because HSR too would have been a victory for our first black President. Governors inexplicably rejected HSR in those three states in spite of the jobs, businesses and economic stimulus HSR would have brought, with its accompanying counterforce to neighborhood blight.

    What about Indiana? Has state government suppressed support for a vigorous Indianapolis-area public transportation system in spite of the promise extended public transportation would have brought in the way of new Indianapolis businesses, jobs, and young professionals who prefer mass transit? Dr. Kennedy and her former student are both right, public transportation is an important component of, “What Cities Can Do,” even if Congress seems to be working in the opposite direction.

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