Policy to Help People and Help Places is Not a Zero-Sum Game

By on August 13, 2019

From Brookings:  I recently had the opportunity to speak to researchers, investors, and community leaders in Ohio, Northern Kentucky, and Western Pennsylvania on “People and Place-Based Policies.”

The actual title of the talk was “It’s ‘And’ Not ‘Or.’” I didn’t select that title—too many conjunctions—but it accurately reflected the need for public policies aimed at improving opportunities for under-resourced communities. And thinking on this question has evolved considerably in the last few years, as I describe briefly below.

But the title also implied that efforts aimed at assisting poor families are distinct from those aimed at assisting poor places (or more accurately, people who live in poor places). Which, when it comes to truly effective approaches, may not be the case.


Like a lot of students of urban policy, I have learned a ton from Harvard’s Ed Glaeser over the years about how city economies work, and why.

In 2007, Glaeser wrote an article in City Journal entitled, “Can Buffalo Ever Come Back?” Its thesis reflected a pretty mainstream view among economists at the time: public policies focused on revitalizing places like Buffalo were ineffective and inefficient. Typically, authors don’t write their titles (blame the editors) but the subtitle’s answer—“Probably not, and government should stop bribing people to stay there”—made pretty clear the author’s view.

A couple of things have happened since then, however, that I think noticeably shifted the conversation.

The first is the work of another Harvard professor, Raj Chetty, and his colleagues. Their 2015 research helped upend how researchers and policymakers thought about the results of the Moving to Opportunity program. Between that and their earlier work demonstrating tremendous variation in rates of upward mobility for low-income kids around the country, they challenged the trope we’ve heard from time to time in anti-poverty seminars that “place doesn’t really matter.”

The second event was the 2016 election, specifically the electoral shift from the 2012 results in the states of the Upper Midwest. That shift, in turn, focused a great deal of attention on the declining fortunes of many small- and midsized communities that ultimately swung the Electoral College.

So economically and politically, there’s an increasing recognition and acceptance that places really do matter.

Read more.


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