Council researchers to shift focus, elevate community voices
A chorus of community voices and a growing internal unease about how we frame data on poverty has led our research team to change the way we will characterize areas of concentrated poverty in our ongoing research about income, race, and geography in the seven-county Twin Cities area.
“A comparative analysis of what type of actions and investments are being poured into white and wealthy communities in comparison to poor and communities of color is a better approach so we can name the real problem and come up with the right solutions.”
– Nelima Sitati Munene, ACER executive director
Since 2014, the Council has published data and reports on the region’s areas of concentrated poverty — and the subset of those areas where the majority of residents are people of color — as a metric of regional equity. A few years ago, researchers began to question whether that focus has helped advance regional equity.
“On balance, we decided ‘no,’” said Krysten Ryba-Tures, a researcher on the Council’s Community Development research team. “After engaging many community voices on this issue, it was clear that while there are real benefits to a shared analysis of poverty at the regional scale, focusing on concentrated poverty alone is not enough. It tends to center a deficit-based narrative.”
Nelima Sitati Munene is among community members who advocated for a change in direction. She is executive director of ACER, a Brooklyn Park nonprofit that engages the African immigrant community to close the inequity gaps that impact that community. She is also co-chair of the Council’s Equity Advisory Committee.
“This type of narrative fails to get to the real issues,” Sitati Munene said. “We need to investigate what investments, if any, have been made in these areas. What policies and practices are driving poverty in our community? It is true that people of color in Minnesota are by far more disproportionately impacted by poverty, but this is as a result of historic discrimination and the systems that contribute to poverty.
“The spatial-focused analysis incorrectly simplifies the problem as being that of people of color living together, when the real problem is the racially discriminatory practices by both public and private entities that has led to disinvestments from these communities,” she said. “A comparative analysis of what type of actions and investments are being poured into white and wealthy communities in comparison to poor and communities of color is a better approach so we can name the real problem and come up with the right solutions.”
Data presentation impacts how decisions are made
Local research has shown that deficit-based narratives can stigmatize neighborhoods and negatively impact the investments that decision-makers are willing to make in them, Ryba-Tures said, and Sitati Munene confirmed.
“Community members are telling us that they actually like their neighborhoods and want more investment there. They don’t necessarily want to move. Expanding affordable housing in the suburbs is needed, but it is not the only path forward to improving the lives of people in poverty.”
– Krysten Ryba-Tures, Council researcher
“We saw that some cities were making decisions to not add affordable housing because they didn’t want to further concentrate poverty,” Ryba-Tures explained. “But community members are telling us that they actually like their neighborhoods and want more investment there. They don’t necessarily want to move. Expanding affordable housing in the suburbs is needed, but it is not the only path forward to improving the lives of people in poverty.”
ACER and other community organizations had to fight back when a large affordable housing complex in Brooklyn Park was proposed to be sold to investors. It would have meant the loss of hundreds of affordable housing units. Advocates were successful in getting an experienced affordable housing developer, Aeon, to purchase the property, Sitati Munene said.
Another problem with the Council’s reports on areas of concentrated poverty is that they have not sufficiently examined the structural and historical system dynamics — policies like redlining, restrictive racial covenants, and other discriminatory practices — that have created concentrated poverty and sustain it today, Ryba-Tures acknowledged.
Fundamentally, areas of concentrated poverty do not fully describe the scale and scope of poverty in the region, she said, because the majority of people living in poverty live outside of these areas.
Changes ahead to provide deeper dataset
Council researchers plan to make a number of changes moving forward:
Areas of concentrated poverty with more than 50% residents of color (ACP50s) will no longer be identified separately from other areas of concentrated poverty. While the region has significant racial disparities when it comes to income, the Council wants to stop reinforcing the stereotypical association between poverty and people of color. The majority of the region’s people in poverty are white.
Similarly, the Council will enrich its data reporting and maps with more nuanced, disaggregated data about different groups within the designation “people of color.” This will provide a richer picture of the variation among different groups and undercut the white/people of color binary.
Annual reporting will also include data about areas of concentrated affluence, where two-thirds of residents have incomes at least five times the federal poverty threshold.
Data will provide context about how areas have become high or low income, adding historical data about redlining, restrictive covenants, and other discriminatory practices.
Creating a more nuanced picture of poverty
Areas of concentrated poverty share a poverty rate, but not much else, said Matt Schroeder, Council researcher. In reporting about these areas, Council researchers have begun to add data about housing (for example, housing types) and transportation (for example, vehicle ownership) to highlight the variations across these areas.
Going forward, additions to the dataset may include immigrant communities and language proficiency, disability status, flows of investments, and federal designations — such as opportunity zones, qualified census tracts, and others. This will help prevent decision makers from using areas of concentrated poverty as a proxy for all kinds of needs, Schroeder said, explaining that assumptions can’t be made about a neighborhood or larger area simply based on income.
Centering community voices
The Council’s research team recognizes that simply adding more layers of data doesn’t necessarily fix an underlying problem – the exclusion of low-income communities from decisions that affect their lives.
“We need to center the voices of the impacted communities if we want to come up with people-centered solutions.”
– Nelima Sitati Munene
The Council’s research team recognizes that simply adding more layers of data doesn’t necessarily fix an underlying problem — the exclusion of low-income communities from decisions that affect their lives. In addition to providing technical assistance to various stakeholders about how they can use Council data for their purposes, researchers will share information about authentically engaging community.
“We need to center the voices of the impacted communities if we want to come up with people-centered solutions,” said Sitati Munene. “We need to do qualitative research, and ask the people who are most impacted by the policies and practices that have led to poverty and concentrations of poverty what the impact has been and what solutions they see.
“Why do people choose to live in these places? The problem has been defined as a concentration of poverty, but that isn’t the problem,” she said. “The idea that deconcentration will solve our problems is incorrect. We are still not investing in folks who are poor. Let’s ask the people questions instead of the spatial questions. It will inform better decisions.”
Further research to support equity
The Council is considering or already carrying out additional research to support place and equity that includes significant engagement:
A collaboration with housing and redevelopment authorities in the region to learn about residential preferences of low-income households.
The Economic Value Atlas. This online, interactive tool brings economic feedback into discussions about regional land use and infrastructure investments, and an engagement process to foster shared understanding and decision making that supports regional economic goals.
A Council place and equity study that will leverage new Census data, will be community-centered, use mixed research methods, and will develop local data with a focus on assets and histories.
Findings from these and other efforts will feed into the next regional development framework, a long-term vision for the seven-county region created every 10 years, and will inform Council decisions about investments it makes in the region in housing, transportation, and other infrastructure.
Community Development Research Team