By Jerry Pierce Jr.
Inner City: an older part of a city densely populated and usually deteriorating, inhabited mainly by poor, often minority, groups. – Dictionary.com
The definition of Inner Cities by Dictionary.com above leaves no room for misinterpretation. It is clear and to the point. The American Inner City is in big trouble and an economic drag to the country as a whole. As a former official at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, a former Deputy Mayor of Jersey City, NJ, and one who was both born and raised in the inner city, I am familiar with the problems and challenges that residents of our inner cities must continually face. These problematic areas are widespread and present in almost every major city throughout the country. These inner cities include areas of Baltimore, St. Louis, Detroit, Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Toledo, Cleveland, Washington DC, and parts of Memphis, Tenn. where residents have a 1 in 9 chance of being a victim of a violent crime. The inner city crisis cannot be swept under the rug and must be resolved. I recently attended my High School reunion in East Orange, New Jersey, an inner city area right outside of Newark, NJ, which is where I was born. East Orange, once voted as New Jersey’s most beautiful city, must now deal with infrastructure deterioration, boarded up buildings, lack of any significant business investment, drug abuse, crime and security issues. Local leaders are aware of the problems and seek solutions but making positive changes in these inner city neighborhoods requires a new and innovative approach.
The people who live in America’s inner cities have the same dreams and aspirations as Americans from all parts of the nation. However, confronting the daily challenges of living in the inner city can wear a person down. Life in the inner city can be a dream killer. I have seen many gifted and talented individuals have their light snuffed out by the pressures and temptations of the inner city. The time has come to implement serious and sustainable solutions that not only focus on the re building of the city but on the development of the people who live there. The good news is that there are innovative sustainable solutions available now that will help do this. What follows are six proven 21st century solutions that, when fully implemented, will help create long-term positive improvements for America’s inner cities and in the lives of the residents who live there.
1. Business Incubators and Accelerators
The late Secretary of HUD Jack Kemp once said, “We will fight the war on poverty with entrepreneurs”. Business incubators assist entrepreneurs in the start-up and early development stage of their firms by providing capital, workspace, shared facilities and a range of business support services. Most current incubators are located in higher-income, less diverse communities. Business incubators can be established in inner cities. The public and private sectors can work together to incentivize the creation of as many of these incubators as possible. One example of the positive impact of incubators in the inner city is Detroit Kitchen Connect. Detroit Kitchen Connect is a food business incubator run by the Eastern Market Corporation, a nonprofit economic development organization in Detroit’s Eastern Market district. The area that surrounds the district has some of the highest poverty rates in the region. Detroit Kitchen Connect is designed to help entrepreneurs overcome one of the biggest obstacles for starting a food business: the high cost of setting up a commercial kitchen. Detroit Kitchen Connect currently consists of a variety of commercial kitchens that Detroit area food entrepreneurs can use to test recipes and create products.
Another of Detroit’s inner city incubators and accelerators is TechTown. It has three programs for tech entrepreneurs: a business incubation program as well as two business accelerator programs. Accelerators are organizations that offer a range of support services and funding opportunities for startups. They offer office space and supply chain resources. More importantly, business accelerator programs offer access to capital and investment in return for startup equity. TechTown employs numerous strategies to boost minority participation rates in its programs, including intentionally building diverse leadership and mentorship teams, targeting recruitment, and hosting public events that are open and free to the public.
Detroit Kitchen Connect and TechTown are two examples of the important work inner city based business incubators and accelerators can do to encourage minority entrepreneurship. Establishing more incubators like these in inner cities across the U.S. will help spur the growth of more successful minority-owned businesses, which in turn will help to revitalize inner cities.
2. Coding Boot Camps and Apprentice Programs
A coding boot camp is a technical training program that enables students with very little coding proficiency to learn to write code in areas where they can immediately apply their new coding skills to solve real-world problems. Coding boot camps teach their students how to write software code, and build applications on a professional level. The U.S. Department of Labor projects that by 2020, one million programming jobs will go unfilled. Coding boot camps accelerate the process of learning code and can prepare inner city residents for those higher paying software-programming jobs. One example of how coding camps can make a positive impact on the lives of those in the inner city is LaShana Lewis, recently featured at RiverFrontTimes.com. Lewis grew up in East St. Louis and worked as a bus driver before finding the coding boot camp LaunchCode. After completing programming classes, Lewis worked as an apprentice with MasterCard. She was later hired fulltime. More than 150 St. Louis employers are following MasterCard’s example by developing apprentice programs with local nonprofit LaunchCode to train women and minorities for jobs in the tech industry.
3. Empowerment Zones
When I was working with Secretary Jack Kemp at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the nineties, he spearheaded the novel Empowerment Zone concept for the inner cities of America. The program was never implemented as Kemp designed. The Clinton administration presented a modified version that focused on large businesses where Kemp’s program targeted small businesses and entrepreneurs. The Trump administration can look at the original program and expand the current Empowerment Zone program at HUD with an emphasis on small businesses and entrepreneurs. The concept of urban enterprise zones is fairly simple. Businesses investing and providing jobs in designated inner city areas would be eligible for tax subsidies, credits and deductions. The Kemp approach would provide incentives for businesses; especially small ones that employ fewer than 100 workers and that create most new jobs. The current tax reform effort going on in the federal government can include the expansion of Empowerment Zones with a focus on small businesses.
The GSA Effect - The General Services Administration (GSA) is a federal government agency that owns and leases over 376.9 million square feet of space in 9,600 buildings in more than 2,200 communities nationwide. In addition to office buildings, GSA properties include: land ports of entry, courthouses, laboratories, post offices, and data processing centers.
The GSA can have a significant impact on improving conditions for the inner cities and their citizens by choosing to establish some of their properties into these Empowerment Zones. This would lead to significant job creation and development in the designated areas.
4. School Choice
America has some of top public K-12 schools in the world. I went to public schools in inner city New Jersey. At that time, we had a full offering of academic subjects as well as enough club, sports, music and other activities to meet every need. Today many inner city schools have much fewer subjects and activities from which to choose. There is also an increase in the prevalence of guns, shootings and drug use in the schools and surrounding neighborhoods. This often creates a counter productive and even hostile environment in which to learn. Inner city families can have options on where they send their children to study so that they are not relegated to high risk and low quality schools. The idea is to empower inner city families with the choice of sending their children to the best available school. These options include other surrounding public schools as well as private and charter schools. Some who oppose giving kids and families an option on where to study believe that this will further debilitate underperforming public schools. That is not necessarily true. Giving families school options can incentivize the struggling public schools to “think outside the box” and embrace new techniques for teaching that are more effective and efficient.
5. Community Policing
The contemporary community policing movement emphasizes changing the role of law enforcement from a static, reactive, incident-driven bureaucracy to a more dynamic, open, quality-oriented partnership with the community. Community policing philosophy emphasizes that police officers work closely with local citizens and community agencies in designing and implementing a variety of crime prevention strategies and problem-solving measures. The community policing goal is to be PROACTIVE AND NOT REACTIVE. It not only focuses on crime prevention but also develops positive relations between the police and the local community. On issues such as drug abuse, which is the predominant law enforcement problem in many inner cities, communities need close collaboration with police to separate the users from the sellers and to get the drug users into treatment instead of jail. Programs such as Boys and Girls Scouts and the Police Athletic League (PAL), which organizes sports leagues for kids, can be expanded and promoted. These organizations for kids that have been so successful in the past; can be integrated with innovative community policing strategies and get inner city youth off to a solid start while creating a positive foundation that can last a lifetime.
6. Keeping the Family Together
This is a solution for every century. A strong family core is the foundation upon which all other solutions stand. We must do all we can to encourage families to stay together. For those that have separated, we need to motivate these parents to incorporate quality visitation time with their children into their schedules. Many family break ups are associated with substance abuse and new mobile technology is available to provide education, awareness and counseling remotely with real doctors and medical professionals 24 hours per and seven days a week. Federal government support programs can be structured to incentivize families to stay together and become more independent. Financial literacy courses are also available on mobile devises, tablets and lap tops so inner city residents can experience the power of saving and investing their money as opposed to simply spending it.
Mr. Rodgers (yes, THAT Mr. Rogers - He had a Masters in Child Development) said that the most important thing a child learns from the family is trust. Imagine the powerful foundation provided to children who are raised in an environment of trust, confidence and security. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the family unit when it comes to reforming our inner cities.
Improving our Inner Cities is a multifaceted matter. Issues, such as drug addiction, inadequate healthcare and affordable housing are also factors that negatively affect the inner cities. The focus here has been on core issues and innovative solutions that can help in the positive personal development of our inner city Americans. Once implemented, these solutions can have a positive effect on other interrelated problems and challenges. With the availability of 21st century strategies, approaches and technologies like those mentioned here, the country has its best chance to see significant and long-term improvements to America’s inner cities and to the citizens who live there.
Jerry Pierce Jr. is a former Assistant Secretary at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and a former Deputy Mayor of Jersey City, New Jersey.