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The Persistence of Poverty in a "Comeback City"

Dark Day Downtown


Most people would agree that the city of Cleveland has been on the upswing in many visible ways in recent years. Several city neighborhoods are now attracting well-educated young people who would not have considered “city living” ten years ago. And many new businesses have followed those new residents into these neighborhoods. At the same time, Cleveland’s downtown and University Circle districts are generating significant new development and thousands of new jobs.

Why is it, then, that the city of Cleveland remains among the very poorest big cities in America? A new US Census Bureau report shows that Cleveland, with a poverty rate of 36.9%, was the second poorest big city in America in 2013 (compared to all cities with at least 250,000 residents), topped only by Detroit. In 2003 Cleveland ranked as the nation’s poorest big city, with a poverty rate of 31.3%. (Poverty rates have increased nationally since 2003).

The Limitations of Our Current Revitalization Strategies

Does this mean that Cleveland’s success in revitalizing certain neighborhoods is an illusory success? Does this mean that the development boom in downtown Cleveland and in University Circle is meaningless in improving the quality of life for city residents?

The persistence of widespread poverty in Cleveland makes it clear that the rebirth of neighborhoods like Detroit Shoreway and the redevelopment of the downtown and University Circle districts do not constitute the proverbial “rising tide that lifts all boats.” The fact is that many Cleveland neighborhoods remain “under water” while other areas are rising to new heights.

Does this mean that the City should stop pursuing policies and programs that uplift strong-market neighborhoods and facilitate downtown and University Circle development?

Although my answer to this question is an unequivocal “no,” I believe that the persistence of widespread poverty in the face of high-profile instances of revitalization in Cleveland demands a re-thinking of our strategies for citywide revitalization.

The Value of Our Current Revitalization Strategies

Given its limited impact on reducing citywide poverty, why should the City government and its partners continue taking action to promote development in neighborhoods like Tremont, Ohio City and Detroit Shoreway as well as in the downtown and University Circle districts? The simple answer is that the addition of new tax-paying residents, the creation of new jobs, the renovation and re-use of old buildings and the development of new buildings is good for Cleveland – regardless of the ability of these successes to resonate strongly throughout all of the city’s neighborhoods.

In addition, it is evident that the City cannot create development markets from thin air. The City can be much more effective in using its limited resources to stimulate development in areas where the private market for development and revitalization is already strengthening. As interest in mixed-use, walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented urban neighborhoods increases, it makes sense for the Cleveland to capitalize on this trend. And, despite the very serious limitations of “trickle-down economics,” there is no way that the City can create prosperity for its citizens through welfare-type programs alone. Widespread prosperity requires the widespread availability of good jobs for city residents.

Refocusing Our Policies and Programs

So, how do our local planning and development policies and programs need to change if poverty in Cleveland is to be significantly reduced? I would never be so presumptuous as to say that I have the answers! Thousands of talented people have devoted their careers and their lives to tackling this issue. But, from my perspective as a city planner in Cleveland, I would like to offer the following suggestions, as one small step in encouraging further dialog and action on the options for expanding prosperity throughout Cleveland’s neighborhoods.

  • Invest more energy and money in improving primary and secondary education for city residents. Much of this effort is already underway by some very dedicated and creative people and organizations; but success would be more achievable if tax laws and local governance laws could be changed to fund schools on the basis of need rather than on the basis of the local tax base. Also, greater engagement by the local business community and by local citizens could provide valuable mentoring services and additional resources for students.

  • Strengthen job training programs and link them to available jobs. Many of the new jobs that have been created in the city of Cleveland fail to go to city residents. One reason is a mismatch between the skills required for the new jobs and the skills of unemployed city residents. Part of the answer would be increased participation by local employers in effective job training and job match programs.

  • Increase hiring of city residents, including minority residents, by companies and organizations that benefit from governmental funding. Mayor Jackson has led the way in implementing local hiring requirements and “community benefits agreements” that link development projects to the welfare of local residents in Cleveland. This approach appears to hold promise as a way of re-directing hiring for the betterment of the local community. Greater participation by other governmental organizations and local employers will increase the impact of these initiatives.

  • Attract employers to locate and expand in distressed neighborhoods. Many city residents are dependent on public transportation, walking and biking to reach places of employment. Placing more jobs in proximity to the homes of unemployed Clevelanders can be part of the solution. Typically, significant financial incentives will be required to facilitate this development. The City government currently focuses much of its economic development program on achieving this goal.

  • Support national and statewide increases in the minimum wage. Although there is much national debate on the efficacy of increasing the minimum wage, there is no doubt that statewide or national mandates would be more effective than city-level requirements.


As I said, it would be presumptuous for someone in my position to suggest that I have the answers to the problem of persistent poverty in the city of Cleveland! But, as a member of the profession – city planning – that has succeeded in helping to revitalize and redevelop key parts of our community, I feel compelled to direct additional public attention, in my own small way, to actions that we can take to bring prosperity to those who have been left behind. I would appreciate your thoughts on the subject.

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