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Response to AM article

Below is an email from Dr. Phyllis Betts, Director for Community Building and Neighborhood Action at University of Memphis' School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy. The email is in response to an article in the July/August issue of Atlantic Monthly. The article explored the recent nation wide increase in crime and its links to anti-poverty programs.


Dear friends, public servants, and committed Memphians,

Many of you we know have read the article on Memphis, where Richard’s and my research is featured prominently, in the July-August issue of Atlantic Monthly. The reaction among federal housing policy experts has been to question Hanna Rosen’s interpretations, and responses are being planned. As for ourselves, we want everyone to know that the issues are more complex than can be presented in a journalistic piece, and that it was and is our intention to help mobilize action for housing and neighborhoods, workforce development, and realistic law enforcement linked with community-based interventions. We want to recognize what Hanna Rosin got right, and elaborate where there is more to the story. And we want to recognize that there are more than a few committed public servants who have been trying to work on these issues under difficult circumstances.

For example, we were disappointed that the “Memphis HOPE” efforts of the Women’s Foundation were not included, and that the part about Memphis Housing Authority being mandated by HUD to demolish virtually all of its public housing -- with too little consideration for timing and local conditions – was not discussed. While planning for next steps will take several days to unfold, it makes sense to share with you some of our response to communication we have received from the policy community (for example, Brookings and The Urban Institute.) An excerpt from our response is below, and we will be in touch with many of you who are in a position to help make our local policies the best they can be. And that means government, non-profits, and the private sector. Clearly, MHA and HCD need continued involvement of the private sector, and we too want very much to be a continued part of the process.

Please feel free to circulate this email to anyone for whom it seems appropriate; for example, board or organization members, staff, concerned citizens.

In our communication with the federal policy experts, we said:

What we can do (as featured local researchers) is clarify interpretive issues (such as the use of the term suburban and the numbers of poor people who have decentralized under apparent market forces vs policy-driven relocations); underscore key points that got less attention in the final piece than we would have preferred (i.e. market factors in decentralization of poverty and the local context that makes it more difficult in some cities than in others to effectively deconcentrate poverty); state our support for HOPE VI type redevelopment and vouchers as a component of housing subsidies; make clear that flaws in housing policy require better housing policy -- not the abandonment of housing policy as some responses to the article imply subtly or not so subtly (i.e. the responses posted by the committed hostile to government crowd); and articulate what we – as researchers embedded in local context – envision as essential components of a re-invigorated housing policy (as well as income support policy and law enforcement that is partnered with community-based interventions for community safety.) (For our local listeners: It will be important to distinguish what can be done locally and what requires a shift at the federal level.)

It is also important to say to all of you that we were not misquoted, that we have a great deal more data than was implied by the article (and were not as surprised by patterns as we may appear to be in the article), and that while we would have framed the issues differently, we believe that our response will be most effective if we elaborate the real issues rather than responding to how right wing bloggers are reacting. (And of course they are.) We are of the view that everything we do in Memphis is in the context of a significantly large hostile-to-government crowd, and most any effort to revisit mistakes that have been made and move in a more positive direction will be fuel for the blogosphere. In our experience it is too easy to be paralyzed or defensive about this. We do not intend to accuse Hanna Rosin of shoddy journalism. There is of course a difference between journalism and academic research, a point that is worth making as suggested by Susan Popkin (at The Urban Institute; perhaps the article for the Chronicle of Higher Education.) We plan to:

1. Compose our own letter to the editor for Atlantic clarifying and eleaborating.
2. Arrange with the local Commercial Appeal and other local media outlets for an op-ed that deals with assets as well as flaws.
3. Write-up the Memphis case study for “lessons learned” consideration as we all move forward in our efforts to influence federal housing policy; we are convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that federal policy too commonly fails to take into account the circumstances of cities outside the industrial northeast and midwest (with a little Atlanta – and now New Orleans sometimes included to represent our region). We plan to say this often, and to reinforce investments by national foundations that have begun to pay more attention to us. (E.g. the Women’s Foundation’s upcoming support from Kellogg.)

If you are getting this email, it means that we want to work with you to be part of the solution. We will be back in touch.
Phyllis Betts and Richard Janikowski

Phyllis G. Betts, Director
Center for Community Building and Neighborhood Action
901-678-1187 phone
901-678-1483 fax

School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy
The University of Memphis Downtown Site
600 Jefferson Ave Memphis 38105

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