Bryant Crubaugh, Pepperdine University, Malibu.
Neighborhood equity requires more than the inclusion of nonprofits. How is the relationship between neighborhood development organizations and neighborhood disadvantage dependent on race, resources, and residential mobility? The answer to this question is vital as cities attempt to correct structural inequalities and rely on nonprofit organizations in their plans.
For example, Chicago’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, is attempting to tackle two persistent, decades-old issues within Chicago: violence and concentrated poverty. Throughout her first two years in office, nonprofit leaders have been meeting with and standing at her side. In February, before the onset of Covid-19 in the US, Chicago’s city leaders and nonprofit organizational representatives met to discuss plans to reinvest in long divested corridors in the West and South sides of the city, hoping to spur job growth and help long-isolated communities escape concentrated poverty. More recently, as Chicago has seen a continued increase in gun violence, Lightfoot has responded to calls with a formalized plan to lean on nonprofit organizations to help reduce violence, though the plan so far has not included significant steps away from traditional policing.
Whenever a major initiative makes its way to a mayor’s desk in the US, community nonprofits are likely to have had a role in getting it there and likely have a role in implementing the solution. Nonprofits are routinely lauded for taking local knowledge into account, for supporting city governments in times of financial strain, and for helping bring people together to shape their efforts. However, community nonprofits do not universally and evenly serve the entire city. When they are tasked with administering social programs instead of the government, they often run at a deficit and lack the funding needed to adequately administer social programs.
It is clear that nonprofit organizations have a large role to play in city administration, but I am left asking: does this role help alleviate inequalities or does it perpetuate them?
In my analyses of Chicago from 1990-2010, I ask how neighborhood development organizations (NDOs) are associated with varying levels of neighborhood disadvantage—a composite measure of impoverished families, rates of unemployment, families receiving public assistance, single-mother households, and vacant units. Traditional social research and popular accounts of this process would lead us to expect that nonprofit organizations are likely to lower disadvantage through processes of developing community trust, increasing neighborly care, and connecting neighbors to external resources. In general, I find that NDOs are associated with decreasing levels of neighborhood disadvantage. But this general pattern does not fit all neighborhoods.
In predominately Black neighborhoods, NDOs do not have this same association. Instead, having more NDOs in predominately Black neighborhoods is associated with increasing disadvantage. This is not a story of predominately Black neighborhoods lacking NDOs. Predominately Black neighborhoods have more NDOs on average than predominately non-Black neighborhoods, by a rate of nearly 2 to 1, as seen in the figure below. Yet when it comes to resources given to NDOs, from any public or private source, we can see that predominately Black neighborhoods are being left out by a rate of over 6 to 1. My results show that when it comes to reducing neighborhood disadvantage, having over 500,000 dollars of NDO income in a census tract in a year is associated with decreasing neighborhood disadvantage—approximately one fifth of a standard deviation of neighborhood disadvantage. Unequal and inequitable funding of Black NDOs is stunting their opportunity to address neighborhood disadvantages.
Residential mobility and potential gentrification also impact the strength of the relationship between NDOs and neighborhood disadvantage. NDOs may encourage gentrification through their focus on beautification, historical preservation, and economic redevelopment, all factors that may disrupt the social fabric of a neighborhood. These processes are not random but are also dependent on the racial makeup of neighborhoods, with predominately Black neighborhoods being more likely to lack external investments and remain in a disinvested state. In the figure below, I show how neighborhoods with significant residential mobility, NDOs are associated with declines in neighborhood disadvantage. This suggests that as neighbors are moving out in neighborhoods with more NDOs, there is a replacement of disadvantaged neighbors with advantaged ones.
So, why does this matter? In a moment when Mayor Lightfoot and mayors across the United States are attempting to tackle large issues such as concentrated poverty by relying on nonprofit organizations, these findings should give us pause.
Given these associations between NDOs and neighborhood disadvantage, more of which I discuss in my article, I see two paths forward. First, when mayors propose the further use of nonprofit organizations like NDOs for neighborhood development or social service administration, funding needs to be equitable. Black communities in Chicago are organized and ready to tackle the large issues that have isolated and disadvantaged many of their neighborhoods, but without equitable funding that gives a disproportionate share of funds from these new programs to those that need it most, resource gaps will still be present and no amount of neighborhood organizing can overcome that disadvantage compared to their neighboring communities.
Second, this should make us question programs and policies that rely on nonprofits for implementation altogether. Given that social service provision often operates from a deficit when administered through nonprofits and the results here, nonprofit administration of neighborhood development and other social programs is likely to reproduce the inequalities already present. In attempting to tackle the large structural inequalities of the day, Mayor Lightfoot and others need to address the roots of the problem that even equitable funding may not address. Without dismantling the structural conditions that produced concentrated disadvantage and violence in the first place, nonprofits are unlikely to be able to make a substantial and structural impact.
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