Author Says Urban Progress Requires “Durable” Policy

A few phrases provide a taste of the serious serving of thoughts about urban centers in America offered by Patrick Sharkey, a sociology professor at New York University, at an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Marquette Law School on Tuesday.

“Multi-generational cumulative exposure.” Sharkey is author of the book, Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress Toward Racial Equality, and is working currently on issues related to violence and low-income communities. A key to his findings is that the problems facing people who live in poor, predominantly minority areas have built up for generations and show themselves in multiple serious ways, including the educational success and future prospects of children.

“A durable urban policy agenda.” Sharkey said that one thing that has shown positive results is sustained effort to help people with housing, jobs, education, and other matters – with the emphasis on the word “sustained.” So many initiatives are launched and then dropped, he said. He said he doesn’t see durable policy coming from the federal government. The waning of such efforts after the late 1960s is one of the main reasons progress in closing racial gaps stopped, he said. But durable efforts have been undertaken on more local levels, and that gives him some cause for optimism.

“Precision policing.” Sharkey said his studies on urban policing, crime, and violence lead him to conclude that less traditional approaches to policing can be effective. He said it is important that police be regarded by residents of a community as having “legitimacy.” That has been undermined by cases involving police killing people. Sharkey  called for shifting, but not scaling back, policing. A small fraction of people and locations should get more attention from authorities. “There are hot spots and there are hot people who account for an extraordinary amount of violence,” Sharkey said. He also used the term “problem-oriented policing” in calling for authorities to focus on those people and locations in ways that help turn things around.

 “Community quarterbacks.” Sharkey said a big asset for low-income communities is having institutions and individuals who are organizing to help people and provide services. He said such “quarterbacks” can ease problems and function as “guardians” of their neighborhoods. Sharkey spent several days in Milwaukee this week, meeting with community leaders and touring the city. He said he was encouraged by the conversations he had and by the number of “quarterbacks” at work in the city, including “a thriving non-profit sector.”

Should Milwaukee be optimistic about what can happen in its most challenging areas? “Absolutely,” Sharkey said. “There’s a lot of great stuff going on here. . . . I’ve been impressed with every conversation I’ve had in Milwaukee.”

But he also expressed concerns about aspects of what is happening in Milwaukee. For one thing, he said it is important to find out what happened in 2015 that led to a sharp increase in the number of murders.

More broadly, he said, “It’s just stunning how segregated Milwaukee is.” He called the separation by race and ethnicity in the metropolitan area “truly shocking,” adding. “You’re at the epicenter of racial and ethnic segregation here.” He said the problem showed up in ways that include shortages of affordable, decent housing for low-income people, the availability of transportation to jobs, and inequitable educational opportunities.

Sharkey also said he had never visited a place where he heard more about the gap between the state (and the state legislature) and the state’s largest city. “This is a key question here in Milwaukee. No, I’ve never experienced this, never talked about this as much as I have in the past few days” in Milwaukee, he said. “This is a problem here clearly, where a city is pitted against its state legislature.”

Sharkey disagreed with a question from the audience that drew a distinction between communities that needed help from the government and those that don’t. He said, “Every community across the country relies on investment from the state to thrive.”  Most communities take it for granted and don’t focus on it, but it is there. What form does it take? The largest housing program in the country is the home mortgage interest deduction, he said. “Combined with the property tax deduction, this is $100 billion a year,” Sharkey said, and it goes disproportionally to the wealthy. “That’s durable policy investment,” he said, and it is designed to support suburban communities.  “We need to extend the investment that is already taken for granted in most communities to the communities that never received it, to the communities that have never been the beneficiaries of federal support on a large scale,” Sharkey said.

The one-hour program may be viewed by clicking here.


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