Moving to prosperity but leaving big questions behind

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The Move to PROSPER project is a new initiative by a consortium of organizations led by the Ohio State University to provide a path to stability for some of the least stable families in central Ohio—namely, low-income single-parent households with one or more school age children. Due to its wide-ranging goals, its origin in city planning, and its long-term focus, the model’s ambition far exceeds the typical work of social service providers. However, its very existence raises uncomfortable questions about the effectiveness of urban policies in meeting the broader needs of less advantaged families living in Columbus.

Move to PROSPER has been raising private and philanthropic resources in central Ohio for over a year in order to launch a pilot project that will help ten families living in poverty move out of Columbus to what are seen as more stable and resource-rich suburban communities. The project neatly aligns with the language and mindset of city planners.[1] Safe and stable housing, closer proximity to good-paying jobs, transportation assistance, community connector support, better medical care, and better schools are just some of the benefits touted by the program’s high-profile leaders. Through relocation, the Move to PROSPER model hopes to give families with little or no means a boost several rungs up the ladder of success in one fell swoop. There is no question that this is an artificial boost predicated on the idea that stability is a function of resources and vice versa. The people and organizations involved are motivated by an abundance of caring and a firm desire to see families succeed, but to embrace such an exodus means we must also embrace why it is necessary. Is the success ladder completely inaccessible to the vast majority of Columbus’s poorest residents? Are the tears in our social fabric so wide that more people than ever are in danger of falling through them? Here are four areas where answers may be sought:

Housing: Move to PROSPER posits that moving families out of Columbus is the most expedient means for them to find safe and affordable housing. That’s probably right, despite efforts of city leaders to address issues of slumlords, code enforcement, racial and cultural redlining, and exploitative rental companies. We must face the fact that there is far too much unlivable “housing” stock in Columbus and that too much of our livable housing is out of reach of poor families’ budgets. A systemic fix for these inadequacies would likely require enormous amounts of money and politically unpopular moves by city and county governments. With Columbus seemingly obsessed with attracting $400,000 condos—often at the expense of existing lower-income units—getting a no-frills suburban flat seems like a quick and easy alternative. Especially when the builders are your partners.

Employment: Government, banking, insurance, and legal services are still big employers in Columbus, but increasingly good jobs are locating in suburban areas, especially jobs for folks without a college degree. Employers are following the workers who began migrating en masse in the 1970s. Exurbs and rural areas are the hottest new locations for job growth, cruelly flipping the script for poor families in the city. The Columbus City Council and Franklin County Commissioners have given millions of dollars in tax breaks to lure a handful of jobs to the city, with very few going to the people who need them the most. Columbus has been sprawling for decades—first housing, now jobs. The creation of Move to PROSPER is tacit admission that our large-scale efforts to bring jobs to workers are not producing the needed results.

Transportation: Despite a major redesign last year, the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) system is still patterned on intra-city movement of workers to jobs, just as it was in the twentieth century. As noted above, that employment pattern has changed drastically. Move to PROSPER touts transportation assistance for its participating families—likely in the form of free access to ride-hailing services for jobs, medical appointments, and grocery shopping—because the current transit system has already proven inefficient for most poor residents. COTA’s new initiatives instead target “riders of choice”: K–12 and college students, arena goers and bar hoppers, and the ever diminishing number of downtown workers. Free Wi-Fi, GPS tracking, no-fee circulator buses in entertainment districts, and free rides for downtown office workers are all the rage—paid for by taxing the citizenry at large and by the full-price ticket purchases of folks who ride every day. The jobs and appointments of “riders of necessity” are a low priority and may never rise to the top again.

Education: This is the most obvious of the lost causes that Move to PROSPER supporters must accept. The communities into which the program’s participants will move are identified not by the suburb itself, but by school district name, indicating that quality schools are highly desired resources for families. Columbus City Schools has been mired in poor performance, scandal, and recurring crises of leadership for decades. Faced with these facts, we must either give full-throated support to school choice (charters, vouchers, STEM schools, interdistrict open enrollment) or to facilitation of the OG option: moving to the ‘burbs. There is no way to ignore which option the Move to PROSPER organization embraces, nor the unflattering light in which the city schools are cast because of it. Education in Columbus needs to radically change.

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Some may raise concerns about the Move to PROSPER project based on classism or racism or systemic inequity grounds, but doing so would obscure larger issues. Rising from a poor quality of life to a better one is an understandable desire—likely one that we all have had at some point in our lives. The more people who can achieve that dream, the better. The leaders of Move to PROSPER are armed with data and resources and a sincere desire to help. People with means have made such moves without a second thought, and this artificial form of social mobility could provide benefits for lots of people. Whether it will work remains to be seen. But the questions raised about the quality of life in our city—vital questions raised by the need to have a program such as this—are now unavoidable.

Who can call Columbus home?


[1] In full disclosure, I am an alumnus of the Ohio State University’s City and Regional Planning department.

 

 
 
Jeff Murray
Jeff Murray is the Ohio Operations Manager of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,