Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Destressing the Distressed

By Abigail CundiffPublished October 19, 2017

America is experiencing a period of growth but it' not uniform. About 1/5 of the US population lives in a distressed community. Many poorer Americans face uncertain futures and it is necessary to bring these distressed communities up to speed with the rest of America in order to truly benefit citizens of all socioeconomic classes.

Despite high economic growth, pockets of communities are falling behind and restricting access to opportunities based on zip codes. As a result, the concept that every person has equal access to the same opportunities has become a lie. Separated from the rest of the American nation experiencing growth and progress, distressed communities continue to fall further into economic disconnect. Consequently, in the recent election marginalized communities spoke their minds and voted in hopes of regaining the job security and economic growth that has been lost on so many of them.[1]

The economic innovation group defines the average distressed community as a zip code where, among other things, over 25% of the population is impoverished, 25% of adults lack a high school diploma, over 40% of working-age adults are absent in the workforce, and median incomes are approximately two-thirds of the state median income level.[2] Currently, 52.3 million (17%) of Americans live in distressed communities and 84.8 million (27%) of Americans live in prosperous communities.[3]The issue further fragments the American landscape into distributed pockets of people who feel disconnected from America's growth and are increasingly dissatisfied with government efforts. The percentage of people living in these distressed communities is relatively small since 80% of Americans are living in regions that are keeping up with economic growth, but can a nation that prides itself upon equal access to opportunities really accept that nearly 1/5 of its population is suffering?

As of now, the government is in the process of passing the FY 2018 budget resolution that removes funding from essential programs sustaining many low-income citizens. The proposed budget would cut SNAP funding by about $191 billion, Medicaid funding by over $600 billion over 10 years, housing program funding by $7.4 billion, and various other anti-poverty programs by equally significant amounts.[4] The cuts aim to recognize the growth in the economy and further it by removing anti-poverty measures since they are no longer needed post-recession. After the recession, from 2011-2015, the nation experienced an average 9.4% increase in employment and 4.2% increase in established business institutions; however, during this same period, employment dropped by 6% and the number of businesses declined by 6.3% in distressed communities.[5] Many americans are admittedly still in a recession so they require the necessary support, but the president is willing to put forward a budget that would defund valuable programs.

These programs are not as necessary as they were during the recession, but it should not be a goal of the government to remove food, home, and medical security from hardworking Americans who are underemployed or struggling to get back on their feet. The reduction in housing programs will impact vouchers and projects helping distressed neighborhoods, negatively impacting these communities and further marginalizing Trump's base.[6] For the time being, significant funding cuts should not be made to these programs.
In order to bring prosperity to these distressed communities, it is necessary to introduce the proper reforms, which starts by working to minimize the potential harms done by the budget resolution. While, food stamps and housing vouchers are only temporary fixes, they are cheaper than other temporary fixes like bringing manufacturing or coal back to former industrial towns, since both are dying industries. More permanent solutions include improving education and teaching people vocational skills since they provide distressed community members with intellectual assets, which are more important than monetary, or otherwise equivalent, handouts. Providing people with pertinent skills makes them more competitive in the job market and improves their chances of socially advancing.

Furthermore, to ensure that people will use their skills to improve the distressed regions instead of moving to already prosperous communities, distressed communities must undergo structural and financial redevelopment. Government funding to develop the regions could help easily improve the infrastructure. However, if the government is intent upon placing the burden of developing distressed areas upon the state, each respective state can encourage businesses institutions to base startups in those communities and prevent the closure of existing businesses. This can be accomplished by lowering taxes for businesses, subsidizing the costs of employing and training workers in the region, or offering other subsidies to offset the companies' costs. Through encouraging business institutions to base in distressed communities, the town would be provided with financial capital that can be used to improve infrastructure and general quality of life. This gentrification of previously impoverished areas has great potential to attract people from prosperous communities and improve the quality of the average resident's life. The increased population will only add to the town's wealth and overtime the communities will be at pace with economic growth in the rest of America. Through increased investment in these communities the disconnected 17% will recover and join the rest of the nation in a more united growth.


[1] http://aese.psu.edu/directory/smm67/Election16.pdf

[2] http://eig.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/2017-Distressed-Communities-Index.pdf

[3] ibid

[4] http://www.npr.org/2017/05/23/529711392/trump-budget-deals-devastating-blow-to-low-income-americans-advocates-say

[5] http://eig.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/2017-Distressed-Communities-Index.pdf

[6]https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/news/2017/03/17/428535/president-trumps-budget-breaks-promises-workers/