The Past, Present, and Future of Community Development in the United States

Alexander von Hoffman

W12-6: For more than a century, American reformers have struggled to remedy the problems of poverty in the places where low-income people live. At first, these social improvers could muster only a few isolated solutions, but by the end of the twentieth century, they had expanded their efforts to a large, dynamic, and sophisticated field of action. Today thousands of nonprofit community development organizations operate in the poorest urban and rural areas of the country. More impressively, they have helped stabilize community life and help individuals and families in some of the most forsaken neighborhoods in the country. The South Bronx, once the most infamous slum district in the United States, has become livable and vibrant.

To build a decentralized system of neighborhood improvement and individual betterment was not easy. The community development field had to emerge from the shadow of the top-down approach embodied in the urban renewal and public housing bureaucracies. The antipoverty crusaders realized that they had to combine a passion for social justice with viable management and business practices. They learned to keep practitioners accountable for their work and to measure their accomplishments. And the movement’s leaders had to grow and change, which they did by adopting new strategies aimed at building up the finances and assets of individuals, as opposed to simply looking at the problems of places. 

Note: This paper appeared in the book Investing in What Works for America’s Communities, a joint project of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and the Low Income Investment Fund.