Leveraging Poverty: New Cities, New Partnerships, and the Progressive Abandonment of Urban Poverty in the 1980s and 1990s

Endorsed by the Business History Conference

Saturday, April 4, 2020, 3:00 PM - 4:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Business and Economy; Social Welfare and Public Health; Urban and Suburban


This panel explores the evolution of public private partnerships and urban redevelopment schemes in the 1980s and 1990s, emphasizing philanthropies, liberalism, and the pursuit of a high tech knowledge economy. In particular, each paper tackles a different dimension of how place-based or philanthropic redevelopment and antipoverty "partnerships," albeit in differing ways, paid lip-service to solving issues of individual poverty or underemployment but ultimately redounded to the development of space - entrenching structural unemployment and poverty or initiating a new era of development-oriented displacement. Ultimately, each paper illuminates the ways in which an ostensibly progressive fusion of economic and social aims instead legitimized considerable cultural and political investments in market mechanisms and market actors while simultaneously abetting a retreat from substantive efforts to confront poverty and underemployment.

Papers Presented

Embracing the Market and Passing the Buck: New Democrats, Economic Growth, and the Evasive Politics of Poverty, 1980–1995

If politicians rediscovered “the market” in the 1980s, many did so through active public policies designed to stimulate economic growth. This paper develops short case studies in the urban rust belt and emerging sun belt and explores how politicians in the 1980s, particularly an emerging generation of “New Democrats” (but not exclusively), employed public-private partnerships to make a political virtue of grim economic crisis-era necessities: of generating growth, tax yields, and, perhaps, sustaining a broader progressive policy agenda. But, as popular skepticism for government metastasized, these politicians came to defend governments’ role on two primary grounds: (1) that the policies were “market-oriented”; and (2) that they would ameliorate poverty at a moment when, thanks to Ronald Reagan’s draconian cuts to social welfare programs and popular critiques of liberal poverty policies such as Charles Murray’s Losing Ground (1984), politicians at all levels of government felt called to offer solutions. Ultimately, however, New Democrats’ recourse to “markets” and public-private partnerships became a seductive way of avoiding direct responsibility for social priorities such as poverty while maintaining lip service for those same goals. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, public spending on business incubators and public venture capital pools (which primarily benefited entrepreneurs) and direct public subsidies and targeted tax abatements (which primarily benefited established corporations) became framed as market solutions for places in poverty that did not have anything to do with directly helping poor people. Beyond abandoning public policies to affirmatively redress poverty, framing government endeavors in terms of their market outcomes offered a thin sort of political legitimacy for the state writ large, yielding President Bill Clinton a notably desiccated political imagination when it came to defending public endeavor.

Presented By
Brent Cebul, University of Pennsylvania

"Take a Stand, Own the Land": Public, Private, and Philanthropic Partners in the Dudley Triangle

In 1988 Boston’s Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative became the first community group in the country to win the power of eminent domain. In what remained an otherwise segregated city, the Dudley neighborhood held remarkable racial, ethnic, and language diversity and, like so many in Boston and around the country, bore the physical marks of decades of divestment, abandonment and deindustrialization. By the 1980s, nearly one-third of the land stood vacant, becoming frequent targets for illegal trash dumping and arson by absentee landlords. As the local nonprofit fought for and won the right to redevelop the neighborhood’s economic, physical, and social landscape, it followed a rather predictable path that featured new affordable housing, youth development programs, and business incubation. It did so, however, through a series of experimental public and philanthropic funding programs that structured aid not only as grants but also as loans, tax credits, and subsidies. The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative won awards and praise throughout the 1990s and seemingly provided evidence for the kinds of market-oriented policies and public-private partnership approaches championed by the New Democrats and the Clinton administration. Such claims of victory, however, reflected the assessments of politicians and philanthropists who used the newly constructed housing or active community centers as justification for retreat rather than for continued engagement in the activities that appeared to be working.

Presented By
Claire Dunning, University of Maryland, College Park

Building Genetown: Biotechnology as an Remedy for Deindustrialization in Eastern Massachusetts

In the early 1980s, eastern Massachusetts confronted the decline of its manufacturing sector. While elements of the “knowledge economy” anchored in the area’s universities were thriving, this activity had not helped the working-class neighborhoods hard hit by deindustrialization—many high-tech jobs moved toward the suburbs. For many, the emerging biotechnology sector offered a new industry where Massachusetts might play a “catalyst role” in the growth of new jobs. While the development of individual biotechnology companies has often been told from the perspective of scientific entrepreneurship or controversies concerning safety, it was also an industry enmeshed in extensive public-private discussion regarding economic development writ large among state agencies, municipal governments, real estate firms, universities, and industry organizations such as the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. With reference to three efforts—the Cambridge’s Kendall Square Urban Renewal Project, the Worchester Biotechnology Park, and Boston’s Charlestown Navy Yard bioprocess plant project—I explore the negotiations and tensions associated with efforts to attract biotechnology jobs to urban centers. While initial ground-clearing efforts for new enterprises were often successful, they struggled to address the underlying economic challenges that had given rise to these partnerships. Understanding the fate of these partnerships allows us to cast a more critical eye on current efforts to address the decline of urban employment through initiatives to attract an innovative “creative class” back to the urban center.

Presented By
Robin Wolfe Scheffler, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Margaret O'Mara, University of Washington
Margaret O’Mara is the Howard & Frances Keller Professor of History at the University of Washington. She writes and teaches about the history of U.S. politics, the growth of the high-tech economy, and the connections between the two. She is the author of Cities of Knowledge (Princeton, 2005), Pivotal Tuesdays (Penn Press, 2015), and The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America (Penguin Press, 2019). O'Mara is a Distinguished Lecturer of the Organization of American Historians and a past fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the National Forum on the Future of Liberal Education. She received her MA/PhD from the University of Pennsylvania and her BA from Northwestern University. Prior to her academic career, she worked in the Clinton White House and served as a contributing researcher at the Brookings Institution. She lives in the Seattle area with her husband Jeff and their two daughters.

Presenter: Brent Cebul, University of Pennsylvania
Brent Cebul is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. His book project, Illusions of Progress: Business, Poverty, and Development in the American Century is under contract with the University of Pennsylvania Press. With Lily Geismer and Mason B. Williams, he is the co-editor of Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019).

Presenter: Claire Dunning, University of Maryland, College Park
Claire Dunning is an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park in the School of Public Policy and an affiliated faculty member in the History Department. She is currently writing a book on the history of public-private partnerships in cities titled Nonprofit Neighborhoods: Poverty Policy and Privatization in Boston, 1949-present. The book considers the local consequences of pursuing a public good through private organizations. Dunning holds a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.

Presenter: Robin Wolfe Scheffler, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Robin Wolfe Scheffler is the Leo Marx Career Development Professor in History and Culture of Science and Technology at the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT. His first book, A Contagious Cause: The American Hunt For Cancer Viruses and the Rise of Molecular Medicine appeared in May 2019.