Targeted geographic anti-poverty interventions: France’s “Sensitive Urban Zones”

We mentioned in the January issue that US President Obama has announced a program targeting “Opportunity Zones,” socio-economically disadvantaged areas where efforts would be concentrated to improve conditions. This could be a challenge, since some kinds of disadvantage, especially poverty, unemployment and social exclusion, seem to be resistant to geographic targeting.

The French experience with “Zones urbaines sensibles” provides a good case in point. Ten years after a major initiative was launched, targeting urban areas where social indicators showed high levels of disadvantage relative to the rest of the urban areas, the news was not good.

A review by France’s National Observatory of Sensitive Urban Zones concluded as much in the following comment:

Les indicateurs de la situation dans les quartiers sensibles évoluent peu. Le chômage y est à peu près toujours le double des autres quartiers de leur agglomération et la pauvreté trois fois plus prégnante. Les zones urbaines sensibles concentrent les populations d’origine étrangère : plus d’un résident sur deux de 18 à 50 ans est immigré ou descendant d’immigrés. Cela n’est pas sans incidence sur la scolarisation, l’accès à l’emploi, la culture et les modes de vie.

In essence, they conclude that the indicators have not changed much. Unemployment remains double that of other areas, and the incidence of poverty is triple. These areas attract people of foreign origin, either immigrants or descendents of immigrants (who in France have particular difficulty integrating). Negative indicators are evident in schooling, employment, culture and lifestyles.

Est-ce à dire que ces quartiers s’étaient transformés en ghettos? L’Onzus a mis en évidence, dès son rapport de 2005, les phénomènes de mobilité résidentielle à l’oeuvre dans les ZUS. On y entre et on en sort. Mais la mobilité concerne surtout les familles qui en ont acquis les moyens. C’est d’ailleurs pour cela que les indicateurs ne varient guère : ces familles en voie de promotion sociale sont remplacées par des familles en situation plus difficile que la moyenne des résidents du quartier.

The report comments that there is some social mobility among the residents, as some acquire the human and social capital to move out. However, they are replaced by other disadvantaged people, which tends to support the stability of the indicators.

Despite expenditures in the area of 45 billion euros over the years, conditions in these special zones have not changed significantly.

To read more: http://www.ville.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/pnru1.pdf

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