Published in the Fall 2010 issue of SSA Magazine

New research explores how residents of low-income communities think about political representation

Research has shown low-income communities don’t have the political clout of more affluent neighborhoods. And so, when working in poverty-stricken urban neighborhoods,

today’s large “downtown” government agencies and foundations have learned the importance of community participation. The typical approach is to invite local leaders like the pastor at an influential church, the executive director of a social service agency and a local elected official to an advisory board or set of meetings.

“We see many of the same leaders and organizations on the south side invited to participate on a variety of projects. Because they are not elected, it is important to understand whether the people in the community feel like they’re represented by these institutions and if they feel comfortable with community-based organizations speaking on their behalf,” says Colleen Grogan, a professor at SSA.

Grogan, Assistant Professor Jennifer Mosley and associate Professor Scott W. Allard did more than a dozen in-depth cognitive interviews and surveyed more than 200 south side residents of the Washington Park, Woodlawn, Grand Boulevard and Kenwood communities. They found that more than half of those polled could not identify anyone who could speak on their behalf. Respondents often said their aldermen were not responsive and views were split on whether local churches were good representatives. While social service agencies were generally seen as altruistic and trustworthy, few residents felt a strong bond with them.

“Some community members thought that church leaders would have only the interests of themselves and their congregation in mind, not the larger community,” Mosley says. “For social service agencies, people felt like if a group is out in the community getting things done, like helping people find a job, then they could usually be trusted.”

Allard, Grogan and Mosley also explored what kind of representation residents would prefer, giving them a choice between a person who communicates regularly with community members, someone who is very effective in “getting things done,” and someone who is from the neighborhood itself.

“The clear loser was the affinity role,” Grogan says. “So ‘good representatives’ don’t necessarily have to live in the neighborhood. At the end of the day, the people we talked with wanted to see something done, and they wanted to be sure they were heard.”

Next is a broader survey of attitudes about representation and a comparison of the results with how the local institutions themselves see their role.

“It seems like sometimes an executive director for an organization goes to a meeting downtown and says, ‘this is what our residents need,’ and the people in the community didn’t even know that the meeting happened,” Mosley says. “The ultimate goal of this study is to understand if some organizations are particularly successful at engaging and representing residents so that we can improve democratic participation in vulnerable communities.”

--by Carl Vogel