Cities like Portland offer chance to move in and move up

Earlier this week, the Portland City Council passed a new ordinance that forbids loitering in the medians of the city’s streets.

The new restriction, while impacting anyone and any activity, was put into place specifically to target panhandling.

Portland has a large homeless population, especially for a city its size, and the growth creates real problems as the city tries to ease the strain.

Portland is wealthy by Maine standards, but reductions in state aid and a large percentage of the population living in or near poverty have made it difficult to find long-term solutions.

But the problems of homelessness and of a large population of poor and near-poor families, instead of being a testament to Portland’s problems are actually an indicator of the cities growth and success and a call for rethinking the way we approach funding city services.

It has become a common sight in Portland to see someone with a sign asking for money at any intersection where traffic backs up.

As traffic stops, they walk slowly up the line of cars. Most days in the few moments I’m stopped, someone offers some money.

By passing the ordinance, the city says that it’s looking out for public safety. The medians aren’t meant for people to stand on. Sometimes the men and women on them are intoxicated and pose a risk of stumbling into traffic.

Some in the business community don’t like the image that the panhandling creates for the city, which draws thousands of people into town for work and tens of thousands more as tourists.

I believe that the city council, the police chief and the people who supported the policy change have good intentions. Unlike many politicians today, I see no evidence that they are attacking the poor or are being malicious.

Critics of the ban argue the constitutionality of the restriction. The U.S. and the Maine constitutions take freedom of expression seriously, and panhandling is a form of speech.

The real question is whether or not panhandling is also a business and if so subject to reasonable restrictions. It’s strange to think about panhandling as a job, but the elements of commerce are there, and, just like a delivery truck gets a ticket for double parking, it’s legitimate to think that commercial activities on public property can be restrained.

I don’t know the answer.

But I do believe that the problem the ordinance is trying to solve calls for a broader approach to urban poverty.

While the common refrain is that Portland attracts the poverty-stricken and homeless because of generous benefits, I believe the truth is more complicated.

In his book, “Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier,” Edward Glaeser makes a convincing case that urban poverty is not a symptom of cities in decline but instead is the logical response to the fact cities offer people the best chance of getting ahead.

“Cities aren’t full of poor people because cities make people poor, but because cities attract poor people with the prospect of improving their lot in life,” Glaeser writes. “The poverty rate among recent arrivals to big cities is higher than the poverty rate of long-term residents, which suggests that, over time, city dwellers’ fortunes can improve considerably.”

Why? Because, Glaeser argues, people come to cities for jobs and better opportunities. Urban density encourages markets, and the most important market is the labor market. In a city, even one as small as Portland, there are more jobs and more diverse jobs than anywhere else in the state. And that diversity creates an avenue for people to move in and move up.

Glaeser argues passionately for a better understanding of our nation’s cities and what they offer. He also makes the point that people react to incentives.

While opponents of the panhandling ordinance say that the city needs to spend more on affordable housing and other programs for the poor, Glaeser would say that such investments — while worthwhile — will only go so far to solving the problem.

As more affordable housing is developed, Portland would become more attractive to people who need an affordable place to live. Meanwhile, more affluent city dwellers can make the decision to move to Falmouth, where they aren’t responsible for the property taxes to support programs for the poor who are attracted to Portland.

Cities, Glaeser maintains, are the best places to provide the services and opportunities to lift people out of poverty. But for this important role, our cities need greater regional, state and national support.

If we are serious about addressing poverty, we have to realize that the panhandlers on Portland’s median strips aren’t just an issue for the city to deal with. We all have a stake in making sure that programs that lift people out of poverty are funded and successful, including people who live in the next town over or 10 towns over.

And that, I’m afraid, is a lot harder than telling folks they can’t ask for money in the median strip.