The only way to attack poverty: let’s go whole hog
Lately, I’ve had a bit of the social-problems blues. I am overwhelmed by the expanse of troubles facing our urban communities and the lack of proven solutions to combat them.
Take this one idea.
Awhile ago, I had a blog commenter who was obsessed with young mothers having children. He said if we could just fix this, all our problems would go away.
And then this week I watched a video by researchers Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, who did intense study into the subject of why young poor women have babies too early.
The reasons? Well, they’re complicated, but one big reason was that these women lack stability in their lives and just want someone to love, someone that will love them. They didn’t get that growing up.
How do we fix that? We fix our education system so these girls aren’t forgotten. We fix low-wages so their own moms don’t have to spend 12 hours a day working and can spend time with their kids. We fix a criminal justice system that locks too many young men up, creating absent fathers, uncles and cousins.
In short, we fix everything to fix the one problem that was supposed to fix it all.
See why I’m depressed?
Except there’s one anti-poverty initiative in America that’s actually working to fix everything at once, and it may be coming to Chicago.
Harlem Children’s Zone. Heard of it?
The brainchild of Geoffrey Canada, who grew up poor and black in New York City’s South Bronx, Harlem Children’s Zone is an all out battle to conquer poverty in a section of Harlem. Take a look:
Kids in the HCZ “pipeline” have closed the race/poverty achievement gap that has daunted educators for decades.
It’s been so successful that President Obama wants to bring it to other communities around the country, one of which could be Chicago’s Garfield Park.
I sat down and talked to Arloa Sutter, director of Breakthrough Urban Ministries, which works in the neighborhood. She went to hear Canada speak and teach his method a few months back. What she learned?
HCZ is about results. They do what works. And if it doesn’t work, they don’t bother, no matter how nice it seems.
Case in point: childhood obesity. In order to stop rising obesity rates, particularly among poor children, HCZ hired a top obesity and nutrition expert. A year after they were hired, Canada sat down with the expert to talk about results. How was it going?
Oh great, the expert said. People were signed up and motivated and excited.
But were they losing weight? No.
So that expert was fired. Instead, they divided the kids into teams and told them whoever loses the most weight gets to go to DisneyWorld. The pounds dropped.
Do what works. Canada is not afraid to shape every aspect of these kids lives if it means interrupting the intergenerational cycle of poverty.
Arloa Sutter wants to create her own pipeline in Garfield Park. Right now, that pipeline is cradle to prison to death. She wants it to be cradle to college education to fulfilling life.
“You can transform a community if you reach a tipping point where everyone in the community starts to feel the change,” says Sutter.
I’m becoming convinced – if we want to topple poverty, we have to go whole hog.
Our measly few hours a week, our intermittent social programming, it isn’t enough to combat the slew of negativity that kids in poor neighborhoods are facing. Those things are nice, but they’re not enough. While we wait in vain hope that one of the kids going through those programs might escape poverty, hundreds of others are sinking further in.
But a plan on the scale of HCZ takes two things: 1) money, and 2) commitment.
They’ve got the second one in spades. And money?
Breakthrough has a yearly budget of $3.5 million, compared with HCZ’s $70 million. That’s a big gap, but one Sutter is determined to fill.
“Until there’s housing and parks and good schools, we’re going to keep trying. We’re not going to stop until we figure it out,” she says.
Arloa says that out of 77 Chicago neighborhoods, if we could create real change in just six of them, we’d see our city transform.
I find myself trying to figure out the root cause of poverty. Is it economics? Is it racism? Is it class culture? I want to know which comes first: the chicken or the egg. But instead, I think it’s time to scrap it and build a new barn.
Recreating more Harlem Children Zone’s is a daunting task. But more daunting is a future with more of the same: more violence, more kids going to jail instead of college, more babies born to families that can’t support them, more neighborhoods riddled with drugs, gangs and crime.
This may be our chance to change things.