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Investing in Children is Investing in Our Future

This article was written by Alex Steffen and Sarah Rich in May 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Child%20and%20grass.jpgYesterday, Geoffrey Canada spoke at the Council on Foundations' annual conference. Canada is President and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone, a non-profit community organization which has proven that given proper attention, structure and support, the most devastated communities can learn to lift themselves up.

It must be said, first of all, that if you ever have the opportunity to hear Canada speak, take it. He is the embodiment of HCZ's impact: destroyer of low expectations, setter of high bars, prover of possibility, warmer of hearts. But this was a conference about money, and Canada's talk was anything but sentimental.

HCZ was established on the basis of offering multi-level, integrated community services within a designated geographical area in Harlem. Today HCZ serves over 13,000 people -- including over 9,500 at-risk children -- through traditional schooling, after-school education, skills training, parenting classes, fitness and nutrition counseling, family support programs and health services. Almost any statistic you could find about test scores, asthma rates, child development, infant health would show better than average numbers in the Zone. In this environment, communities thrive and kids excel. But the problem is, only a limited number of people have been the lucky recipients of HCZ's network of solutions. Lack of funding means that more kids are turned away from the exceptional programs and schools than are accepted.

Educating our kids makes absolutely basic economic sense. It costs $3,500 per child per year to educate a kid in a Harlem Children's Zone school. In return, it's been shown, those kids are much more likely to be well educated, have better job prospects, live healthier, contribute more to their communities and in general contribute to the general good. Early investment in kids shows a solid ROI.

Canada wants to scale the model and open Zones in other cities. He's been approaching funders with his vision. They take that $3,500 figure, multiply according to the number of children slated for any new zone, and many shake their heads at Canada and tell him it's a great idea, but the numbers are just too big to make the plan reasonable. Canada finds this a preposterous and illogical excuse for denying kids an education.

"I have never heard a judge," Canada told the audience yesterday, "convicting a teenager in the courtroom, say, 'You know, kid, I really want to lock you up for the next twelve years for the crime you committed, but it costs $16,000 per year to keep a guy in prison...I just can't make the numbers make sense.' "

When compared in this way, our reactive "problem-solving" systems appear almost nonsensical. Why, indeed, do we sink far more funding into retroactive punishment than into setting a foundation for a child's success? But it's one thing to demonstrate that a holistic and preventative approach makes economic sense, and quite another to actually change the approach. Most people would rather apply a band-aid or suppress a symptom than identify a root cause and treat it. Transformative innovation doesn't come easy. Innovators need not only to be persuasive and patient, they need to weather the discouraging words of doubters, to do much with little when skeptics won't lend a hand, and to hold a clear vision of what the solved problem will look like. Anyone who has seen a solution from miles away and forged a path to get there knows this. Geoffrey Canada knows this.

Holistic, preventative approaches -- ones that actually solve problems, instead of just abating them -- are possible across the range of issues that must be addressed in the pursuit of environmental justice -- namely, the deeply interconnected concerns of food, environmental quality, and health.

Food: We've talked before about food justice and the need to change the system such that affordable food does not mean low-nutrient, high-sugar/salt/fat/cholesterol/chemical food. The cost of treating diabetes, heart disease, cancer and obesity-related illnesses is monumental compared to the cost of facilitating access to good food in low-income neighborhoods, but it's often harder to get the food and the information required to make good choices than it is to get insulin...or to just get sick.

Environmental quality, infrastructural integrity: The injustices don't stop there. It took the appalling betrayals of the poor during Hurricane Katrina to wake the United States up to the extent to which, when people talk about "two Americas" or "the hidden nation," they are not just talking about an economic divide, or even the social fissures it creates (which can make understanding poverty so difficult), but a very real physical division, a set of communities which go completely unseen by many Americans. In New Orleans, that divide was made glaringly apparent: the people whose homes stood on high ground either had the money to evacuate or the wherewithal to survive -- the people whose homes were in the lowlands suffered and died.

Though the conditions are not as dramatic, hundreds of millions of people face the costs of similar divides every day. In the US and all around the world, it's the poorest people who bear the greatest burden of environmental degradation. Whether in the Sahel or the South Bronx, poor communities sit at the opening of the world's tailpipe, sewer pipe, smokestack. In one of yesterday's Council on Foundations sessions, a participant pointed out that environmental public health has long been ignored as a consideration in land use planning and siting, which means that heavy industry gets placed where people have the least capacity to fight against it. But people have been fighting against it, as the environmental justice movement grows and communities demand their right to good health. Finally, with reams of evidence demonstrating the impact of poor air quality and polluted water on health, officials who dictate zoning and codes for industry and new buildings have added humans to their list of considerations.

The issue ties back to food, as well. A recent article about smart growth points out the role that land use planning can play people's ability to eat healthy food.

A recent study in Chicago linked an “imbalanced food environment” (where the number and location of fast-food outlets was greater than the number and location of grocery stores) with increased body mass index (a measurement that can indicate obesity and overweight)...Jurisdictions have amended their comprehensive plans and zoning codes to reflect the importance of and to support the enhancement of healthy food access. Building on trip-generation data that concludes that most trips are non-work trips, communities have begun to recognize that providing an environment that supports accessible services that are essential for community health, like healthy food retail, not only promotes a smart growth agenda of reducing private vehicle trips but can improve public health.

Health: Good health depends largely upon holding high standards for education, food, and environmental quality. On the one hand, health can be addressed and regulated by the individual more than any of the other three concerns, which all rely on policy, regulations and other big systems in order to change; but on the other hand, nobody can achieve and maintain good health alone when they cannot eat well, breathe well, and learn how to advocate for themselves and take preventative measures.

In fact, even large-scale governance decisions affect our health. In America, research has shown that suburban sprawl has enormous health impacts on the people who live in it, from higher risk of obesity to greater threat from car accidents -- problems that are magnified for poor people living in "inner ring" suburbs. Of course, the same sprawl that creates traffic jams and air pollution also helps create those suburban ghettos in the first place.

Such geographic isolation also creates fertile ground for various forms of predatory lending and other scams which prey on the poor's vulnerability. Solving those problems, even with innovative programs, is extremely hard without changing the larger land use and transportation issues involved (and again, those two issues are not only intimately linked to each other, but to other social issues like housing affordability).

Smart growth has many benefits, but high on the list is this: compact communities are far more just than sprawl.

Unwinding the many strands that connect poverty with environmental decline is not easy work. Nor is it easy to start to reweave them into healthy, sustainable and prosperous communities. But Canada argues -- and many would agree -- that doing this work is not only necessary, it's economically prudent and morally right. Looking the other way, he says, is like "fiddling while the country burns." But he also says, in no uncertain terms, that we can solve these problems.

Not only will addressing environmental justice save money in the immediate term, it will provide us with savings and insurance for the long term. The price tag may look intimidating, but in the end, a livable future is the only future we can afford.

Creative Commons Photo Credit

Harlem Children's Zone and the Cost of a Child's Future is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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