Tuesday, April 17, 2012

I Believe the Children Are Our Future, Even the Poor Ones

By Ranada Robinson, Senior Research Associate.

Since graduate school, I have had an interest in social norms, how to quantify them, and if it’s possible to intentionally steer them. Today, I came across a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Data Snapshot on High-Poverty Communities and started thinking again of social norms. It’s one thing to live in poverty, and it’s another added layer when concentrated poverty is considered. Almost eight million kids under 18 in this country live in areas of concentrated poverty—or in census tracts with poverty rates of 30 percent or more. Children who live in concentrated poverty are likely to face food insecurities, live in households that have unstable housing, and lack health insurance coverage. They are also more likely than children who do not live in concentrated poverty to have high and detrimental levels of stress and behavioral and emotional problems that become normal to them and become daunting barriers to success. They are more likely to drop out of high school, which leads to repercussions that lead to cyclical or generational poverty, creating the same issues or normalcy for their children.

I still haven’t figured out the answer to my question of if social norms can be steered, but I do know that there are several things communities across the countries can do to buffer some of the effects of concentrated poverty. Here are a few examples:
  • Blessings in a Backpack: I’m familiar with this program because my sorority chapter has provided this sort of assistance to elementary schools in the East Point and College Park areas of Georgia. The formal program serves close to 59,000 students in 390 schools in 35 states in the US and three other countries (Canada, Colombia, and Haiti). The premise of the program is to make sure that food insecure students who rely on school to eat have food to take home on the weekends. After the children are identified, they receive backpacks filled with ready-to-eat items such as cereal, juice boxes, and granola bars on Friday and they return the backpacks on Monday to be refilled for the next weekend. This program is one that pulls on my heart strings because research shows that students who have the food and nutrition perform better in school, academically and behaviorally.
  • Programs that bring communities together to meet the needs of students: The program that comes to mind is the BRIGHTfutures program in our client community, Joplin, Missouri. To ensure that students were set up to succeed, they realized that building support structures was imperative. This program brings together the business community, non-profit organizations, the civic community, and the faith community to meet identified needs of individual students, from immediate needs such as supplies to more long-term needs such as tutors and mentors. Taking intentional and proactive steps to meeting the needs of students with community resources has helped the school system achieve higher graduation rates.
  • Programs that ensure quality early childhood education: Early childhood education has proven time and time again to be an important part of a child’s growth. A client community that values well-rounded early childhood education is my hometown, Jackson, Mississippi. Developed by the Early Childhood Institute at Mississippi State University, the Excel by 5 program is a community-based certification that centers on parent training, community participation, child care, and health to help improve children’s overall well-being in those precious early years. There are 32 communities across the state that are certified.
While these are some best practices that I have seen in my work professionally and civically, there are many other programs out there that seek to address issues that stem from poverty. As John F. Kennedy once said, “Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.” We have to pay attention today to the needs of our children to affect real change on the future of our communities.