In the January 8 edition of Time magazine, Marianne Page and Ann Huff Stevens conclude that "Despite the Statistics, We Haven't Lost the War on Poverty." We may not have lost, but we certainly have not won.
The War on Poverty has become our country's endless war. Fifty years since President Lyndon Johnson's declaration, we continue to fight with no end in sight, raising generations of poor American children into system-dependent adults.
A map of poverty in New York City would highlight neighborhoods like East New York, Brownsville, Mott Haven, and Highbridge. This is no surprise. If we swapped out "poverty rates" for racially segregated and failing schools, foster care placements, juvenile arrests, poor housing, or unemployment, the same neighborhoods often show up.
Through my work at The Children's Village, I have learned that for the poor black and brown children who are disproportionately represented in our City's foster care and juvenile justice systems, a helping hand and a good program are only the first steps out of poverty. In my experience, the true limiting factor is not poverty. At an individual level, winning the war on poverty alone does not create the desired long-term results.
I am declaring war on despondency!
The onset of despondency seems to follow a predictable path. We see it in children who grow up in foster care, without a stable adult relationship and without a community. These children age out of the government systems without a place of belonging and without the confidence to navigate the real world. They become the adults who are forced to settle into the mediocrity of government entitlement programs, asking the government to provide support they lack from family and community.
The child who has at least one stable, adult relationship experiences a greater measure of success than a child who grows up alone in a well-intentioned government supported system of care. If this adult connection not only supports the child, but also pushes him or her to achieve, the potential for success is exponential. The child may need the safety net of government programs to survive for a time, but is less likely to settle for a life of dependency.
So what can we do to increase the number of children who thrive instead of just survive? The first thing is to keep families together as long as it is safe to do so. In recent years, New York City has moved much of its investment in social services away from out-of-home placements for children and into programs that prevent families from breaking up in the first place. That's not only smart for kids, but it makes good fiscal sense. Today, the City spends $28,000 per child on programs to prevent removal instead of up to $200,000 for residential foster care placement. Today there are 5,000 fewer kids in foster care than there were five years ago. By my calculation, that has saved $147 million.
Keeping families together is just the first of many steps. Parents need to feel hopeful and capable in order to instill hope in their children. When you call The Children's Village parent program, you get a recording that says, "Remember, you are lovable and capable. And you can do it!" We all need to remember that parents who are poor and dependent on government programs are often alienated, they feel incapable and unlovable and sometimes even hopeless. That's the attitude we need to change if we want their children to thrive.
Poverty is insidious and often fuels the kind of hopelessness that locks families into the bottom tier of our society. Let's put our investment into ensuring that today's children grow up with an attitude of the mind and a longing of the heart that allows them to envision a different future for themselves. It's right both socially and economically.