PLACE MATTERS … AND IT MATTERS MOST FOR VERY YOUNG CHILDREN:
BUILDING ON THE BETTER BABIES FRAMEWORK
by Charles Bruner
The For Our Babies campaign has established four important policy pillars for very young children (prenatal care, paid leave, well baby care and quality infant toddler care) as well as calling needed attention to policies to promote healthy development in the earliest (birth through two) years. These pillars are applicable to young children wherever they live. At the same time, they are even more important – and may need to be augmented and expanded upon – in our country’s poorest neighborhoods.
Over the last fifty years, there have been multiple efforts to rebuild poor neighborhoods. Since the War on Poverty, these have included federal community action programs, urban renewal and urban revitalization efforts, empowerment zones and enterprise communities, promise neighborhoods, and an array of foundation-sponsored comprehensive community initiatives. Most of these place-based efforts, however, have focused primarily upon housing and economic development (physical and economic capital) and adult job training and work-related supports (human capital).
The characteristics of many of the poorest neighborhoods, however, suggest a different emphasis – focusing upon very young children and creating space and opportunities for their healthy growth and development.
First, poor neighborhoods are rich in young children. Census tracts with the highest rates of overall poverty (excluding college student tracts) have much higher proportions of very young children. That means they also require more safe and family friendly play areas and gathering spots and opportunities for early learning, as well as formal early care and education programs and services.
Second, poor neighborhoods are homes to a much larger share of the country’s immigrant and minority populations. This means they require services and supports that are culturally and linguistically responsive to them and that themselves have diverse staff and leaders.
Third, poor neighborhoods are older, more congested, and with more environmental hazards. This means that additional investments often are needed to remove those hazards and establish modern, 21st century spaces for child and families to grow and develop.
Finally, of course, poor neighborhoods are home to young children who are establishing their lifelong trajectories for growth and development and need nurturing and support from their families, neighborhoods, and communities. When children are very young, their lives are most affected and bounded by their immediate home and neighborhood settings, as they begin to explore their world. Poor families in poor neighborhoods want their children to grow into economically successful adults, but they need additional help in establishing those opportunities.
The challenge is for public policies to truly work to strengthen and support families in their aspirations for their young children, starting but not ending with the four pillars outlined in the For Our Babies campaign.
In the short term, it may not be immediately possible to raise the earnings and income levels for adults in those neighborhoods to the median income level for the state (or even above the poverty line), but it is imperative that the young children in those neighborhoods, and their families, see that their opportunity for health, education, growth, and success is there to achieve the American dream.
In the end, securing the future in poor neighborhoods is as much about community building as it is about individual service strategies. Policies work best when they enable parents to be their child’s first teacher, safety officer, nurse, and guide to the world – and this means opportunities for families, within their own neighborhoods, to do so.
Charles Bruner is Director of the Child and Family Policy Center and heads evaluation work for the BUILD Initiative. He is author of Village Building and School Readiness: Closing Opportunity Gaps in a Diverse Society, which describes exemplary programs which support families in strengthening the environments for their youngest members.