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Posted by on Dec 17, 2008 in Health, Society | 1 comment

Rethinking Poverty In Harlem

From This American Life: A proud Baby College father holds his daughter. Image by Pat Lanza.

After my last few dour posts I feel like a stream of positive ones. I listened to an amazing This American Life episode last night that told the story of a radical anti-poverty program underway in Harlem.

They mention that recent cognitive research points to a few guidelines that will give both liberals and conservatives pause when it comes to thinking about poverty:

If children have not developed core cognitive skills such as reading, writing and basic calculation, by age 8-9, they most likely never will. If children have not developed core non-intellectual skills such as patience, work ethic, discipline and curiosity by age 12, they most likely never will. A long term study that compared families of different income groups found the #1 factor correlated with success was how much the parents talked to their children in the first three years of life.

The program highlights Geoffrey Canada, who experienced some of the pressures of urban poverty in his own life and has worked for decades trying to help youngsters succeed. He eventually realized that while he was helping a few individuals, the system was getting no better. He decided that part of the problem was that by the time that kids got help, they were already stuck in patterns of behavior (and development) that almost guaranteed failure, and that a radical rethinking about welfare and developmental programs was in order.

He’s started a program that aims to bring up thousands of at risk children through the system literally from birth through graduation. This includes classes on parenting, hands on mentoring and community work. The idea is to help children develop cognitive and social function while they’re still young, so then they are able to take advantage of traditional poverty reduction programs as they grow older. He is convinced (and I’ve read that research supports him) that poverty is generational, and it only takes breaking the cycle once in order to reap the rewards for several generations. He plans on having thousands if not tens of thousands of children go through the program, and then come back and volunteer hands on to help even more — until the program is self sustaining.

It is really ambitious, has already started to reap some rewards, and the radio show is fascinating.

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