The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kid’s Count numbers are out, and once again they expose the hidden shame of the wealthiest state in the world’s richest nation. Maryland ranks only 23rd in child wellbeing, far behind similar affluent East Coast states like Massachusetts (3rd), New Jersey (5th), Connecticut (6th) and our neighbor and business rival, Virginia (14th).
With the nation’s best schools, second lowest child poverty rate, and the lowest rate of black children in poverty, why does Maryland rank so low? Largely because 43,000 Maryland children still live in neighborhoods of extreme poverty where 30% or more of the population lives in poverty.
High poverty neighborhoods harm children’s health, cognitive ability, school performance and chance of adult economic success (read more here). Poverty is hard on kids, but living in a poor neighborhood exposes poor kids to what the Casey Foundation calls “double jeopardy.”
Most children left in harm’s way are African American kids—few poor white kids live in poor neighborhoods. A recent Pew Foundation report found that neighborhood poverty alone accounts for a greater portion of the black-white gap than individual family characteristics.
My Audacious Idea is to offer the families left behind a chance to get their children out of harm’s way. Is this really so audacious?
It is true that not all families living in extreme poverty neighborhoods want to move. But many with the means to do so have already left. For stranded families that do want to move, shouldn’t we give them the chance—for their children’s sake?
What can we do?
First, the Baltimore region is fortunate to have a successful housing mobility program to build on. More than 1,800 families have already used housing vouchers to secure better housing in low poverty, racially integrated neighborhoods. Housing mobility programs help families move to strong neighborhoods, rather than the next ring of vulnerable neighborhoods. While not a magic bullet, and not the solution for every family, this is something that we know how to do and can start right now, even in an era of limited resources.
Second, as a medium term solution, build up the supply of affordable rental housing in strong neighborhoods with good schools throughout the Baltimore region.
Third, for the long term, commit to rebuild and reuse hollowed out extreme poverty neighborhoods. Make no mistake—success will take decades and is uncertain. For the sake of our future prosperity we must invest in a Marshall Plan for our own cities, just as we rebuilt European cites after the destruction of war. But we cannot leave children behind in harm’s way and pretend that our devastated neighborhoods will improve in time to save the current generation of children.
If we believe that kids really do count—all kids, not just our own—let’s be audacious and act like it.