Social change work is hard and frustrating and wonderful and terrible; it is also, at times, funny, quirky and just plain fascinating. With this blog we hope to capture all that goes into what we do at Capital Good Fund, and we invite you to join the conversation!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Poverty as a Disease

Apples and Oranges?
Dr. Muhammad Yunus, one of my heroes and the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner, describes poverty in stark and succinct words as "the absence of all human rights."  Poverty is also something we think of as endemic to the "third world," conjuring up images of malnourished children, war-torn countries and slums and shanty-towns.  Yet poverty in America is real and pernicious.  Just consider this: one out of three Americans is at 150% of the federal poverty line or below...for a family of four that's  just $35,325 or less.  Even then, I can almost guarantee that most of us, when we think about America, say something like this: "Well, there's poverty in America, but it's completely different...we don't have children starving in the streets.  Apples and oranges!"

Poverty as a Disease
That is true, but we shouldn't be lulled into a false sense of security; in America, one out of six people is also food insecure, meaning that they don't get three square meals a day.  And a recent NY Times article has  defined 'Poverty as a Childhood Disease,' one that needs to be treated just as we treat heart disease, diabtetes, etc.  The author, Dr. Perri Klass,  highlights something that we've talked about before: the link between poverty and health.  She encourages us to "Think for a moment of poverty as a disease, thwarting growth and development, robbing children of the healthy, happy futures they might otherwise expect."  She also notes that poverty "Damages children's dispositions and blunts their brains [and] is now more likely to define many children's life trajectories in the harshest terms: poor academic achievement, high dropout rates, and health problems from obesity and diabetes to heart disease, substance abuse and mental illness."

All this screams out for something to be done.  The lives of millions of children are being put on a path of despair, yet we CAN do something about it.  Dr. Klass informs us that "At the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic societies...there was a new call for pediatricians to address childhood poverty as a national problem, rather than wrestling with its consequences case by case in the exam room." Public policy, from public benefits, to the tax code, to economic development, affordable housing, mass transit and education, have to be re-oriented toward thinking about poverty and how to solve it.

What We're Doing
Fortunately, there is a role for the non-profit and for-profit sectors to help.  I couldn't help but think about our Financial Coaching Plus Schools Program while reading this article.  Our theory of change is that a family that is more financially stable and healthy is a family in which the kids will do better in school; a child that succeeds academically is one that will secure higher paying jobs and, thus, move out of poverty for good.  To unleash all this potential, we deliver intensive, one-on-one Financial and Health Coaching to low-income parents of elementary schoolchildren.

We recognize that so many things hold families back--a spiral of debt from predatory financial services; lack of access to health insurance, medical care and banking services; no or poor credit; little to no savings; and, perhaps worst of all, a sense that things are beyond your control.  By treating our clients like customers, by meeting them where they are and working with them to both identify where they want to go and how to get there, we believe that we can make a true dent in poverty in this country.

There is no doubt that, as a nation, we must do something, and ideally, many things.  There is a fierce urgency of now when it comes to injustice; every year the status quo remains guarantees many decades of poverty. Why?  Because, as Dr. Benard P. Dreyer puts it, "Poverty is a serious underlying threat to children's health...After the first three...years of life, if you have neglected [a] child's brain development, you can't go back."

Dr. Yunus in Bangladesh with Grameen Borrowers
The time to turn things arounds is always now, and because we don't have all the answers, we need to invest is as many promising ideas as possible.  Failure is not an option, but we must be willing to try things that will fail.  We musn't be afraid to invest in 10 well thought out innovations so as to hit on the two that truly work.  For our part, we are running a randomized control trial to test if our theory of change bears out; but it is incumbent upon us all to, in the words of Dr. Yunus, "Put poverty in museums."

Articles Referenced

Capital Great Blog:

The Fierce Urgency of Now
Financial Coaching + Health: The Need
The Randomized Control Trial Begins!

NY Times:

Older, Suburban and Struggling, 'Near Poor' Startle the Census
Poverty as a Childhood Disease

Academic Pediatrics:

To Create a Better World for Children and Families: The Case for Ending Childhood Poverty

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