One of the most difficult lessons for those of us raised in individualistic cultures is recognizing the difficulty of solving problems that are symptoms of broken systems.
A recent report from NPR offered a great illustration.
Research shows that kids who have tough childhoods — because of poverty, abuse, neglect or witnessing domestic violence, for instance — are actually more likely to be sick when they grow up. They’re more likely to get diseases like asthma, diabetes and heart disease. And they tend to have shorter lives than people who haven’t experienced those difficult events as kids.
When University of Florida Dr. Nancy Hardt consulted Medicaid records, she made a map that showed exactly where Gainesville children were born into poverty. Eventually, she showed the map to show it to Alachua County’s sheriff, Sadie Darnell, who—it turned out—also had a map. Hers was a thermal map of high crime incidence, and it showed that “the highest concentration of crime in Gainesville was in a square-mile area that exactly overlaid Hardt’s poverty map.”
Those crimes included significant levels of domestic violence, child abuse and neglect.
A visit to the area turned up numerous health-related issues: poorly maintained subsidized housing, with tarps covering leaky roofs. Mold and mildew spreading across stucco walls. Poor families that often had trouble getting enough to eat.
There was also an almost total lack of services, including medical care. (The closest place to get routine medical care for the uninsured–and most people in the area were—was the county health department, a two-hour bus trip away.)
The doctor and sheriff also teamed with civic groups to open a family resource center in 2012. Its play area is open to children all day, and there’s a food pantry, free meals, a computer room, AA meetings, and a permanent health clinic.
Initial reports suggest that these measures are improving health and reducing the incidence of crime in the area. But as heartwarming as this story is, it also offers a stinging rebuke to policymakers who refuse to invest public dollars in systemic efforts–who seem unable to grasp the human and fiscal costs of persistent social neglect.
We have copious research confirming that the dollars spent on systems that help children—abating environmental hazards like lead contamination, combatting urban asthma, addressing food deserts, providing safe and enriching early childhood care—ultimately save many more dollars that we don’t have to spend later on medical care, remedial programs, welfare payments and prisons.
We also have depressing research confirming how difficult it is for those born into poverty to escape it; despite those Horatio Alger stories, admonitions about “pulling oneself up by ones bootstraps” and belief in the “American dream,” social mobility in the U.S. is far below that of industrialized countries that do provide these social supports.
Farmers understand that the crop you get depends not just on the seeds you plant, but also how well you fertilize and water them. It isn’t so different with children.