Region Forward Blog

Really moving the Region Forward requires getting a check on rising childhood poverty in metro Washington

Oct 5, 2012


Carol Thompson Cole President of Venture Philanthropy Partners

Our children are in crisis.

Metropolitan Washington is one of the most affluent communities in the world yet families and children are living in poverty as profound as in some developing countries. And despite the best efforts of many people over the years including VPP things aren’t getting better they are getting worse.

I was born and raised in this region – in Washington DC. I am the eldest of six children and my parents were far from wealthy. But as a young person growing up here I always had the strong sense that the community felt it had a stake in my success and cared enough to support me at critical junctures of my personal and professional development.

Today that feels like ancient history.

More than 1.5 million children and youth call this region home. The communities where they live are separated by state and city boundaries political ideologies parochial interests and two rivers that sometimes feel more like oceans.

To help bridge these gaps VPP commissioned Capital Kids: Shared Responsibility Shared Future. The report paints a statistical portrait of our children and youth – including how their opportunities differ by where they live. There is a large and growing gap in this region between those who have the opportunities and resources to live a productive life and those who don’t.

Capital Kids shows that it is the economic and educational differences among our communities that really divide us and pinpoints the barriers and opportunities that will influence our young people’s odds of future success. And it provides a road map for the underlying issues we must tackle as a region if all of our kids are to have a shot at making it over the finish line.

At VPP we believe every child deserves the opportunity to become a successful and productive adult. No matter their circumstances or background most of our children start out dreaming the same dreams and hoping the same hopes—until somewhere along the way they reach a barrier too high or an obstacle they cannot navigate.

And so VPP partnered with Child Trends to develop Capital Kids because we knew that without a shared region-wide understanding of the underlying issues keeping our young people from success we don’t have a chance of solving them.

I’ve worked on issues related to improving the quality of life of all citizens in this region for most of my career but I found plenty of food for thought in this report:

  • As always poverty is the #1 issue – and it is increasingly becoming an issue for even the region’s wealthiest suburbs;
  • The rising number of children who are not proficient in English is creating new challenges for many jurisdictions;
  • The fact that males particularly African Americans continue to be on the wrong side of an achievement gap in key areas such as reading which is often an indicator of future success—that’s a trend we cannot continue to ignore;
  • And the shocking number of young people who have dropped out of the system altogether.

So why does any of this matter? Why should an elected official in Fairfax County care about test scores in Prince George’s County? What stake does the school superintendent of Montgomery County have in whether the children of Ward 8 graduate from high school? And why should DC care about trends affecting Prince William County?

The answer is simple. The well-being of each jurisdiction affects the region’s overall economic engine. When a child doesn’t succeed regardless of where he or she lives we all pay a price—in lower tax revenue lost earnings and increased spending on health public safety and welfare assistance.

A recent study by the White House Council for Community Solutions put some of these costs into real dollars. When a 16-year-old checks out of the system it cost taxpayers $258000 and imposes a total social burden of $755900. For metro Washington this translates into a taxpayer burden of as much as $3 billion and a social burden cost of nearly $10 billion!

This region has a reputation for having a transient population but the reality is that most of the young people raised here will stick around. Today’s youth will play a significant role in shaping our region’s economic and social well-being over the long-term and we cannot afford to ignore them.

I want to challenge everyone reading this and our leaders throughout the region to join us on a journey. In this time of economic uncertainty and looming austerity we know that non-profits can’t do it alone. Government can’t do it alone. Business can’t do it alone. However if all these sectors work together we have a shot at making it happen.

If you want to learn more about Capital Kids click here to visit the site – you can download the report and explore all the data online. We are also asking people to submit their hopes and dreams for the children and youth of our region as a way to begin the conversation about what we can do to strengthen our communities.


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