By Mary Kelly Persyn, Associate, Ramsey & Ehrlich
Countless urban neighborhoods are drowning in a miserable mix of poverty, bad schools, food-deserts lacking grocery stores and food-swamps providing an overabundance of fast food (I’ve written previously in this space about health care reform and the power of real food), and a dearth of jobs. Every year, countless non-profit community agencies provide a stunning number of hours of service to these communities. Yet intergenerational poverty maintains its stubborn, iron grip. Time and again, children drop out of school and face pathless futures.
It’s easier to design solutions to discrete problems than to back up and look at an entire social system. And so we try to improve the educational lot of poor children by spending more money per child, by lowering the teacher-to-student ratio, by going “back to basics,” or some other idea intended to leave no child behind. But think of all that these approaches leave to the side: healthy, fresh food, without which children cannot retain facts and learn how to think; physical education opportunities, without which children are at a much higher risk of obesity; public safety, without which children live amidst the kind of stress and fear that fractures their ability to learn; and child care, without which children lack the kind of consistent adult guidance necessary to sustained learning. And we haven’t even touched health care.
The scenario is similar if an agency tries to move the needle on unemployment by improving only an individual’s job-seeking skills. We’ve left aside job development (are there even jobs to apply for?); public transit (where is the job, and can the person get there?); child care (who takes care of the children while Mom and Dad are working?); job skills; and -- critically important but often overlooked -- financial management skills like budgeting, saving, and improving credit scores.
We face a situation where nothing seems to work -- the best-executed and best-intended interventions fail to move the needle, year after year after painful year.
But where nothing works, everything might.
Think about it. What if we tried to solve an entire set of interconnected problems at once?
Sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it?