In a ceremony today at the University of Memphis, Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton and Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter announced the launch of a new Child Impact Reporting System. This is good news for our children and families.
In many ways, the community we will be in twenty years depends on the children born today. These children will enter kindergarten in five years. They will graduate from high school in eighteen years. They should be members of the University of Memphis Class of '31.
What do we know about these children?
In the last year, approximately 15,000 children were born in Shelby County. More than half of these children were born into poverty. The majority of children born into poverty in Shelby County (approximately 6,600 each year) are actually living in "dire poverty" (meaning that a family of three earns less than $9,000 income in a year).
This means that every year, more than half of the children born in Shelby County are born into families that lack access to the fundamental resources and opportunities that promote optimal social, emotional and cognitive development and that protect children from exposure to harmful factors, such as sickness, crime and toxic stress.
Impoverishment is particularly dangerous during the earliest years of life. As much as 80 percent of a child's brain develops between birth and age three, laying the foundation for that child's later success in school and life. The quality of a child's earliest developmental experiences links directly to the type of parent, employee and citizen they will become.
It is in our shared interest as a community to reduce the number of children born into economic and social impoverishment each year. By age three, children in the poorest families have vocabularies a third as large as children from affluent families (Hart and Risley 1995). By kindergarten, children from poor families have cognitive scores 40 percent below children from affluent families (Lee and Burkham 2002). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the greatest public health threat to children and families does not come from disease. It comes from social environments that lack healthy food, safe housing, living-wage jobs, decent schools, supportive social networks, and access to health care (CDC 2003). This describes the lives of too many of our children and families.
In the classroom, children from poor families are more likely to exhibit behavior problems, and they are more likely to be held back. More than half of all children in Shelby County born into poverty drop out before they finish high school.
When they become adults, children who grow up in poverty have a harder time finding decent jobs. They are less likely to have the skills they will need in tomorrow's workplace; and they are more likely to live in poverty as adults. Child poverty reduces the GDP of the Memphis metro area by hundreds of millions of dollars each year (CUCP 2009).
We cannot afford to let current trends continue when it comes to the lifetime development of infants, children and youth in our community.
The good news is that we understand a great deal about how to improve the well-being of our children. 40 years of careful scientific research tells us that:
- Children grow up in an environment of relationships,
- The strength and stability of those relationships strongly influences the adult that a child will become,
- The earlier we intervene to strengthen those relationships the better (Ziegler 2009).
In developing a Child Impact Reporting System, Shelby County is exhibiting tremendous foresight: First, by using the best available information on the condition of children to inform policy decisions and, second, by recognizing that the health and stability of our community both now and in the future is intertwined with the well-being of all our children.
Ultimately, the Child Impact Reporting System is an opportunity to place children on a preferred pathway through school and life. In turn, this initiative offers an opportunity to reduce the costs associated with crime, increase tax revenue, develop an educated, productive workforce, and strengthen the odds that successive generations of children are born into stable families able to draw upon a rich fund of family, neighborhood, business and governmental supports built around the central place of children in our community.
Shelby County is taking a step in the right direction through its efforts to make research-informed public policy to improve the well-being of all our children.
For related policy briefs on the developmental importance of early childhood and the conditions in which children are growing up in Shelby County, visit the Center for Urban Child Policy, The Urban Child Institute, and The Urban Child Institute Databook .
To learn more about the Shelby County Child Impact Reporting System, visit the Shelby County Office of Early Childhood and Youth.