Due to multiple barriers that separate communities based on race and socioeconomic status, a person’s early childhood outcomes, educational attainment and probability of interaction with the criminal justice system often is partially determined by the zip code in which they are born.
The USC Price Center for Social Innovation ignited a conversation among researchers, policymakers and civic actors focused on pathways to opportunity on March 29 at the 2019 Social Innovation Summit.
Prof. Gary Painter, director of the Price Center, (pictured above) asserted that everyone had a moral imperative to forge new paths that expand opportunity for under-resourced communities and historically marginalized populations.
“The challenges we face are complex, they are persistent, and traditional policy levers have failed to close those gaps,” Painter said. “They have failed to catalyze the change that we need to ensure equal access to opportunity. Therefore, we must look at a social innovation approach that identifies new models of social change through the community-driven process of piloting and testing new practices, bringing them to scale and ultimately using these practices to create systems of change.
“I think it’s important to think not just of programs and silos but what are the systems of change that need to exist in order to ensure that everyone, regardless of their zip code, has equal access to opportunity.”
Providing context for the discussion, USC Price School of Public Policy Dean Jack H. Knott noted that recent census data shows that a quarter to one-third of all Americans live in poverty or near poverty, with about half of the population qualifying as low-income. Even in California, the fifth-largest economy in the world, about 20 percent of residents live in poverty.
But he pointed out that this lack of social mobility among generations in the U.S. is not inevitable, that it is caused by our economic policies.
“One key problem is the huge inequality of the educational system depending on where a person lives. Another challenge includes social policies that fail to support women and families in the workforce, and a third is racial discrimination and segregation based on race and income,” Knott said. “Our political system also supports legal frameworks and tax systems that favor the rich over most everyone else, which reinforces economic market trends toward greater income inequality.”
Keynote Speaker Ann Owens, an associate professor of Sociology at USC Dornsife, explained how Los Angeles, like many cities in the U.S., is racially stratified. Graphic information system mapping shows Asians mostly in the San Gabriel Valley, Chinatown and Koreatown, Hispanics mainly on the east side of the city and some south-central neighborhoods, African-Americans clustered above Inglewood and in some central and south-central neighborhoods, and whites clustered around the west side of the city.
To illustrate how neighborhoods matter, she showed how life expectancies in Los Angeles can vary by 12 years for people living within 10 miles of each other.
The neighborhood in which one grows up, often determined by race, also makes a difference in what local pathways to opportunity are available.
She cited a study conducted by Raj Chetty and colleagues following children from low-income families born in the early 1980s into early adulthood. Children raised in central and south-central Los Angeles neighborhoods made less than $25,000 annually in adulthood, about half of the income of children from inland and coastal communities. In one Watts neighborhood, 44 percent of the African-American boys followed were incarcerated by 2010.
“I think there’s now convincing evidence that the neighborhood one grows up in matters for a variety of outcomes – educational attainment, teen parenthood, mental and physical health, incarceration and criminality, economic outcomes in young adulthood and where people live as young adults,” Owens said. “People living in different neighborhoods face different pathways to opportunity with lasting consequences into adulthood.”
Data partnerships to strengthen families
Moderator Jacquelyn McCroskey, a professor at the USC Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, set up the first panel discussion by presenting a study at the Children’s Data Network looking at the risk of being reported to child protective services for babies born in Los Angeles County.
Cumulatively, 15 percent of babies in the county were reported to the child protection hotline with an allegation of abuse or neglect before they enter kindergarten. The highest rates are in the Antelope Valley, and lowest rates in west Los Angeles.
McCroskey attested that, with money coming into early childhood education in Los Angeles County from multiple funding streams, including the federal and state level, and going to at least 500 licensed childcare providers, data is needed about how much money it is and if it is being used effectively.
Carrie Miller of the Los Angeles County Office of Child Protection said that her office was using a report called The Portrait of Los Angeles County created by Measure of America to work with different partners to strengthen communities.
“We know that we’ve got children living in families, but families are living in communities,” Miller said. “We know that we’re not going to make any difference unless we really strengthen communities and support that work moving forward.”
Linda Aragon, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s Division of Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health, talked about developing a county-wide plan to coordinate, enhance, expand and advocate for high-quality home-visiting programs in the county at the request of the Board of Supervisors.
The plan focuses on having a coordinated system that families and providers can easily access, improving and expanding the home-visitor workforce, data collection analysis, maximizing existing funding sources and identifying new streams.
Regan Foust of the Children’s Data Network discussed her work on the Strong Start Index, which created an index of 12 indicators available on birth records that have shown to be related to good outcomes for children along their life course and then geocoded and aggregated the data to the census-track neighborhood level and mapped it across California.
“What you get is really a snapshot of the conditions into which children are being born into California in a variety of communities, and also which communities might need more support so that the children there can grow up on equal footing,” Foust said. “It’s an important tool for policymakers to understand where we might want to target resources.”
Armando Jimenez of First 5 LA, which partnered with the Children’s Data Network on the Strong Start Index, noted the value of this data and how there was very little known about children ages 0 to 5 in the county when he started.
“We want to have this data be able to challenge ourselves as an organization that provides support and services to children that we should do a better job, we should get better outcomes and we should be better at providing and connecting systems for children and families in Los Angeles County,” Jimenez said.
Chan Zuckerberg Initiative leads change makers
David Plouffe, head of policy and advocacy for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (pictured above, right), discussed with Painter the work of the Initiative.
Discussing the Initiative’s work on criminal justice reform, Plouffe said: “My view is that the system is not broken. It operates exactly how it’s designed to. It’s about incarceration and punishment. It’s not about redemption. It’s not about safety.”
To address criminal justice reform, Chan Zuckerberg focuses on three areas: prosecutorial transformation, advocacy and empowering formerly incarcerated individuals to take the lead, and second chances.
“One of the most important decisions in our society is the one a prosecutor makes around charging, and it is not data informed,” Plouffe said. “It is breathtakingly non-data informed.”
With its enormous resources, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative also tries to be a catalyst for change and capacity building, bringing groups together.
“Chan Zuckerberg tries to help groups doing remarkable work on their own to do it better together,” Plouffe said. “My sense in philanthropy is there’s not a lot of conflict and people are rowing roughly in the same direction, but it’s not as coordinated as it could be. You’ve got to be clear there here’s 100 percent of the problem we’re trying to solve and let’s figure out who has got the resources, people, technology, data, relationships, and what’s the best way to put that all together.”
Christine M. Beckman, a visiting professor at the Price School, moderated the day’s second panel.
USC Rossier Prof. Julie Marsh provided a recent report on current conditions and paths forward for California schools that indicated that the state’s education system is headed in the right direction.
She then talked about one policy reform she has been studying, the local control funding formula instituted by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2013 to provide schools additional money for every low-income English learner or foster youth, understanding that such students needed additional resources in order to be fair and just.
Outcomes show that an additional $1,000 per student for grades 10-to-12 led to a 5.9 percent increase in high school graduation rates, with the highest increase among African-Americans.
Jeimee Estrada, a master of public policy graduate from USC Price, serves as a regional vice president of Innovate Public Schools. She spoke about the organization’s work to empower parents as organized leaders of the community that are party of systems change.
“You invest in a core group of leaders who are connected to other parents at that school and you bring them in as decision makers,” Estrada said. “You equip them with the right skills, the right information, and they have the heart to be able to engage.”
She attested that 279 out of the more than 2,000 schools in Los Angeles County are successfully closing the achievement gap for low-income kids of color by getting 80 percent of their graduates into four-year universities.
“That’s not five, that’s not 10 – that’s a lot,” Estrada said. “We know it’s possible and we’ve seen it over the course of the years nationally that closing the achievement gap and getting students to these really high levels is possible. Now it’s about digging deeply into those schools and learning what they’re doing.”
Sunwoo Hwang is the CEO and founder of Sixup, which offers loans to low-income students with the hope of helping them attend the prestigious four-year university they worked hard to get into rather than settle for a two-year community college or less-selective university due to costs.
“Graduation is not the goal,” Hwang said. “The goal is job creation and wealth creation. That’s what we’re focused on. And then you really hit those mobility metrics that allow these students to break generational poverty, help their families, reinvest in their communities, and reinvest back in our system or any other system to help lift the next generation.”
Careers for justice-involved individuals
John MacDonald, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, presented startling numbers to begin the third panel, which he moderated. One in three Americans have been arrested by age 23. Close to 50 percent of individuals released from state prison are rearrested within one year, and that figure is closer to 75 percent in three years.
Moreover, 50 percent of all reported crimes in most cities, including Los Angeles, take place at 5 percent of city addresses.
“We should also talk about restoring places when we’re trying to restore people,” MacDonald said. “The design of the streets and sidewalks of these blocks, the quality of housing, the amount of greenspace, cleanliness of city streets – these things affect whether we walk, the quality of air we breathe, the stress we feel and how safe we think we are from crime. Unhealthy blocks with abandoned buildings and rundown lots equal unhealthy lives. Research shows we can reduce these problems by changing neighborhoods block by block.”
Efty Sharony, director of the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office of Reentry, discussed Project Impact.
“I think the beauty of the project is that we have employment services but there’s also behavioral health services and civil legal services,” Sharony said. “Having that is really a holistic approach to employment services.”
Beverly Parenti, co-founder of The Last Mile, talked about a pilot program funded by the Kellogg Foundation to change the culture inside companies by removing the stigma that seems to follow people who have been incarcerated.
“We’re bringing managers from companies into our correctional facilities to get to know that the people are human beings, people with talent and skills, desires, families and communities,” Parenti said. “… When you look at the media and what our nation and society has in their heads about who these people are, that’s what’s making it so difficult.”
Shanae Polk of 2nd Call (pictured above) was paroled in 2015 after being incarcerated for 17 years after a spiral of events that began with her brother being shot and killed by police when she was a child.
“I realized that even if I didn’t have to check a box that stated I was incarcerated, I already had a wall of rejection,” Polk said. “I already built up a wall that was going to prevent me from applying to be a program director.”
Jeffery T.D. Wallace, president and CEO of LeadersUp, pointed out that African-American males are six-times more likely to be arrested and five-times more likely to be convicted through plea bargains than white males. He called on people to think about how to push employers to shift their practices to be more inclusive, starting with reforming of background checks.
“The reality is that returning citizens need something to return to,” Wallace said. “That return to is usually being able to keep a roof over their head, clothes on their backs, food on their table and provide for their families. The reality is the lack of economic opportunity in these same communities they exited from lacked the economic opportunity to keep them out of the system, so they created their own economic system to provide for their families.”
Painter ended the event by calling it a powerful day and saying that he appreciated the intensity everyone brought to the conversation.
He concluded: “That intensity is what’s going to lead to the kind of changes we all seek to see in our communities so that people, no matter where they come from and regardless of their zip code, have the opportunity to thrive.”