The Opportunity Forums: The Crucial Early Childhood Years

  Indicators Report 2015 cover


Foundation Launches “Opportunity Forums,” Releases 2015 Boston Indicators Report

The gap between rich and poor has grown so dramatically that the wealthiest 5 percent of Boston residents now have household incomes 54 times greater than their counterparts in the bottom 20 percent. That’s one of the findings Boston Indicators Project Director Jessica Martin presented to more than 200 people September 22 at the first of three Boston Foundation forums focused on opportunity and upward mobility.

Since the Great Recession in 2008, Boston has lost middle-income families while logging a dramatic rise in the number of households earning under $10,000 or over $100,000 a year. Martin laid out the possible causes: some 85 percent of the jobs added since the recession pay only $718 a week or less (roughly half the citywide average), median household income has declined by 4 percent since 1990 when adjusted for inflation, and the cost of living in Greater Boston remains 28 percent higher than the national average, according to the Boston Indicators Report released Tuesday.

“Boston is the third-most unequal city behind San Francisco and Atlanta,” said Paul S. Grogan, Boston Foundation President and CEO, who noted that one of the reasons the wealth gap is so large is “because of the success we’ve had in building an innovation economy.” But the downside, he noted, is the “harsh punishment” such a knowledge-based economy inflicts on people who don’t have college degrees or other postsecondary credentials.

The September 22 forum was devoted to the crucial early childhood years, with expert panelists discussing two key elements that contribute to a child’s ability to be successful in life: a healthy birth and quality early education. Moderator Mary Jo Meisner, Boston Foundation Vice President of Communications, Community Relations and Public Affairs, asked what steps are needed to “really start improving the early childhood experience and setting disadvantaged children on a path to economic mobility.”

Renee Boynton-Jarrett, a pediatrician and Founding Director of the Vital Village Network at Boston Medical Center, advocated a two-generational strategy that begins with the mother’s pregnancy to give children the best, most equitable start in life. The fact that the percentage of low-birth-weight babies born in Boston has not changed for the past 15 years is a “window into a missed opportunity” to provide prenatal care and other services to expectant mothers, she said. “We need to challenge ourselves for not moving the needle.”

She also urged greater collaboration among educators, parents, health-care providers, government agencies and nonprofits. “Health problems are not going to be solved in a clinical setting,” she said, noting the importance of safe neighborhoods and many other socioeconomic factors.

Cherie A. Craft, Executive Director of Smart from the Start, stressed the importance of engaging with families and helping them meet their own needs. “Families are the constant. It’s impossible for them to plot their 2-year-old’s path to college if they can’t keep food on the table or the lights turned on,” she said. “Preventing the achievement gap in the first place is a lot more effective than trying to close it after it exists.”

The Commonwealth’s Commissioner of Early Education and Care, Thomas L. Weber, affirmed the Baker Administration’s commitment to early education and said this is a “ripe moment” for change. “At a macro level, our biggest challenge is complacency,” he said, noting that while Massachusetts has distinguished itself in K-12 education, “we’re not moving enough on early ed and higher ed.” He is focused, he said, on “how do we go forward intelligently?” to serve the highest-needs children in a sustained effort that begins “earlier than preschool and continues through the early elementary years.”

Jason Sachs, Director of Early Childhood for the Boston Public Schools, noted that while the district is serving 2,200 4-year-olds a year, public schools are not designed for the ways very young children should be learning. Institutionally, “we have structural/institutional reasons that get in the way of doing the right thing,” he said. And sometimes, Bostonians are more interested in figuring out a problem and trying to take credit for it nationally rather than looking around for solutions and collaborators that already exist, he said. He advocated for trying different approaches in small, grassroots efforts and then scaling them up if their success is documented. 

Allison Bauer, the Senior Director of Health and Wellness at the Boston Foundation, told the gathering about the Boston Foundation’s new Health Starts at Home Initiative, which sees stable, affordable housing as an important foundation for good health.

Download the PowerPoint presentation from the forum.

Read WBUR's story on the report and listen to Bob Oakes’ full Morning Edition interview with Jessica Martin, Director of the Boston Indicators Project.

Read the Boston Globe's coverage of the report release.