A Tale of Two Children

... investments in our children's well-being are the smartest investments we can make ... (Tweet this!)

Tiffany and Briana live a few miles from each other, but their lives are worlds apart.

Five-year-old Tiffany lives in South Memphis, where the stress of her family's poverty is an everyday presence in her life. There is regular talk about lack of money and blight in the neighborhood and warnings that she should come in before dark. In just a few weeks, she will enter kindergarten, and it's an idea that makes her nervous and apprehensive.

Tiffany lives with her brother and her mother, who dropped out of school to give birth to her. Tiffany says her best friend, Caren, has already "gone to school," because she attended Head Start classes. Tiffany's mother tried to enroll Tiffany, but Head Start isn't funded enough to serve all eligible children. As a result, Caren, who is her age, recites the alphabet, reads Anno's Counting Book and has benefitted from being in a quality early childhood setting.

Tiffany thinks that her best friend must be smarter than she is, and she hopes they won't be in the same kindergarten classroom because she doesn't want to be embarrassed in front of her friend.

Meanwhile, a few miles away, Briana excitedly asks her parents every morning how many days are left before she can enter kindergarten. Nothing about it intimidates her, because a learning environment is very familiar to Briana. She's attended quality child care since she was a toddler, and she's been getting a book every month since she was born because her parents, before they even left the hospital after her birth, signed her up for the Shelby County Books From Birth. Her parents have been reading her books almost every night for years and encouraging her to read as well.

Briana is not smarter than Tiffany, but her advantages make her more ready to enter school and to learn. While there is no question that demographics are not destiny, Tiffany's mother is racked by a feeling that there is no way to escape the poverty that grinds down her hopes and dreams and to give her daughter better chances for her life. But lack of money is only part of the story. The stress that often accompanies economic hardship means that low-income parents often have fewer social and emotional resources as well – less time and energy and fewer support networks.

It is not that Tiffany's mother doesn't care. In fact, it's just the opposite, but family incomes affect the quality of a child's environment in profound ways. Parents with adequate incomes are better able to provide their children with books, enriching experiences and activities, and high-quality childcare. Without the weight of poverty and the stressors associated with it, they tend to have the time and emotional energy to talk more with their children – sharing not only language and vocabulary but also the learning that comes through life stories and experiences. With this underpinning, children from families with higher incomes tend to do better in school. Additionally, poor and low-income mothers are more likely to be affected by stress, anxiety, and depression, which can undermine positive parenting.

No one is preordaining Tiffany's future. In fact, some of our community's leading citizens have surmounted similar barriers, but their inspirational examples can't obscure an inescapable fact: too many of our children like Tiffany face school and life with an unlevel playing field that threatens optimal brain development, reduces school readiness, and impedes positive behavioral development.

Most troubling of all is that Tiffany is becoming more the rule than the exception. Fewer than half of the children in Shelby County are economically secure; more than half of those who are economically insecure live in poverty and 15% live in extreme, concentrated poverty. The odds of climbing the income ladder in Memphis are low.

It's been said that where children grow up matters, and that is especially true in Shelby County. Sixty percent of Memphis children live with a single, unmarried parent and 39% live in poverty while 77% of children in suburban Shelby County live in households with married parents and nine percent live in poverty.

These are some of the important data in our recently released 2013 Data Book: The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County.

All the data, insights, and research in the Data Book lead us to this incontrovertible statement: investments in our children's well-being are the smartest investments we can make (Tweet this!) in our community's future.