Ace and King Holdem.


When the Deck Seems Stacked, Helping Kids Beat the Odds

Jonathan Zaff Executive Director

Where you live can determine where you’ll go. That’s the big take-away from a recent study conducted by economist and McArthur “genius” award winner Raj Chetty and his team at Harvard.

Overall, growing up in a high-poverty neighborhood substantially hurts your chances of moving up the economic ladder. Born into poverty in L.A., Chicago, or the Bronx? Your economic and educational opportunities are constrained. Your chances of becoming a teen parent rise.

You could move to Providence (Rhode Island), San Francisco, or Salt Lake City, where your economic, educational, and social chances would improve, but that’s hardly practical or even possible for most. The answer has to lie in community-wide efforts to improve opportunities for all, wherever they live.

In our work at the Center for Promise, we continue to identify high-poverty communities that have transformed the opportunities for children, youth and families and improved academic and economic outcomes. Three such communities – East Lake in Atlanta (Georgia), Parramore in Orlando (Florida), and East Durham (North Carolina) – offer hope to other communities. They’ve reduced violence, increased early childhood readiness, and boosted elementary and secondary school academic outcomes.

Another important finding from Chetty and his colleagues: Improving a community helps young people, whether they are infants or adolescents. The effects add up over young lifetimes, adding to a mountain of data showing the benefits of investing in early childhood.

Investing in adolescents is hardly a lost cause, whether early or late. Research shows that young people continue to develop cognitively and emotionally, leaving room for interventions that can change lives.

We heard that loud and clear from the young people who participated in our study, Don’t Call Them Dropouts. These young adults too often faced life obstacles that far outweighed their capacity to overcome them – and yet, they sometimes found a way to succeed.

Some young people re-engaged with inspiring programs – like YouthBuild, Learning Works at Homeboy Industries, and the United Teen Equality Center – which built on their strengths and offered a constellation of relationships that provided the emotional support and life guidance they were missing.

For young adults whose first homes created obstacles instead of reducing them, these centers became second homes that opened doors. Where they live now will determine where they can go.

And that’s what we want for all our kids.

Jon Zaff is the Executive Director of the Center for Promise.