Doing Better at Doing Good

Doing Better: Reversing cycle of poverty requires sustained, holistic approach

CorrespondentsDecember 7, 2013 

During a season of giving thanks, we have the chance to reflect on those in our communities who have less – and to commit ourselves to working with them to make things better. In North Carolina, there is no shortage of opportunities.

According to recent Kids Count data, for example, 26 percent of the children in our state live in poverty (the 11th worst rate in the country). Even worse, 41 percent of children born into single-parent households live in poverty. Further, more than 600,000 African-American and Hispanic children live below 200 percent of the poverty line (which is currently set by the federal government at $23,550 for a family of four). And recent census data shows poverty rates throughout the state continuing to increase.

When families have been trapped in poverty for more than three generations, living members usually cannot pass along the intellectual, social, or cultural capital needed to escape poverty – limiting access to financial means, education opportunities, or helpful connections. This cycle of poverty perpetuates from generation to generation, exacerbating social isolation and reducing chances to break the cycle without outside intervention.

Fortunately, there are emerging models of intervention that offer some hope. Back in 1995, East Lake Meadows in Atlanta was a picture of concentrated poverty. At the time, 40 percent of the homes were unlivable, 96 percent of families lived below the poverty line, the crime rate was 18 times the national average, and only 5 percent of fifth graders met or exceeded math standards.

Holistic approach

Moved to action, local real estate developer and philanthropist Tom Cousins partnered with Atlanta Housing Authority President and CEO Renée Glover, resident leader Eva Davis, and local business leaders to develop a holistic approach for revitalizing the community. This included building new mixed-income housing, opening a public charter school with rigorous academic standards, constructing a YMCA, and bringing in an array of services ranging from child care to youth programming to employment readiness and placement.

The community’s subsequent turnaround has been nothing short of amazing. In less than a generation, the percentage of employed low-income adults went from 13.5 percent to 70 percent. Crime in the neighborhood declined by 73 percent, and violent crime is down 90 percent. After having gone without private investment for almost 40 years, the revitalization of East Lake has attracted more than $175 million in new residential and commercial investment – helping boost local home values and catalyzing development in neighboring communities.

Replicating the model

The neighborhood school, The Charles R. Drew Charter School – once the lowest-performing elementary school in the Atlanta Public School system – is now the highest performing school in Georgia on state tests, with the middle school ranking fourth in the state. Serving approximately 1,000 students from pre-K through eighth grade (the vast majority receiving free and reduced lunch), Drew focuses on science, technology, engineering, the arts, and technology (STEAM). This past August, the opening of a nearby high school extended the cradle-to-college pipeline in the community.

Inspired by this success, Purpose Built Communities was established in 2009 to replicate this development model in other areas of concentrated urban poverty. Now led by Atlanta’s former Mayor Shirley Franklin, the nonprofit is currently working with Network Members in eight communities nationally, including Charlotte.

With the support of Purpose Built Communities, the Renaissance West Community Initiative is spearheading the revitalization of the old Boulevard Homes on the west side of Charlotte. With a median household income of $14,034, the community had five times the city’s violent crime average in 2008 and only 25 percent of area school children scored at or above grade level on statewide tests.

Reverse poverty cycles

Through a coordinated public-private effort led by local community leaders to revitalize the community and reverse poverty cycles, the Initiative’s “cradle-to-career” master plan includes a K-8 charter school, a five-star early childhood development center, greenway connections to the Southview Recreation Center, and a community green space featuring trails and fields. To support its “educational village” concept, a local developer in partnership with the Charlotte Housing Authority, has received $20.9 million in federal HOPE VI funding complemented by $12 million in city funding for infrastructure and housing revitalization funding. Subsequently, 110 senior apartments are almost completed with more than 200 mixed-income family residences under construction and planned.

This holistic, sustained, purposeful approach is what is needed to break the binds of poverty. Now how we can scale this approach to more of our communities – and offer us all greater reason to give thanks?

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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