By Aaron Greenberg
Special to the TJP
DALLAS — New numbers on childhood poverty place Dallas at the top of the nation’s largest cities, with a staggering 40 percent of children under age 6 in families below the poverty line.
“No. 1 in one area we are not proud of,” said Dallas Federation Board Chair Dan Prescott.
The Jewish Community Relations Council has launched an initiative to do something about it, putting early childhood education at the forefront of a new effort.
The statistics are even worse when you take into account factors left out of the federal formula, which has gone unchanged since 1964, according to Dr. Timothy Bray, the director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research at UT-Dallas.
Bray said nearly 600,000 Dallas residents — and two-thirds of the city’s children — are in or close to poverty.
“This was Detroit 10 years ago,” Bray said. “Detroit is saying we’re Detroit. They are saying we have to do something.”
That’s why the JCRC Education Initiative was spurred to action, teaming with Bray to educate and rally the Jewish community.
“Through research, we settled on high-quality early childhood education,” said Rabbi Michael Kushnick, an initiative co-chair. “We learned from Dr. Bray and others, learning from them where our resources can best be put.”
The JCRC Education Initiative held a kickoff event at the JCC, Thursday, Sept. 8 to explain the facts and provide a focal point to local leaders and volunteers.
“It is vital that the Dallas Jewish community be a partner in the community where we live,” Prescott said. “As Jews, it is our obligation to leave the world better than we found it.”
Prescott and other speakers focused on how 90 percent of a child’s mind is developed by age 5. Children in families in or near poverty are especially at risk of being behind their peers.
“That is one of the reasons this education initiative was created,” Kushnick said, citing early childhood education as one of the best methods to break the cycle.
JCRC Chair Melanie Rubin also spoke about how committee members discovered their impact point and what it entails.
”We think about what families are experiencing,” she said. “They are coming to school not ready. Some of these gaps are showing even before they are 1.”
Students up to third grade are learning to read, and after that point they are reading to learn, she said. So if they are behind by third grade, it is almost impossible to catch up.
“Quality counts,” Rubin said, citing what makes early childhood education work — things like better-trained teachers and lower child-teacher ratios.
She also addressed the poor minimum requirements for child care centers.
“Higher quality education does help,” she said. “Eight percent of Dallas County child care is high-quality.”
She called for what the JCRC has labeled a “two-generation solution.”
That means working with parents, giving them tools to succeed, and empowering the child as well.
And this isn’t simply an effective point in fighting poverty — Rubin believes it’s one that is doable with the willpower and resources of the Jewish community.
Picking the right target and method are vital.
“We are fighting a war on poverty with the wrong tools,” Bray said. “The solution isn’t simply giving people more money. We have to radically change what we do.”
Changing the conversation can be hard, especially when people see positive changes in struggling neighborhoods. In many cases, he said, the impoverished move and become invisible to those who see only the progress.
“Those people don’t live there anymore,” he said. “Politicians say, ‘Look what we did.’ But we improved the neighborhood for the next set of residents.”
In the concentrated poverty neighborhoods, however, “You begin to see retail opportunities dry up,” Bray said. “Healthy grocery opportunities dry up. Education opportunities dry up.”
Because of this, he believes many efforts miss their mark or address only effects.
“There is a much broader solution needed than passing a bill,” Bray said. “There’s a whole slew of tactics we must use. This lived experience of poverty is transformative for those who go through it.”
“Poverty is so complex,” he said while answering an attendee’s question about limiting the scope of the effort. “There’s not one way to address it. We tried to explain what we can do. We can’t solve poverty by ourselves. We are going to tackle one specific issue and hope to bring change.”
Anita Zusman Eddy, the JCRC executive director, said the event “far exceeded our initial expectations.”
About 40 people were originally expected, but more than twice that number registered, forcing a larger venue.
“I think everybody is excited and looking forward,” she said.
“We can move the ball in an area where we have an impact.”
The JCRC Education Initiative is now seeking volunteers to commit to the early childhood education effort and to attend some upcoming education, service, and policy events.
Early Matters, an early education coalition, will hold a summit at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 1 with Gen. Colin Powell at the Meyerson.
For more information on the initiative, call 214-615-5293, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit jewishdallas.org/jcrc.