“Too Small to Fail” or Too Big to Succeed?

A reflection on Hillary Clinton's new initiative and its potential for success--or failure--in urban communities.

While pundits speculate and pontificate on the future political career of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state seems not to be concentrating on 2016—at least, not for now. Last week, Clinton announced the “Too Small to Fail” initiative, a venture of the Clinton Foundation (created by her husband, former President Bill Clinton) and Next Generation—a nonpartisan group that promotes scientific research about early childhood development. A well-polished four-minute clip on the project’s site highlights what many of us have known for some time: the most critical years for any child are the early developmental stages, between the ages of 0-5. Colorful images of healthy parents with their healthy young children playing and reading were complemented by experts briefly discussing the importance of everything from nutrition to brain development.  Calling on communities, individuals, and businesses to serve as partners, the video seems more like a vision statement than a plan of action.

The focus is commendable, and the support from non-profits and corporations, alike—I am sure—will follow. From a moral standpoint, I feel we can learn a lot about a nation by how it treats its most vulnerable, which is what gives me pause. With all of our social programs, and countless organizations claiming to concentrate on child welfare issues, none have successfully addressed the increasing education, opportunity, and development gaps that exist among children in the United States. So while this organization is in its infancy stage, I have one simple question for Hillary Clinton: how are you any different?  We will get a better sense of how to answer that question moving forward, but there are four things that immediately pop in my head and I will be paying close attention to:

  • Collaboration with affected communities— Renowned experts and well-intentioned individuals may have led government-sponsored programs like the “War on Drugs” and “No Child Left Behind,” or non-profit initiatives, such as “Teach for America” but such efforts, however, are not new to criticisms about their lack of community inclusion in the creation of programmatic initiatives.  This often leads to resistance from communities that feel that their opinions are undervalued or not considered at all; unfulfilled promises and unmet expectations; and the ultimate failure—no change at all.  “Too Small to Fail” not only needs to clearly articulate its goals, but also incorporate statements of community partnership and consultation, with a recognition that investment and buy-in from the community will lead to sustainable progress.
  • Targeting disparities in day-to-day living—A blanket approach to tackling development in children is not going to work. Studies show that a poor child is likely to hear millions fewer words at home than a child from a professional family. Research highlighted in the book “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children” (Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley) revealed that children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour, compared to 1200 words per hour in working class families, and 2100 words per hour in professional families.  Now consider the following statistics by the National Center of Children in Poverty:
    • 32.4 million children live in low-income families;
    • 16.1 million of those children living in poor families;
    • 65 percent of black children live in low-income families, compared to 31 percent of white children;
    • 86 percent of children with parents who have less than a high school degree live in low- income families.

What does this mean? In short, before a poor child reaches the age of 1, he or she has already fallen behind middle-class children in their ability to talk, understand and learn.  This likelihood increases if you are a poor black child.  We cannot target children without targeting their caretakers, and it will be interesting to see what solutions (if any) “Too Small to Fail” will introduce to address these disparities.

  • Recognizing non-traditional employment opportunities—It is encouraging to hear that ‘Too Small to Fail” will aim to work with the workforce to support practices that support workers—and thus support children.  There are so many workers, however, that do odds and ends jobs just to make a living for their families. Furthermore, the demands of the current economic climate are forcing already overworked families to pursue any opportunity for revenue just to meet basic needs. A broader lens is therefore needed to identify the various kinds of employment and be inclusive of “under the table” jobs, which often do not entail a W-2 form.
  • Understanding the impact of a child’s demographic—A 2009 study by the Urban Institute focused on the impact a child’s living environment has on development. An organization today cannot afford to shy away from the various forms of trauma that exist for many urban youth, including the more obvious ones—such as gun violence and crime—and even more subtle, less discussed ones—such as the impact of being raised by a teen parent, exposure to paramilitary-like school systems, and the residual impact of incarceration. The desire for each child to reach their full potential is incomplete if there is a failure to explore how one’s address can change how you think and develop.

I am cautiously optimistic about “Too Small to Fail.”  Only time will tell if this infant organization will develop into a fully-grown solution.

Ify Ike is a former Capitol Hill advisor and counsel, with experience on a variety of social justice issues.  She is an original blogger of the faith-blog “The Bold and Fabulous,” founder of the policy and communications firm, Ike Professionals, LLC, and has assisted numerous ministries in program creation, youth outreach efforts, community service, and natural disaster relief.  At least once a day, you can find her in a debate about politics or religion.

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