Are We There Yet? The Push For Complete Communities
The previous chapters on living, working and moving do not, of course, sum up all the things Americans need in order to thrive. We also need exercise and clean air, safe neighborhoods, good schools and quality childcare, healthy and affordable food, parks, shops, arts and culture — and a “built environment” in which all of this is available to people regardless of age or income or whether they can drive. but if indeed the “quality of human capital” is a key indicator of whether regions and the U.S. as a whole will be able to compete in the global economy — as discussed in the economist Intelligence Unit report at the beginning of the Working chapter — then we also need to invest in human development, an essential element of thriving.
This point was persuasively made by the Low Income Investment Fund (LIIF), a national community development finance institution that serves as a steward for capital in community-building initiatives, in a 2009 report entitled “Coming Out As a Human Capitalist.”
“Recent research is making the case that the communities we live in can help or harm us at every level — physically, socially, emotionally,” LIIF CEO Nancy Andrews and Christopher Kramer write. “These effects can stay with us for the rest of our lives. There is a revolution in knowledge afoot that demonstrates convincingly that investing in people, especially in children, is every bit as important as investing in markets and buildings.”
The report discusses the growing evidence that children exposed to poverty suffer from actual impairment of brain function because they experience a level of stress — from family turmoil, substandard housing and overcrowding, neighborhood and/or family violence, frequent relocation — that results in a reduction of working memory. This, in turn, affects their ability to learn and limits their chances of success.
Housing costs currently consume 66 percent of a poor household’s budget, according to the report, leaving less than $500 a month for everything else — less than $20 a day to feed the children, and pay for transportation, health care, books, clothing and recreation. “This is a budget of deprivation,” the authors write, “where families are often forced to choose between the rent and food, between heating and eating. Conditions like this can produce high levels of stress, poor nutrition and poor health. They can be crushing, especially to young children. . . . We must understand that our vision cannot be community development alone, but rather community and human development together.”
Our report is largely about the community development part of the equation — how the built environment and choices about housing, jobs and transportation can set us up for success or failure according to a number of metrics. In this chapter we broaden this discussion to include factors such as public health and access to quality education and childcare. But as the LIIF report makes clear, affordability and access to economic opportunity really are key to determining whether many of us will thrive, or only some of us, and this will determine whether America will remain competitive.