Investing in What Works: Toward Healthy, Prosperous Communities

Dec 5, 2012, 10:15 AM

Investing in What Works

Will we ever see the end of poverty in the United States? An “Investing in What Works for America’s Communities” event held December 4 in Washington, D.C., looked at the evidence and leading examples toward doing just that. The event, sponsored by the Low Income Investment Fund, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and The Citi Foundation, convened top community and economic development experts, analysts, financiers, researchers, philanthropists, and public policymakers from across the nation to share their findings and efforts for improving communities and discussing the next steps toward reversing record high rates of poverty. Reducing poverty, said participants, also goes hand in hand with making communities more sustainable and healthy places to live, learn, work, play, and grow.

The event was a showcase for the book, Investing in What Works for America’s Communities, in which essays from more than 40 experts in a variety of fields provide innovative ideas and concepts that are transforming community involvement and providing sustainable and healthy neighborhoods across the nation. More than 500 people from all backgrounds of public health to private sectors of the government were in attendance, either in person or through the live webcast.

A key theme that resonated with all speakers was that to really make progress in eliminating poverty and creating healthier communities, all sectors would need to work together. People working in “health, job training, housing, and education don’t know each other’s world’s well enough to identify the opportunity for a breakthrough,” said Sara Wartell, president of the Urban Institute.

Combining public and private funds is an effective strategy to arrange resources in poverty-stricken neighborhoods to create a sustainable community with homes, schools, jobs, early learning centers, and health and recreational facilities. In assuring that everyone has a chance to thrive in their environment, there needs to be communication from the federal to community levels. A common language must be used to discuss strengths in research and determine the most effective ways to tackle the growing epidemic of poverty in a way that is pertinent to a particular community, said participants. David Erickson of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco said, “We need to be humble. The reality is that we need to work together, there cannot be any more siloed approaches.”

Elaine Arkin of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, emphasizes the need for accessible evidence-based approaches and metrics in an effort to view community data and look at the measure of health.  Community developers are critical in their role of supporting healthy lifestyles by planning sidewalks, parks, and other open spaces in convenient locations, making healthy food choices readily available, and creating accessible health care centers that incorporate both primary and specialty health services.  “In this country we can no longer look at the community development and development of people’s lives separately,” states Elaine Arkin.  Programs like County Health Rankings & Roadmaps are a viable example in determining the health risks in a neighborhood or community through critical metrics to benchmark direct change in the lives of community members.

Strong data and shared goals provide the backbone for accountability and a commitment to change. Panelists said we’re not quite there yet. “It’s about creating the kind of society we want to have. Don’t we all want every kid to be able to read by third grade? Don’t we want all moms to get prenatal care? We all want this—we just don’t have ways to hold ourselves accountable in the places where we live.”

Though metrics are critical, so is the framing in approaching community change. “You don’t define a community by what’s wrong with it but by what’s strong with it,” was the rallying cry of Angela Blanchard, president and CEO of Neighborhood Centers Inc. Blanchard was part of a panel on success stories for transforming communities. “We had this idea that you can change a whole neighborhood on the backs of a clinic or school,” said Blanchard. “What surprises me is that this really works.”

Though panelists acknowledged that there’s a long road ahead, the day of sharing what really works to create healthier, sustainable communities left the room feeling optimistic about the future.

“We can end poverty,” closed Erickson. “And we have a moral obligation to do so.” 

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.