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Thought Leader Uncategorized Philanthropy

Viewing the needs of the community through United Way’s lens

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This post is written in response to “To climb from poverty, metro Atlanta’s poor children need positive role models” by David Pendered posted Jan. 6 in the Saporta Report.

There is a common American narrative saying a kid should be able to go as far as their potential allows. The reality is different and that has inspired the reinvention of United Way of Greater Atlanta.

There are 1.3 million children living in Greater Atlanta’s 13-county region. We have found that 500,000 of those children live in areas of “low or very low” child well-being.

This means they are being raised in communities where the opportunities, resources and social supports children need to reach their full potential are largely unavailable to them. Children living in areas of low child well-being are more likely to grow up in poverty and to live in communities with underperforming schools, limited access to affordable health care, higher rates of unemployment, financial instability and food insecurity.

As you can imagine, this kind of environment takes a toll on these children. They grow up less likely to graduate high school, less prepared for college and careers and more likely to feel the long-term effects of toxic stress.

David Pendered talks about this inequity in opportunity in his article from Jan. 6 in the Saporta Report. He references the latest Opportunity Atlas publication, an October 2018 Harvard study, providing insight into why Atlanta’s children are not climbing economic ladders. Pendered highlights the absence of positive role models for children in impoverished areas as a key reason why so many of Atlanta’s kids are starting off from birth with a disadvantage.

It’s not a lack of access to jobs keeping Atlanta’s children from reaching their potential; it’s that they aren’t seeing adults in their neighborhood going to work, Pendered says.

Viewed through the lens of the United Way of Greater Atlanta, the explanation is more nuanced and complex than that. Although research is clear that role models are powerful influences of a child’s perception of what’s possible for them.

The Opportunity Atlas shows clearly that where kids live and grow up can set real limits on their degree of opportunity to move up in the world. Sure, there are countless examples of children who have overcome tremendous odds and succeed. Unfortunately, they are the exceptions.

United Way’s Child Well-Being Heat Map goes a level deeper than the Opportunity Atlas. The map is based on the Child Well-Being Index , a composite score derived from 14 health, education, poverty and other indicators of children, families and how communities are doing. These indicators have been adopted by dozens of United Way’s partner nonprofits as a way to focus on the most important levers to improve child well-being across the region.

The Greater Atlanta regional Child Well-Being score is 58.9. The 30314 zip code identified in Pendered’s article, has a score of 22.8 — lower than the region as a whole. That low score translates to 50 percent more children born at less than healthy birth weights; 60 percent fewer children meeting or exceeding third-grade reading standards and nearly double the percentage of families without financial stability compared to the region as a whole. These facts suggest the problems and solutions are systemic not individualistic in nature.

United Way takes a place-based approach where the entire community is embraced by a group of supporters with skills and resources to address their complex needs.

United Way’s new placed-based program, Brighter Future, is designed to raise the Child Well-Being scores in Atlanta’s most challenging communities in Clayton County, South Fulton, South DeKalb and Cobb counties. The program will provide school-based mental health to kids, coordinate mentoring, tutoring and academic enrichment activities and provide legal and financial support for families.

Another example of how United Way funds programs for adults to keep them in jobs and give them the opportunity for a career is through the Women’s United Advancement Initiative.

Today, there are 200,000 single women listed as the heads of their household in the Greater Atlanta area, with more than 40 percent of these women earning income below federal poverty level. Lack of childcare and early learning programs can keep them out of the workforce or cause them to quit a job.

United Way’s Women United Advancement Initiative attempts to remove barriers women face in order to let them reach their full potential.

By using the child as the lens, United Way can then identify the big picture needs of families and the community. Once we make sure our children are well, then the rest will follow.

We are tackling the complex task of improving child well-being in Greater Atlanta. We’ve taken a data-driven approach which drives the work we do, and ultimately it will help us reach our goal of improving the well-being of 250,000 children by 2027.

We can’t do this alone, though. We encourage you to volunteer, give and become our community advocate for the work we are doing. A collaboration of services is necessary to make the biggest impact.

We understand communities cannot thrive unless our children thrive. The problem has been identified, and we are actively working to reverse the implications of the Child Well-Being map.

Together, we will not let a zip code determine a child’s destiny. Join the Child Well-Being Movement today.


Milton J. Little, Jr. is President and CEO of United Way of Greater Atlanta.

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