Remarks of Secretary Shaun Donovan at the TEDCity 2.0 Conference

Friday, September 20, 2013
New York, NY

As delivered

Since I'm the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, you probably expect me to talk about housing policy or urban planning. But I want to talk about something equally important to the future of our cities: Terrell Mayes, Jr.

The day after Christmas in 2011, Terrell and his family were sitting at the dining table when shots rang out in their neighborhood. 

Now, this was so normal to his family that they started to make their way upstairs to the closet that they usually hide in. In fact, it was so common for Terrell, who was just three years old, that he took his plate of spaghetti with him. On his way upstairs, Terrell was shot in the back of the head and killed. 

What did Terrell do wrong? He was born in the wrong zip code.

There are 3.9 million kids growing up in this country in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. That's two-and-a-half times the entire population of Manhattan. Across the world, the 35 richest countries have 30 million kids living in poverty like Terrell. 

Now, let's be clear about what this means: no matter how hard they work in school, no matter what their parents do to try to get ahead, the single biggest predictor of their life chances, even their lifespan, is the zip code they grow up in.

Let me make this personal. I grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, 10028 to be exact. And if I had just grown up a few blocks north—in 10029, 10030—I would have been two thirds more likely to be a victim of violent crime. If I'd had trouble reading by the time I was in third grade, like my younger son, I would have been twice as likely to drop out of school. And my parents would have been 40 percent more likely to have diabetes.

Now, I think we can all agree that it's an enormous moral failure in our country when we can put a kid's address into Google Maps and tell them what their future is. But it's also an economic calamity for our cities and our nation.

Every year, the U.S. loses half a trillion dollars because of kids growing up in poverty like Terrell. Most of those costs are obvious, right? The costs of crime and health care. But the single most pernicious cost is the lost productivity and potential.

Who would Terrell have been if he were with us today? A teacher? A community leader? An urban planner? Maybe the President of the United States? 

So, at this point I hope I have your attention. But I also may have you a little depressed because most of the time when we talk about these problems, we quote the Bible and say that the poor are always with us.

Or even worse, we think, you know, the federal government has tried to do something about this before, and they actually made it worse. And the truth is that for any of you who have worked with the federal government, you know that big agencies like ours - we don't necessarily work so well together on these kinds of problems.

And think about it from a child's point of view. 

A kid like Terrell wakes up in the morning in housing that's maybe public housing overseen by [the Department of Housing and Urban Development]. 

Walks to get on the bus - that bus is funded by the Department of Transportation.

Gets to school - well there is the Department of Education. 

Free lunch at school - funded by the Department of Agriculture. 

And if Terrell is hungry that day, gets sick - [the Department of Health and Human Services] is there.

On the average day of a kid growing up in a concentrated poverty neighborhood, they are likely to touch 11 different federal agencies. And in the past, those agencies have tended to see the problems of poverty in a siloed, isolated way.

And what's worse is from the distance of Washington, you look at a neighborhood like Terrell's, and you see only problems. You miss that there are families, community organizations, assets on the ground that can be the seeds of rebirth.

Now, this may sound like an old story. But think about what that approach means in housing. It meant that when we created public housing, we wiped out the neighborhood that was there, with all those assets, created a tabula rasa, and we started again.

And the truth is that the housing was probably better housing than what was there before. But, think about all the other things that happened. We didn't put grocery stores in, so where were the kids going to get healthy food? We didn't think about what those hallways meant for crime. 

And you can tell this story not just about housing but in many other areas. Transportation: about the highways that were supposed to connect suburban residents to jobs in the central city, but bulldozed through neighborhoods, or decked over them, cutting them apart and isolating the families there.

Now, the good news is that in local communities over the last few decades, we've started to see a different approach. On Tuesday this week, I was in Atlanta in a neighborhood called East Lake. Now, back in 1995, this neighborhood was known as "Little Vietnam." Why? Well, the average employment rate there was 13% -- I didn't say average unemployment - I said average employment rate was 13%. The graduation rate from school was 30% - not the dropout rate - the graduation rate.

But what happened? A local foundation got together with a few government agencies, some private sector folks, and they started working to rebuild that neighborhood in a comprehensive way. 

So I was there on Tuesday. I went to visit the single highest performing school in all of Atlanta. The same families that were there in 1995, many of them are still there. The crime rate is down to 5% of what it was in 1995. The employment and income? 500% of what it was in 1995. 

So the question for us who work for the President is how do we take this approach and scale it up to the 4400 neighborhoods of concentrated poverty around the country? And in the first four years, we've started that work. 

You all have probably heard of the Harlem Children's Zone here in New York. Geoffrey Canada has done remarkable work with a broad range of partners to ensure what we call "cradle to career success" for his kids. 

We've taken that model and started to replicate it across the country. In Terrell's neighborhood in Minnesota, we've started the Northside Achievement Zone and brought together not just the federal agencies, but 60 different organizations to try reimagine what a kid's life can be there.

So the important thing: when a kid was struggling in school last year, we found out that his mom was homeless, we helped her get a place to live. When another girl was struggling in school, and we figured out that her dad couldn't' speak English, or another girl whose father couldn't read, we helped them get the classes they needed to get ahead. So what we now need to do is scale this approach up across the country.

This fall, we're going to launch the first of what we call 20 "promise zones." These are places where we will bring every part of those 11 agencies together and try to find a single, coordinated approach, working with the local community, to rebuild those communities.

So here is what I want to ask of you. First, when you go back to your neighborhoods, your cities, your communities where you work, find one of these neighborhoods. There are 4400 of them around the country. They are in cities and suburbs and yes, rural areas, too.

And the second thing I want to ask is that, whether you are a transportation planner, whether you work on education, health care or whatever it may be, find somebody in this room, find somebody back in your communities that does something else and think about how you can bring what you do together to serve a kid like Terrell.

Let me just give you one small example. In Detroit, some smart employee at the Detroit Department of Transportation was thinking about the kids that wait at the bus stops every day, many of them victims of crime. And he thought: what if I get some smart tech person, and maybe a few police officers, to figure out a solution. And so they invented "Text My Bus."

And now when a kid like Terrell in Detroit wants to go and get the bus to school, he waits for a text that says the bus is coming down the street. Now, that's a transportation solution because it helps make the transportation system more efficient. But it's also an education solution because that kid is more likely to get to school. It's a public safety solution because there is going to be less crime.

Let me put it a different way: you may work on transportation, you may work on education, you may work on public safety; I may be working on housing and urban development - but, we all work for Terrell. 

So go back to your communities, get to work, there are 3.9 million kids like Terrell waiting for you.


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