Where you live should never determine how far you go in life. That principle was central to our nation’s founding, and it has remained an enduring promise for generations of Americans. It’s why we’ve invested in public schools, infrastructure and housing. And it’s why we’ve come together, time and again, to ensure that no matter how the times may change, one thing remains the same–that in the United States, anyone can go as far as their hard work will take them.
It’s time to renew our commitment to this founding ideal. As I learned on a recent visit to Ferguson, MO, sometimes the reach of a child’s dreams depends more on where they are born than on where they want to go. In fact, a child growing up in the Clayton area of St. Louis can expect to live 18 years longer than a child living just eight miles away in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood.
In a nation founded on the principle of equal opportunity, that’s unacceptable.
The leaders who came together earlier this month for the 2015 meeting of Clinton Global Initiative America called on every sector and community to address a central question our society must answer: “How do we ensure that everyone–no matter where they live or how much they earn–can make it in America?”
Answering that question will require us to invest in three key areas. First, we must ensure that all communities provide their citizens with a strong foundation, which means ensuring folks have clean water, that electricity and transportation are reliable and available to everyone, that neighborhoods are safe, and that the housing market is free from discrimination and affordable to Americans up and down the income scale. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development makes each of these basics a cornerstone of our local and regional partnerships as part of our Sustainable Communities and Choice Neighborhoods initiatives.
I can’t stress enough how critical safe neighborhoods are to economic opportunity–it’s nearly impossible for a child to make it in America if she can’t even make it to school. That’s why in Chicago we’ve joined forces with a non-profit and the City to revitalize the Woodlawn neighborhood. In addition to renovating hundreds of units of affordable housing and creating new market-rate units, we’re also helping to boost public safety. The University of Chicago has agreed to place its public safety officers at key locations along school routes to protect the children who live in nearby public housing. No child should have to risk robberies or violence to get an education, and I’m proud that the University of Chicago has made the community’s children their children as well.
Second, we must promote smart, inclusive planning in every community. We can’t have one plan for the suburbs and another for cities. Instead we must view our communities as connected, because they are. Just look at what Denver–CGI America’s host city for the past two years–did in the 1980s to jumpstart its then struggling economy. The surrounding suburbs joined forces with urban neighborhoods to invest in creating a vibrant core to boost the entire region. HUD, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation, is working with local officials to build on that work by expanding permanent affordable housing, improving access to jobs, and enhancing connectivity along Denver’s transit corridors. We’re fighting to advance these goals in more communities, which is why President Barack Obama has proposed greater funding for HUD initiatives that promote inclusive planning and that provide housing support and choices to low-income families.
Finally, our nation must make the investments necessary to prepare citizens, especially our youth, to compete in the global economy. That means we must cultivate brainpower and match it to economic opportunity. Creating great schools is a vital step, but it can’t be the only one. We must also create enrichment opportunities for young people outside of the classroom. That’s why HUD is investing in educational opportunity for children in a number of communities, including in the Yesler neighborhood in Seattle.
Working with the Gates Foundation, the local housing authority, and the school board, we’ve created an after-school tutoring program for 400 students. And the results have been impressive. Between 2011 and 2013, science scores for fifth graders rose from 15 percent who met the state standard to nearly 60 percent.
We also know that prosperity hinges on empowering tomorrow’s American workforce with tangible pathways to employment, especially ones that lead to industries of the future. So HUD is now committing through CGI America to connect more public housing residents to continuing education and job training opportunities. That includes a new initiative HUD is launching in partnership with the U.S. Departments of Energy and Education called “STEM, Energy, and Economic Development” or “SEED.” SEED will leverage federal investments and partnerships in Washington, DC, Cleveland, Tampa, San Antonio and Denver to connect public housing residents to energy-sector training and jobs, helping them boost their skills and their earnings.
This is a start, and we will keep working to build communities of promise. Creating a new national agenda that tackles the inequality crisis and fosters enduring prosperity will require leadership, engagement and vision. And it will require that we work together. If we are to make equal opportunity real for every American, we must ensure that all citizens–no matter their income or zip code–have a fair shot to pursue their dreams.
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