The Annie E. Casey Foundation has just released a very frank and thoughtful summary of lessons learned from its Making Connections Initiative, which focused funding and technical assistance on poor neighborhoods in 10 cities with the goal of improving outcomes for both people and places. One of the things I like best about this piece is that it doesn't sugarcoat the difficulties the initiative encountered or hide the more disappointing results. It acknowledges that Making Connections failed to achieve population-level improvements in family and child well-being, even though sites did succeed in implementing important new programs that improved the lives of individual families and kids.
I played a small part in the Making Connections Initiative, working on the NORC-Urban Institute team that designed, conducted, and analyzed an ambitious longitudinal survey of families living in the target neighborhoods. Casey's decision to invest in this expensive survey effort paid tremendous dividends, not only by providing information to the sites to help shape the work underway, but also by producing new field-building insights about the dynamic interactions between people and places. There's still a lot to learn from this unique data resource.
One of the important insights generated by the Making Connections survey is the critical importance of family mobility. Neighborhoods clearly matter to people's lives and life-chances, but that doesn't mean that "fixing" conditions within a neighborhood—school quality, healthcare for kids, job opportunities, or safety—automatically benefits the people living there. Families move back and forth across neighborhood boundaries; break apart and re-form; send their kids to out-of-boundary schools; and engage with religious, cultural, or family networks that transcend place. Increasingly, we're realizing that anti-poverty and family-strengthening initiatives have to be "place conscious" but not myopically "place based."
The design and implementation of Making Connections varied across sites and morphed considerably over time, introducing a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity into the task of defining its scope and assessing its effectiveness. But this reflected lessons learned from previous rounds of experimentation in the field of comprehensive community change efforts. Now the experience of Making Connections contributes to the body of knowledge from which the next generation of experimentation can draw.
We have to acknowledge that achieving meaningful improvements in the well-being of poor people and poor communities requires intense multi-faceted interventions, tailored to local circumstances and residents' priorities, responsive to change, and sustained over many years. There's no way such efforts can be formally evaluated using conventional methods. But they can hold themselves accountable by setting ambitious population-level outcome goals, being clear about how specific investments or activities are expected to advance these goals, and using data to find out what's working—and not working—to make progress toward them.
This may mean that one of the most important tasks for a place-conscious initiative is to build and support an enduring local capacity for inclusive, evidence-based collaboration around a shared set of goals. Building this kind of human infrastructure takes time (and money) and may not pay off immediately with tangible accomplishments. But if a community's residents, service providers, civic leaders, and public servants were able to work together respectfully over the long term, using data to assess progress and refine cross-sector strategies, we might begin to see the big improvements in peoples' lives that we seek.
Neighborhood photo courtesy of Shutterstock