photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA

"This is Harder than Rocket Science!"

In his inaugural address in 1961, President John F. Kennedy promised the American people that we, not the Russians, would be the first people to stand on the moon! And we did it. And ever since the expression “it’s not rocket science” has been used as a metaphor of how something should be easy to solve.

Leap forward almost 50 years to the world we live in today. Fifteen million Americans are unemployed, and according to CCUSA’s most recent quarterly survey the number of poor continues to grow, while already 39 million are in poverty… Where do we look for examples of leadership that is working to move more people out of poverty?

Over the past twenty years the Harlem Children’s Zone has been one of the most successful anti-poverty programs in the country. It offers a unique, holistic approach to rebuilding a community so that its children can stay on track through college and go on to the job market. The goal is to create a “tipping point” in the neighborhood so that children are surrounded by an enriching environment of college-oriented peers and supportive adults, a counterweight to “the streets” and a toxic popular culture that glorifies misogyny and anti-social behavior. In January 2007, the HCZ Project launched its Phase 3, expanding its comprehensive system of programs to nearly 100 blocks of central Harlem.

President Obama has used the Harlem Children’s Zone model to create a new federal program, “Promise Neighborhoods.” The president included a $210 million request in his FY11 Department of Education budget to support grants to community-based organizations for the development and implementation of plans for comprehensive Promise Neighborhood programs. Promise Neighborhoods (1) serve the entire neighborhood, with at least 65% of the children in that area, (2) create holistic support programs that surround the child throughout their life – not just in terms of place-based education but also in terms of fitness, personal development, and much more, (3) build community support with residents, institutions, and stakeholders, (4) provide on-going, evaluative review and analysis of program outcomes, and (5) create a culture of success with accountability, passion, leadership, and teamwork.

Geoffrey Canada, the president and CEO of HCZ has described the work he does: “It’s not rocket science we’re doing here,” he likes to say. “It’s harder than rocket science.”

Solving an issue as complex and pervasive as poverty is harder than rocket science, and certainly not as attractive. But I think we have arrived at a moment in our history when the key to our future is not some new super technology, but how we act as a people. Can we muster that same sense of national “can do” that got us to the moon to create solutions to poverty? Will we be judged by what we’ve invented, cured, or built? Or by what we did for the least among us?