Becoming a Mothering Metropolis

Originally published in the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

On Mother’s Day, we celebrate the hand of God at work in our lives through the nurturing presence of a parent. As one of the 40 percent of Americans born to a single mom, this day means a great deal to me. But as the leader of a local philanthropy committed to serving our community’s most impoverished children, it disturbs me. It causes me to question our fitness as a “mothering” metropolitan community.

The Kids Count in Missouri report released last month suggests we may not have earned our Mother’s Day flowers. The report – supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and produced by Partnership for Children, Missouri Children’s Trust Fund and the University of Missouri Office for Social and Economic Data Analysis – reveals a glaring disparity in the well-being of children in the St. Louis metropolitan region.

St. Louis city ranks dead last among the state’s 115 counties in the composite ranking of economic well-being, health, safety and education. Meanwhile, three surrounding – and more affluent – counties rank in the Top 20: St. Charles finishes second; St. Louis County comes in at 12; and Jefferson County 17.

In the area of economic well-being, St. Charles County took the No. 1 spot with the lowest percentage of children qualifying for free or reduced lunch, a widely accepted proxy for child poverty. While less than 20 miles away, St. Louis city finished again in last place, with more than 85 percent of its students qualified.

Considering children’s health, Jefferson and St. Charles counties tie at 37 in low infant mortality rates, while St. Louis city ranks 105. Violent deaths for youth ages 15-19 is a key indicator of Child Protection and Safety. Here St. Charles County ranks 16 while St. Louis city ranks 106, a difference of 90 positions.

And in education, St. Louis city has the state’s highest public high school dropout rate, ranking 115, while St. Charles County ranks 49. St. Louis city teens were more likely to give birth, ranking 96, than their counterparts in St. Charles County, ranking fourth. Both of these rates increase teens’ risks of long-term economic insecurity.

To be clear, these numbers are not a critique of our community’s kids. Rather they reflect some challenges in our approach to communal parenting. So what would a mothering metropolis look like?

First, a good mother works to build a home where all her children can thrive. The data illustrate that our region has the assets and access to the means to produce exceptional outcomes for children. What is lacking is a civic infrastructure to deliver for the children in the greatest need.

For a metropolitan area of 2.8 million people this means a unified children’s continuum. For years, we’ve studied cities like Atlanta, Cincinnati and Memphis who engaged this work with difficulty and reward. Now is the time for us to build.

A mother also affirms that her kids are unique, but refuses to accept disparities among them. Children in St. Louis city and Jefferson County face different life realities. But, children’s outcomes are directly connected to structural equality in their opportunities. This is to say, our region must affirm diversity in approach to children’s services, but come to unity regarding desirable outcomes.

Finally, a great mother speaks up when her kids are in trouble. Our community must actively mobilize public will to advocate for childfriendly policy and realize children’s interests are our region’s interests. The precipitous decline in the state of Missouri’s support for early childhood programs, higher education and health care for the indigent has had a drastic impact on our region.

While kids don’t have or hire lobbyists, every legislator representing our region must recognize that children’s legislation is St. Louis legislation. And the public must work to assure accountability. Infrastructure. Equity. Advocacy. These make a mothering metropolis and build a better world for kids.