Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, by Paul Tough (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pp., $26)

In addition to everything else on his presidential plate, Barack Obama has pledged to create “Promise Zones” in 20 cities, all modeled after Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone. Think of it as a new version of the War on Poverty.

The lessons of history provide ample reason for skepticism. “The Federal Government declared war on poverty, and poverty won,” Ronald Reagan famously declared. Will Obama’s new battle be any more successful than the old one? As it happens, a new book by New York Times Magazine editor Paul Tough entitled Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America provides some insight into this question.

Geoffrey Canada is as close to a superstar as a wonk can be, lauded (and funded) by A-list Manhattanites and photographed by Richard Avedon. But despite the celebrity buzz, his work reflects a growing sophistication in contemporary thinking about poverty. As Tough describes it, poverty policy in the U.S. has long reflected partisan politics. Conservatives have seen poverty’s roots in cultural dysfunction enabled by government, in particular a dependency-promoting welfare system. Liberals, on the other hand, have viewed the poor as victims of structural forces—in particular racism and labor-market shifts—who need government programs to help them get by.

But by the late 1990s, serious policy observers, though not switching camps entirely, were finding a pure liberal position harder to maintain. Racism had been easing for decades and the country was enjoying its strongest economy in history, yet only 49 percent of Harlem’s working-age population was employed, a 2-point decline from the crack-addled late 1980s. It was becoming clear not only that programs were not working, but that few people had even thought about what, as Tough writes, “‘working’ might really mean.” Meanwhile, a booming economy was creating a new generation of businessman philanthropists—like hedge-fund honcho Stanley Druckenmiller, a major supporter of Canada’s initiatives—determined to see the sort of measurable results that government programs like Head Start have often ignored.

Also shifting the poverty conversation was the growing recognition that few people, rich or poor, could go very far in life without a college education. Sociologist William Julius Wilson had long pointed to the disappearance of manufacturing jobs to explain inner-city unemployment. As the knowledge economy became more entrenched, though, Wilson’s insight became a matter of merely scholarly interest. Canada recognized that improving the lot of the poor now meant improving educational prospects starting in children’s youngest years, and that this, in turn, meant changing cultural attitudes about learning. Convinced by research on “human capital” by social scientist Christopher Jencks and economist James Heckman, Canada was prepared to grapple with an insight verboten to old-school poverty warriors like Jonathan Kozol and Marian Wright Edelman and ignored by Wilson: the black-white achievement gap was less about money than about culture, or, as Tough puts it, “wealth mattered, but parenting mattered more.”

And so Canada, a veteran of New York poverty-fighting, set out to do nothing less than change the culture of Harlem. His staff pounded the pavement in a 24-block zone searching for pregnant young women to enroll in a workshop called Baby College. (Over time, the Zone would grow to 97 blocks.) There, they would learn the sorts of behaviors that middle-class parents seem to adopt intuitively: reading to their young children, teaching them to observe and think, stimulating them, and using soft power—in other words, distraction and negotiation—rather than resorting to “Beat Ass Early,” as Tough describes one couple’s preferred method of discipline.

Early in HCZ’s evolution, Canada discovered that he had to get to poor kids as early in their lives as possible; when he first opened Promise Academy, a charter middle school, almost 60 percent of the sixth-graders arrived with third-grade reading skills or lower, and he never could bring them up to a level that satisfied his funders. He also had to contend with the notorious “fade-out” effect—the tendency of the immediate gains of early childhood education for disadvantaged kids to vanish by third grade. His solution was what he called a “conveyor belt,” a series of self-reinforcing programs, beginning with Baby College and continuing with a school for three-year-olds, prekindergarten, kindergarten, a K-12 extended-day-and-year charter school, and afterschool programs. What he imagined was less like the conventional piecemeal social welfare programs that had been tried—and tried again—in the past, and more akin to a religious revival that would imbue its followers with middle-class aspirations and the skills needed to realize them.

It’s easy enough to share Tough’s sympathy for Canada and his project. The Harlem Children’s Zone, which costs $60 million per year, is research-based and accountable to its funders. Canada is devoted, savvy, and ambitious. Some might say too ambitious. The HCZ is predicated on the idea that educators can, in Tough’s words, “compensate for any kind of childhood” on a mass scale; indeed, that they can “heal” the culture of an entire community. But at this point, while some elementary-school test scores look promising, there isn’t much evidence for such hopes’ becoming reality. By 2007, only a small group of third-graders had spent five years on Canada’s conveyor belt. It will be over a decade before we know whether they’re going to college, not to mention graduating.

And the question remains whether Canada’s template can be imitated across the country. The list of seemingly successful initiatives that have foundered on the journey to replication is endless, and the HCZ’s interwoven tapestry of programs is more complex than most. Canada, his staff, and his generous funders also bring a sense of urgency, devotion, and flexibility to their cause that will inevitably be sapped by the bureaucratic planning required to reproduce the programs in 20 faraway cities.

It’s an old story, really: everyone thinks they’ve found The Policy Answer when what they’ve really spotted is brilliant local leadership. It’s a story the Obama administration would be wise to remember.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next