This column originally appeared in the Florida Times-Union on Sunday, July 5, 2020.
By Darnell Smith, North Florida market president, Florida Blue
To make this time of racial reckoning more than a moment, Jacksonville must seek to understand how racism affects every aspect of daily life and is embedded in every system in our society. To that end, community leaders are speaking out on racial disparities across sectors, how they’re working to close them and what it will take to build a more just city. This is part of a series of columns.
Out of 20 kindergartners living in a poverty-stricken Jacksonville neighborhood, only one child, statistically, will escape poverty in their lifetime. One child.
What about the other 19 innocent faces in that neighborhood? Wouldn’t it be better for us all if they, too, escaped poverty and had an opportunity to attain a higher education, supply our workforce, own a home and pay taxes? Isn’t that what we all want for our children?
The effects of poverty are traumatic. The ongoing stress induced by unstable homes, crime and food insecurity due to unemployment or low wages seep into a child’s mind every single day they spend in poverty. Mahatma Gandhi said it best: Poverty is the worst form of violence.
Our local business, civic and community leaders have a collective responsibility to address poverty because it holds back our city and its people from reaching their potential and achieving the ideals we all share.
No one person or organization created poverty and no one person or organization will solve it. I call on the concerned citizens of Jacksonville to eliminate the monster of poverty that reflects our lack of commitment to equality for all. We can bring about the change we wish to see in the world by allowing Jacksonville to become a model for the world to see.
We must first accept some harsh truths about our city. Poverty impacts 135,000 residents in Jacksonville, 46,000 of whom are children.
This means 14.5 percent of our neighbors live in poverty, which is higher than both the state of Florida (13.6 percent) and the U.S. (11.8 percent) overall.
But poverty does not inflict its damage equally. Our black residents suffer from poverty at a rate more than double that of our white residents, and these disparities show up in our neighborhoods.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, if you lived in the neighborhood of Ortega – which is 96 percent white – in 2017 your life expectancy was 13 years longer than if you lived in the neighborhood of Durkeeville, which is 99 percent black. Ortega and Durkeeville are approximately 8 miles apart.
Why does an Ortega resident enjoy 13 more years with their grandkids? What happens in those eight miles? Why does a ZIP Code determine life expectancy?
We know from the data that poverty persists through generations. We also know that wealth persists through generations. This presents us with an opportunity – if we can work toward ending poverty, we can work toward building and sharing wealth.
We can help many children escape poverty and watch them flourish as leaders, teachers and doctors who help their own kids flourish, and in turn help Jacksonville flourish.
The diverse voices on the streets of Jacksonville are demanding action, not words. They are demanding more than just fair treatment. Where do we start?
We start by addressing our poverty issue. We are all affected by poverty, from higher crime rates, increased medical costs, persistence of homelessness, to talented and promising young people not having the means to reach their potential.
Addressing poverty leads to a better life for us all, not just those who currently live below the poverty level. The policies we support and vote for have consequences that can either perpetuate or alleviate poverty.
We address poverty through a committed, long-term focus on education (Pre-K through careers); housing; community health; and financial opportunity.
We must dedicate intellectual, financial and physical resources (private and public sector) to ensure that neighborhoods like Durkeeville reflect the quality of life similar to that in Ortega and beyond.
Creating economic mobility for all must be a primary focus of our city. A priority that is funded, measured and managed with the fervor of building a great city.
To address poverty is to ignite hope, encourage dreams and facilitate opportunity. Isn’t that what we want for ourselves? Then I hope we want it for our neighbors, as well. That is the model city that Jacksonville can become when our leaders focus on ending poverty.
Darnell Smith is North Florida Market President of Florida Blue.
United Way of Northeast Florida launched the 2016 ‘Make Your Moment’ Campaign at the JAXUSA Luncheon