MANSFIELD: The First Two Thousand Days

A recent letter to the editor in the Plain Dealer caught my eye. The writer, a gentleman from Grafton, was commenting on “A Greater Cleveland,” the worthwhile effort being undertaken by the newspaper to jumpstart an initiative to lift inner city children out of poverty. The letter writer’s critique was both right … and wrong.

His position was that the primary responsibility for raising and educating children lies with their parents, and in this regard he’s totally right. Over the years society has seemingly abdicated that responsibility to public schools, releasing parents from this obligation.

But here’s where the writer is wrong: Time and time again I’ve heard people say, in regards to undereducated children, “If their parents would just read to them.” But what if the parent can’t read? I know how prevalent illiteracy is since my wife teaches adults to read.

And the reason these adults can’t read is because their parents couldn’t read. And the reason their parents couldn’t read is because their parents couldn’t read. This goes back generation upon generation, right to the door of the slave cabin, where blacks were whipped for attempting to teach their children to read. Fortunately, some slaves, like my forbearers, risked the lash and secretly taught their progeny to read anyway.

The situation the undereducated underclass finds itself in is a result of government policies that were in place for generations — nay, centuries. And when, at the end of the Civil War, the ugly past could and should have been rectified what we got was a tepid effort at best. Reconstruction, an effort that should have been engaged in for as long as it took to solve the problems of the newly freed, was eventually abandoned after the death of Lincoln. Under Andrew Johnson, in the face of fierce southern resistance, the nation turned its attention westward and left blacks without the promised 40 acres, the mule or other means to uplift themselves.

The fact that African Americans have come this far this fast (yes, two-thirds of the race is doing just fine, thank you) is a testament to the strong determination of black women, who usually allow black men take all the credit.

The PD’s Chris Quinn is right when he posits that Cleveland can take the lead in solving the problem of poverty. There are blueprints out there, but the lament often heard is the solutions are too expensive to implement. The newspaper is attempting to raise an army of volunteers to solve the problem, and this is a solution that can work.

However, the emphasis has to be placed on the first 2,000 days of a child’s life. To try to correct the mistakes and omissions of these early formative years is, for the most part, futile. While I’m not suggesting that efforts to save children five, six, seven years of age and older be abandoned, I am suggesting that the first efforts are concentrated on pre-birth and those critical yearly years first, and then work our way up the ages to the older children.

I understand the focus on the preteens: They can communicate and tell their stories while babies cannot. Additionally, they are not yet at the age where society views them (especially the males) as a threat. So they should get the lion’s share of the spotlight (which will assist in raising both awareness and funds); getting newborns off to a good start should get the lion’s share of effort.

The Harlem Children’s Zone, as well as Promise Neighborhoods, has proven that this strategy works. And one way to enhance such efforts is to incentivize the cooperation of new mothers. Yes, pay them to learn to read and to teach their children to read.

While that might sound radical, dramatic and outlandish, other countries are using financial inducements to solve social problems early on, such as paying people to go to the doctor. They’ve found that in the long run, it’s cheaper to prevent health problems in the first place than to fix them later.

The same holds true for the social problem of dysfunctional behaviors. Let untreated, allowed to fester, and they turn into criminal justice problems and all too often the attendant costs of incarceration. Prevention is much less expensive, and just think of all of the human capital that can be channeled into productive enterprise.

Who knows, one of the saved young people could one day find the cure for cancer.

The Grafton letter writer stated that perhaps children should be taken from parents who lack the skills and abilities to properly raise them. A better idea is to help these parents learn how to properly raise their offspring. In this way we’ll eventually have a truly “Greater Cleveland” and a greater society.

From CoolCleveland correspondent Mansfield B. Frazier Frazier’s From Behind The Wall: Commentary on Crime, Punishment, Race and the Underclass by a Prison Inmate is available in hardback. Snag your copy and have it signed by the author at



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One Response to “MANSFIELD: The First Two Thousand Days”

  1. Peter Lawson Jones

    Amen . . . and while we’re at it, let’s incentive socio-economically disadvantaged fathers as well to read to and nurture their offspring.

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