Investing in our children

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For periodically taking the measure of the community, few opportunities are better than the few weeks surrounding the end of the school year.

The ebullience of this year’s Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School graduation met all our expectations, from the unique setting of the Tabernacle to the showcasing of articulate, enthusiastic, and proud graduates and families, who happily are expanding to include members of the Vineyard’s Brazilian community (June 17, “Saudade: It doesn’t always translate”). And the triumphs of the state champion girls varsity tennis team add hard-earned icing to the end-of-school-year cake.

That many of us share in the pride high school graduation generates is evident in the astonishing $1.2 million in scholarships and prizes awarded to new and recent graduates by Island organizations, trusts, and individuals (a complete list of all awards, accompanying class photos, and essays, was published June 18 as a special Class of 2015 section).

Beyond its intrinsic value, a college degree remains a fixture among markers predicting economic mobility and employment opportunity. College price tags, though, have soared so high that the burden on all but a tiny number of Island families is increasingly difficult if not altogether disqualifying. So the gifts of the community make a direct difference — in fact, they could make all the difference. In that context, consider the impact the generosity of former Island residents George and Martha Yates will have on our youngsters — a new scholarship fund of $1 million administered by the Permanent Endowment Fund of Martha’s Vineyard.

If our significant commitment of tax support for public education on Martha’s Vineyard and accompanying direction of philanthropic resources is seen as a purposeful investment in the mobility and ultimate success and satisfaction achieved by our college-bound children, however, the celebrations of students, families, and our schools themselves are well-earned, but don’t tell the entire story.

As recent research on American communities and economic mobility describes (David Leonhardt, et al., nytimes.com, May 4, 2015), economic mobility can in many ways be seen as an artifact of location. In a very large-scale study designed to evaluate the effectiveness of relocation to higher-income communities as a means of improving economic mobility, the study’s authors (Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, Harvard University) examined millions of records to show the effect of location on earning capacity.

A very useful interactive tool included in the Leonhardt article makes it easy to search the database by virtually any county in the country, and to see comparative rankings nationally and within each state. Mobility rankings within each county can be sorted by income quartile and by gender, so a pretty full picture emerges.

What we see is definitely not what most of us would expect. On average, Dukes County is next to last among Massachusetts counties in expected mobility. For our poorest children (the 25th income percentile), the outlook is better than only 31 percent of counties nationally.

It might be tempting if ungenerous to attribute this problem to the victims, and to see the statistics as validation of the rewards of hard work, strong values, and long-term residence on the Vineyard. Tempting, but substantially if not altogether simply wrong. Because even more striking, the disadvantage of Vineyard children actually grows substantially with improved family economic circumstances: For average-income Vineyard children, the outlook is better than for only 7 percent of all U.S. counties. And for wealthy Island children (the 75th and 99th income percentiles), Martha’s Vineyard actually measures worse than 99 percent of all counties in the country.

In other words, data expected to illuminate the relative mobility disadvantage of poorer and more recently arrived children among the Martha’s Vineyard community confirms that expectation, but then goes on to show how much things worsen for wealthier Island children.

It’s fair to ask why. One explanation might lie in the extent of severe problems not primarily rooted in income. The study, for instance, doesn’t isolate for rates of substance abuse among a community’s population of different ages, reportedly alarmingly high on Martha’s Vineyard for everything ranging from heroin to party drugs to prescription medications. It doesn’t easily isolate for incidence of single-parent families, or for limited economic opportunity back home after college.

If economic mobility isn’t the measure of opportunity and potential quality of life we Islanders want for our children, it raises the question of why we trail so many other so-called lifestyle communities, who seem to offer much of the same environment we do and still provide both values we favor and mobility opportunities for their children. And if we’re right about what our children want and need, maybe our enormous levels of support for local education and futures unlocked by college aren’t the only important investments we should be making.

If we want the best investment strategy possible for our children, we need to be transparent and thoughtful about our goals — about the opportunities and the safety net we want to provide for all our children, what part the community needs to take, and what individual families are responsible for. And quite likely, we need to look beyond our schools and traditional college-tuition assistance to support our goals.

Martha’s Vineyard Community Services and its many family-centered programs would seem a perfect vehicle, and MVCS has shown itself to be both well-run and a good partner to new, innovative approaches to philanthropy, such as the Island Wide Youth Collaborative. Much the same could be said for the Martha’s Vineyard YMCA. Perhaps the season of well-earned satisfaction and congratulation is also a good time to take on some serious thinking about our investment strategy.