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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Sonoma County organizes to Invest Upstream

By Lisa Mann
Local government and community organizations who serve vulnerable populations in Sonoma County are simultaneously facing unprecedented funding cuts and a recession-fueled increase in needs. The news is full of agencies struggling to make up budget shortfalls and trying to do more with less. But a group of local leaders in health and human service organizations have been quietly collaborating on a long range plan to not only accomplish more with less, but to actually eradicate poverty—and the resulting problems associated with poverty—in Sonoma County.

The project is called the Upstream Investments Initiative. “The concept of Upstream Investments is simple,” says Jo Weber, the Director of Sonoma County’s Human Service Department. “Rather than spending limited resources to repair difficult societal problems once they occur, the Upstream Initiative takes early aim at the factors that lead to those problems with investment in prevention focused outcome-based programs to keep them from occurring at all.”
According to Upstream Initiative supporters, by embracing Upstream Investments today, we as a community can reduce the downstream need for expensive services–like criminal justice costs, child or substance abuse, or public aid. In addition, by reducing the obstacles to academic achievement and future employment, upstream investments strengthen our workforce and increase our tax base, building a more robust local economy.

Many “upstream investments” target early childhood. For example, the Nurse-Family Partnership, a program on the Upstream Investments Portfolio of Model Programs, was shown to decrease child abuse and neglect by low-income, first-time mothers by up to 80 percent and to reduce children’s arrests by age 15 by more than 50 percent. In addition to the societal benefits of less child abuse and less crime, the Nurse Family Partnership results in a cost savings of over $17 for every dollar spent for each mother and child served.
“Upstream investments are cost effective. In an era of very difficult budget situations, it only makes sense to be fiscally responsible, to focus on programs and policies that are proven to have the desired effects, and reduce the most serious issues we face,” says Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chair Efren Carrillo.

“The cost of not investing in our children is high,” agrees Weber. “Every adult and child in Sonoma County spends more than $800 in federal, state, and local taxes each year just for criminal justice costs—and that is just one downstream cost. There are many others, from child welfare, special education, and public assistance costs to expenses for substance abuse or mental health treatment.”

Although early childhood programs have been proven to be highly effective in targeting downstream outcomes, Supervisor Shirlee Zane, in a recent public Forum meeting explaining Upstream Investments, pointed out that Upstream Investments is not just about early childhood interventions, it is about getting “upstream” of any difficult problem. “Upstream programs like Head Start may reduce arrests or high school drop-outs,” she says, “but in-home support for frail seniors is also upstream, because it prevents the need for expensive nursing home care.”
Weber says this effort won’t affect the immediate budget crisis. In fact, she says, “the cost benefit of upstream investments is clear, but making the investment in the current budget crisis is difficult.” she says.  “This is a marathon, not a sprint. If we invest today, we won’t see the full effect for years—or even decades, and in the meantime we must be both reactive and proactive. We know we can get a better return on our collective investment by focusing our attention on the prevention rather than the remediation of problems that have already occurred.  

We can help people before they fall. 
We can make a real difference. 
That is certainly worth an investment.”

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