As the nation roils with fear of poverty and political debates over socialization and the free market, there is one man who has been wading through that thicket for years. And he may have found a "cure" for poverty.
His name is Geoffrey Canada. He was raised in New York City by a single mom who provided enough for him to earn a master's degree in education from Harvard before he went on to work as an urban do-gooder.
But for years, no matter how much he did, he saw very little good.
Canada, 57, has been working at the Harlem Children's Zone, which includes two charter schools, for more than 20 years. His main goal has been to turn children of tough inner-city neighborhoods into college-bound citizens. He does it by getting to those kids when they are still in the womb and well before they ever hear a discouraging word or feel a slap of anger.
Three out of four kids are born into poverty in New York City's Harlem neighborhood, according to a report from the Children's Defense Fund. And most stay there, despite expensive social programs. This cycle confounded Canada, until his wife got pregnant 11 years ago and he had an epiphany.
"I really started thinking about how little I knew about early brain development," said Canada, president and chief executive of the Harlem Children's Zone.
Canada became a new dad right around the time of the "Baby Einstein" boom. Bookstores were filled with new science theories showing that a toddler's brain is like a sponge.
"That brain is receptive from birth and you, as the parent, have to be putting in valuable information," he explained. "You have to be talking, you have to be singing, you have to be playing with this child, you have to read to this child."
One study by the American Educator, the professional journal of the American Federation of Teachers, found that by the age of 3, children of upper-class parents hear about 30 million words, most of them encouraging, while children of parents on welfare hear only 10 million words, most of them harsh and scolding.
Parents from the suburbs swarmed bookstores, clamoring to get their children exposed to more words, but the people of Harlem were using a style of parenting handed down since the days of slavery.
Canada said Harlem parents were preparing children to be quiet, well mannered and subservient because they thought those were the kids who got jobs. And a lot of that teaching included hitting the child.
"We had to go to parents and say, 'You know what; first of all, you are spending all of your time trying to beat this child into submission,'" said Canada.
He tried to tell parents that kids are just being kids, testing limits and learning by touch and sound.
"They're not being oppositional, they're called being 2," he said.
While the Harlem Children's Zone already had clinics and charter schools, Canada added Baby College to the pipeline. The program consists of a nine-week series of workshops for parents of children up to age 3.
To recruit parents, the Zone sends workers into the streets telling them that they can learn about nutrition, nurturing and discipline. But in the workshop, they'll also get to share their own experiences with discipline.
Marilyn Joseph, director of Baby College, said most parents use what she calls the P-words, " the plucking, the punching and the popping."
The trick is convincing young mothers like Enjolie Evans to use a different P-word: patience. And that can be hard for parents to learn.
Evans, a 22-year-old mother of two boys and expecting another, said she likes to use time out.
"I do it according to their age," she said. "So say like for the 2 year old, I give him a two-minute time out. And the oldest one I will time him out for about seven minutes, or maybe a little longer, like maybe a half an hour, and then I go tell him mommy still loves you and what you did was wrong."
"And I'll explain to him it's all right and then we'll go about our day. Sometimes I do pop him but by the end of the day, I'd rather put him in the corner; it's much easier like that, instead of beating your child."
Evans recognizes that learning patience will benefit everyone in the family.
Others Can Undo Mothers' Progress
But it's slow going. Grandparents and neighbors can undo any progress. The good news is that the mothers who first attended Baby College have kids hitting fourth grade. And they are testing off the charts.
In statewide testing, 75 percent of the third-graders at the Zone's Promise Academy Charter School tested at or above grade level in math. And 60 percent of its seventh-graders tested at or above grade level, which bodes well for those who stay in Canada's charter school pipeline.
Six of a group of ninth-graders said they were definitely on their way to college, throwing out names like Yale, Columbia, Duke and Harvard.
In the end, what many have learned from this system is spare the rod and you might just save the community.
"I think it's true, but I will tell you that there is a lot of skepticism," Canada said. "Our theory is we have got to stay with these kids straight through until we get them through college. When I've got hundreds and hundreds of my kids coming back into my community with college degrees, then I know Harlem is going to be fine."
Canada has a lot of fans, including President Obama, who has budgeted 20 "Promise Neighborhoods" in the nation based on the Harlem Children's Zone.
For more information, visit Harlem Children's Zone at www.hcz.org