America’s Social Policies and School Funding Levels Fail Our Poorest Children

President Donald Trump has been at Davos this week exalting the United States’ soaring economy. While Trump brags about more people working, however, he neglects to mention the ongoing collapse of manufacturing and its replacement—gig and temporary employment—along with the paltry wages of many workers. Last week Paul Krugman more accurately described how many families are faring  in greater Cleveland, Ohio, where I live.  Krugman writes: “The other day a correspondent asked me a good question: What important issue aren’t we talking about? My answer, after some reflection, is the state of America’s children.”

The problem starts with today’s jobs and today’s low minimum wage, but Krugman explores a range of other ways the fraying social safety fails to support the poorest children: “What’s especially striking is the contrast between the way we treat our children and the way we treat our senior citizens. Social Security isn’t all that generous… but it doesn’t compare too badly with other countries’ retirement systems. Medicare actually spends lavishly compared with single-payer systems elsewhere. So America’s refusal to help children isn’t part of a broad opposition to government programs; we single out children for especially harsh treatment… The answer, I’d suggest, goes beyond the fact that children can’t vote; while seniors can and do. There has also been a poisonous interaction between racial antagonism and bad social analysis.” Krugman describes all the myths about social programs causing “a culture of dependency” among the poor, and he continues: “At this point, however, we know that cultural explanations of social collapse were all wrong. The sociologist William Julius Wilson argued long ago that social dysfunction in big cities was caused, not by culture, but by the disappearance of good jobs. And he has been vindicated by what happened to much of the American heartland, which suffered a… disappearance of good jobs and a similar surge in social dysfunction… Multiple studies have found that safety net programs for children have big long-term consequences.  Children who receive adequate nutrition and health care grow up to become healthier, more productive adults.”

Here are just some of the issues that have emerged in recent articles in my clipping file about the plight of America’s children.

At the top of the list is the persistence of family homelessness in America’s cities.  At the end of October, New York City’s Advocates for Children reported that for the fourth year in a row: “The data… from the New York State Education Department show that in the 2018-2019 school year, New York City district and charter schools identified 114,085, or one in ten, students as homeless.  More than 34,000 students were living in New York City’s shelters, and more than twice that number (73,750) were living ‘doubled-up’ in temporary housing situations with relatives, friends or others.” While the lack of affordable housing is most extreme in NYC, the problem is growing in other gentrifying cities.  For the DCist, Rachel M. Cohen explains: “In 2019 there were 5,593 homeless students in the District (of Columbia), up from about 3,000 students five years earlier.  Under federal law, students are not only considered homeless if they are living on the streets or in shelters, but also if they lack permanent housing more generally… Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration has claimed a steep drop in family homelessness by relying on the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s more narrow definition of homelessness. Unlike most other federal agencies, HUD controversially only counts as homeless those individuals found living in shelters or on the streets.”

Then there is the way the federal government calculates the child tax credit. The NY Times‘ expert welfare reporter, Jason DeParle reports that the 2017 federal tax law recalculated the child tax credit to reward wealthier families and deprive families with income below $30,000: “Because the credit rises with earnings, a single parent with two children has to earn more than $30,000 a year to collect the full amount.” “The 2017 tax bill, President Trump’s main domestic achievement, doubled the maximum credit in the two-decade-old program and extended it to families earning as much as $400,000 a year (up from $110,000).  The credit now costs the federal government $127 billion a year—far more than better-known programs like the earned-income tax credit ($65 billion) and food stamps ($60 billion). But children with the greatest economic needs are least likely to benefit. While Republicans say the increase shows concern for ordinary families, 35 percent of children fail to receive the full $2,000 because their parents earn too little…. A quarter get a partial sum and 10 percent get nothing.  Among those excluded from the full credit are half of Latinos, 53 percent of blacks and 70 percent of children with single mothers.”

The number of children covered by Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program has also continued to drop. For the NY Times, Abby Goodnough and Margot Sanger-Katz report: “Nationwide, more than a million children disappeared from the rolls of the two main state-federal health programs for lower income children, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program between December 2017 and June (2019), the most recent month with complete data. Some state and federal officials have portrayed the drop—3 percent of enrolled children—as a success story, arguing that more Americans are getting coverage from employers in an improving economy.  But there is growing evidence that administrative changes aimed at fighting fraud and waste—and rising fears of deportation in immigrant communities—are pushing large numbers of children out of the program, and that many of them are now going without coverage.  The declines are concentrated in a minority of states; in other places public coverage has actually increased.”

Children living in poverty also tend to be concentrated in public schools that are themselves poor compared to schools serving wealthier children only miles away in the suburbs. A voluminous body of research demonstrates that schools serving concentrations of children living in extreme poverty struggle to address students’ personal as well as their academic needs. The Education Law Center recently released a new report on school funding last week, Making the Grade 2019. Explaining the report’s significance, the Education Law Center declares: “Many states have low (school) funding levels and do not distribute higher levels of funding to “high need” school districts, or those serving greater numbers of low-income students. Poor students in these states experience a ‘double disadvantage’––insufficient funding and no additional funds to address the impacts of segregation by socio-economic status. This crushing combination is especially alarming in states with the highest student poverty rates.”

For two years now, public school teachers on strike in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago have been showing us that, too often, children coping with poverty at home find themselves in classes of 40 students and schools lacking counselors, social workers, librarians, and school nurses.

In his recent column on America’s forgotten children, Paul Krugman mused: “(M)y guess is that even well-informed voters have little sense of the grim exceptionalism of America’s child-oriented policies, which are Dickensian compared with those of every other advanced country.”


3 thoughts on “America’s Social Policies and School Funding Levels Fail Our Poorest Children

  1. — One in ten students in NYC homeless.
    – Over 5500 children in Washington, DC homeless – homeless in our nation’s capital
    – Child tax credits that favor the wealthy and penalize the poor.
    – Suicide as the second leading cause of death among children between 10-19.
    – Dramatic spikes in reported incidents of stress, anxiety, and depression among adolescents.
    – The irony of education reform (No Child Left Behind) that has left millions of kids (largely in poor communities) behind.

    This is, as you note, a sorely neglected aspect of the evolution of our country. The categories of neglect you list should be a source of embarrassment and concern. That such data are readily available and receive such minimal attention in our media outlets is, I believe, a reflection of just how little we, as a nation, care for and accept responsibility for the well being of our most vulnerable. The continued holding of children in camps demonstrates that it is not just American children we don’t value.

    As the average American watches his/her realization of the “American Dream” fade into myth, it seems to beg questions about the role that our continued commitment to free market thinking plays in the reality of growing alienation and separation, the diminished value of social conscience and the rejection of the importance of the investment in social capital. What happens if we continue to use children as pawns in ideological wars? What happens when we continue to foster the growth in “commodifying” our children?

    Thank you for speaking for the children.

  2. In other developed countries there are schools that serve poor children. Rarely, however, are the schools themselves poor. By funding schools based on the local taxing district, the United States is ensuring that children who live in poor areas will in turn attend schools that are funded at levels many times less than the wealthy districts. When children who come from families in generational poverty, their prenatal care, nutrition, environment and schooling all start out and remain deprived, making a semi-permanent underclass a reality of modern American society. I don’t see how we can live with ourselves. In my 34th year of teaching in a decaying district, I know whereof I speak.

  3. Pingback: Jan Resseger: Trump’s Economic Policies Are Hurting Our Children | Diane Ravitch's blog

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