Rising Tide Fails to Lift All Boats; School Test Scores Track Widening Inequality

For anybody who wants to understand the reasons for low academic test sores and to learn why schools cannot quickly institute reforms and turn around lagging school achievement, Matthew Desmond’s extraordinary piece in Sunday’s NY Times Magazine is essential reading.  Desmond is the Princeton University sociologist who authored the 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning Evicted.  Desmond has also founded the Eviction Lab, a team of researchers who are in the process of building an enormous data base to track eviction and extreme poverty in America.

With the headline, Incomes Rose and Poverty Rate Fell for Third Straight Year, last week the Wall Street Journal began its coverage of the new U.S. Census data: “American incomes rose and poverty declined for the third consecutive year in 2017, according to census figures released Wednesday that suggest more Americans are benefiting from the robust economy.”  It sounds as though a rising tide is lifting all boats.

Matthew Desmond corrects what you thought you learned from that headline: “These days, we’re told that the American economy is strong. Unemployment is down, the Dow Jones industrial average is north of 25,000 and millions of jobs are going unfilled. But… the question is not, Can I land a job? (The answer is almost certainly, Yes, you can.) Instead the question is, What kinds of jobs are available to people without much education?  By and large, the answer is: jobs that do not pay enough to live on.  In recent decades, the nation’s tremendous economic growth has not led to broad social uplift. Economists call it the ‘productivity-pay gap’—the fact that over the last 40 years, the economy has expanded and corporate profits have risen, but real wages have remained flat for workers without a college education. Since 1973, American productivity has increased by 77 percent, while hourly pay has grown by only 12 percent.  If the federal minimum wage tracked productivity, it would be more than $20 an hour, not today’s poverty wage of $7.25.”

We are told by politicians like the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Paul Ryan that we ought to cut the safety net programs that lull people into dependence. By contrast, Desmond believes that in an economy where most economic growth benefits people at the top who have significant investment income, safety-net programs are essential but inadequate: “It’s not that safety-net programs don’t help; on the contrary, they lift millions of families above the poverty line each year. But one of the most effective antipoverty solutions is a decent-paying job, and those have become scarce for… 41.7 million laborers—nearly a third of the American work force (who) earn less than $12 an hour, and almost none of their employers offer health insurance.”

We all meet such people every day.  Who are they? “(T)he working poor are not primarily teenagers bagging groceries or scooping ice cream in paper hats. They are adults—often parents—wiping down hotel showers and toilets, taking food orders and bussing tables, eviscerating chickens at meat-processing plants, minding children at 24-hour day care centers, picking berries, emptying trash cans, stacking grocery shelves at midnight, driving taxis and Ubers, answering customer-service hotlines, smoothing hot asphalt on freeways, teaching community-college students as adjunct professors, and yes, bagging groceries and scooping ice cream in paper hats.”

The way minimum wage jobs are set up these days also keeps people down, because there is no way to work hard and move up to a higher position: “Working harder and longer will not translate into a promotion if employers pull up the ladders and offer supervisory positions exclusively to people with college degrees. Because large companies now farm out many positions to independent contractors, those who buff the floors at Microsoft or wash the sheets at the Sheraton typically are not employed by Microsoft or Sheraton, thwarting any hope of advancing within the company. Plus, working harder and longer often isn’t even an option for those at the mercy of an unpredictable schedule. Nearly 40 percent of full-time hourly workers know their work schedules just a week or less in advance. And if you give it your all in a job… that job might not exist for very long: Half of all new positions are eliminated within the first year. According to the labor sociologist Arne Kallenberg, permanent terminations have become ‘a basic component of employers’ restructuring strategies.’ ”

Desmond tracks the story of one home health care worker and her three children. They are homeless some of the time, living in motel rooms or in the car or sometimes with a relative. Desmond defines home health care, “as an archetypal job in this new, low-pay service economy.  Demand for home health care has surged as the population has aged, but according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2017 median annual income for home health aides in the United States was just $23,130.” For a mother with three children, the family Desmond describes in this story, “the federal government estimates (the) family would need to bring in $29,420 a year.”

Unlike House Speaker Paul Ryan who favors a “bootstrap” philosophy, Desmond describes the benefits of our already feeble safety net as absolute necessities for a working-poor family. The mother in the family Desmond profiles, received $5,000 in earned-income and child tax credits: “They helped raise her income, but not above the poverty line. If the working poor are doing better than the nonworking poor, which is the case, it’s not so much because of their jobs per se, but because their employment status provides them access to desperately needed government help. This has caused growing inequality below the poverty line, with the working poor receiving much more social aid than the abandoned nonworking poor or the precariously employed, who are plunged into destitution.”

All kinds of families have children in the public schools—middle class families, working poor families, precariously employed families, and families who are part of the abandoned nonworking poor. And our society  has grown more segregated by income, where in the poorest communities—exemplified by Muskegon, Michigan—poverty among the school district’s families is concentrated. Michigan’s Bridge Magazine has been tracking the impact of poverty at school in Muskegon, and in a story this week, Ron French reports that despite extraordinary efforts by the school district, many children are in danger of being held back at the end of this school year in third grade, because the state has passed a Job Bush model law, the Third Grade Reading Guarantee.

French visits Moon Elementary School, where the principal describes the school’s efforts to promote literacy in the early grades: “Since the third-grade reading reading law passed in 2016, Moon Elementary has added ‘classroom libraries’ in its classrooms, (libraries) filled with books purchased through donations. Moon Principal Okeela McBride ticked off the school’s other early literacy efforts: ‘We have extended school day at the K-2 level…  We have Champs, MTSS, (and) Kagan training.’  The school is part of the Reading Now Network, an early literacy program organized by superintendents in West Michigan, and uses i-Ready curriculum software to track student progress. Across Muskegon County, more than 22,000 books have been distributed to low-income families with pre-kindergarten children since January….  Across the state, $80 million has been spent on early literacy efforts since the third-grade reading law was passed. And scores have gone down.”

French describes Ms. McBride’s understanding of her school’s and her children’s needs: “Moon Principal McBride thinks the emphasis on literacy curriculum isn’t enough for students in districts like Muskegon, where 90 percent of students are low-income and 159 students were homeless in the 2016-17 school year. Low test scores and low income go hand-in-hand across Michigan. Muskegon’s third-grade reading scores were in the third percentile in the state, but income in the district was in the bottom 1 percent in the state, with a median household income of $28,286.”

The principal would like to have enough funding to offer more support for children as well as for families. Today, “Moon elementary has a social worker one day a week and no counselors.”

The press publishes test scores and school ratings as though all schools have the same resources and as though all families have the same resources and the same needs. Unfortunately in our astoundingly unequal society, many who live in wealthier communities are unaware of the realities in communities where poverty is concentrated.