Exploding Inequality and Poverty: We Got the “Failing” Schools Narrative Wrong and Failed to See the Real Problem

Two articles published this week make interesting companions.

The first is Jack Schneider’s post—published in the Washington Post as part of Valerie Strauss’s column: How Are America’s Public Schools Really Doing?  Schneider, of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, explores the fact that widespread public perception of America’s public education system tanked after No Child Left Behind labeled an ever-increasing number of schools as failing every year.  So-called failing schools were the ones that couldn’t make Adequate Yearly Progress on what we now know was a crazy and unrealistic timeline.  It became apparent, as the 2014 deadline approached when all public schools were supposed to make every child proficient or be labeled “failing,” that almost every school in America would have been received the label except that Arne Duncan’s Department of Education began granting the states waivers from what had become a ridiculous expectation.

Schneider describes what became a widely believed narrative: “(T)he emergence of this popular belief (in the failure of our schools) may illustrate the triumph of rhetoric rather than an actual shift in school quality… New lows were established in 2007 and 2008, as the failures of No Child Left Behind began to clearly reveal themselves, before confidence fell to 29 percent in 2012, the year the federal government began issuing waivers form NCLB’s accountability mechanisms… then to an all-time low in 2014, at 26 percent.”

Schneider shows, however, that scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress in both language arts and math remained relatively flat, in fact growing very slightly between the 1970s and 2012.  Schneider concludes: “(I)t seems that national reform rhetoric has driven the decline in perceptions of school quality.  For the past several decades, Americans have been inundated with messages about a crisis in public education.”

Having rejected the narrative of widespread public school failure, Schneider reminds us that we do have an education problem, but we’ve chosen to ignore it as we listened to the wrong narrative: “But sweeping, large-scale reform is hardly the remedy for what ails our most vulnerable schools—the schools where our poorest and least advantaged students are all so often concentrated together. Disruption, which is so highly lauded in the private sector, is exactly what those schools don’t need. Instead, what they need is courageous policy addressing issues like school integration and compensatory funding… Instead of telling a largely untrue story about a system in decline—a story that absolves us of any personal responsibility—we might begin telling a different story: about a system that works.  It works to deliver a high-quality education to those we collectively embrace. And it works in a different way for those we have collectively refused. When a school fails, it is because we have failed.”

Schneider’s column is dated on the same day as Eliza Shapiro’s shocking story in the NY Times about the very students Schneider worries about, the students our society fails to embrace. The headline on Shapiro’s story is a shocker, although anybody who has noticed the price of housing in places like New York City or San Francisco or Seattle or Boston shouldn’t be a bit surprised: Homeless in New York Public Schools Is at a Record High: 114,659 Students. Shapiro explains: “Tonight, about one out of every 10 students in New York City will sleep in a homeless shelter or in the homes of relatives. That’s more children than at any other time since city records have been kept. In the morning, those same children will fan out across the city to go to school, some crossing multiple boroughs to get there.”  Here are some of the facts: “There are about 1.1 million children in the city’s public schools in total.” “There are more homeless students in New York City than people in Albany.” “At 144 public schools, a third of the children are homeless.” “In one Bronx school district, 10,804 students are homeless.” “For every 1,660 homeless students, there’s roughly 1 social worker.” “(T)he number of students in temporary housing has ballooned to 114,659 students as of last spring, from 69,244 children in 2010.”

Shapiro explains that Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city have struggled to address this problem which has overwhelmed the city’s institutions: “The city first earmarked $10.3 million for homeless students in 2016, and increased spending on social workers and other services for homeless students to $13.9 million last year, with the City Council pitching in about another $2 million from its own budget.  For perspective, the Department of Education’s total budget for the current school year is $32.3 billion.  The amount set aside for services pays for about 70 social workers—or roughly one social worker for every 1,660 homeless students. The funding also pays for more after-school programs and additional staff to help homeless families apply to schools. In addition, the city started to send students in kindergarten through sixth grade who were living in homeless shelters to school by bus in 2016.”  Richard Carranza, the NYC Schools Chancellor, has announced that the school district is “bringing this work under the Office of Community Schools to address key challenges students and families face.”

Homeless students are not purely a school problem, but our society has neither actively chosen to connect the issues around housing and health care and poverty that converge in the lives of these public school students nor considered how to address the families’ challenges outside of school. The children’s needs must, of course, be addressed by their schools. Shapiro describes Meghan Dunn, the principal of Public School 446 in Brooklyn: “Last year, Ms. Dunn said she got a call from a mother who was injured in a nearby homeless shelter and needed surgery.  But when the mother was forced to find another shelter, her four children, all of whom attended P.S. 446, had to figure out a way to travel to the Bronx to apply for a new placement at the city’s sole intake center for homeless families… Ms. Dunn sent one of her social workers to the shelter to help arrange a paid taxi ride to bring the injured mother and her children across the city, but the four students still missed several days of school. That was one of many emergency situations that Ms. Dunn said she dealt with that week.”

Ironically, although, “New York City is arguably the philanthropic center of the world… the philanthropic arm of the Frankfurt, Germany-based Deutsche Bank is the only organization that has given more than $1 million to specifically support homeless students in recent years.”

What is the Forum for Government Accountability? Farm Bill Debate in Congress Exposed FGA Role

Thank goodness the Farm Bill failed in the U.S. House of Representatives last week. The House’s despicable bill to punish the poor fell victim to division and rancor among House Republicans—division mostly about another fraught issue: immigration.

The Farm Bill includes food stamps—SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—and the bill that failed would have punished poor families by imposing strict and punitive work requirements for the adults who qualify for SNAP—including millions of  parents with children.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities tells us: “In 2016, some 19 million children received SNAP each month, accounting for 44 percent of all SNAP participants.”

SNAP matters not only for individuals but also for public schools for two primary reasons. Twenty years after welfare reform utterly failed to end poverty, SNAP is among our society’s few remaining anti-poverty programs, and we know that school achievement and children’s life chances are closely correlated with poverty.  In their stunning book, $2.00 a Day, Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer document that in 2011, three million children were living in families with cash income totaling only $2.00 per person, per day.  For such families in extreme poverty, Edin and Shaefer demonstrate that SNAP is the family’s lifeline. SNAP is also used to calculate eligibility for children to receive school breakfast and  lunch. The punitive House Farm Bill would have made it more difficult for children to qualify for the school meals they count on.

The new work requirements prescribed in the, now defeated, House bill would have made parents of school age children ineligible for SNAP unless parents regularly documented they are working 20 hours every week. Parents of preschoolers were to have been protected from this requirement in the proposed law, but once children reached school age, their parents would have been affected.  If a parent’s employer were to have cut her hours in one week to less than 20 or if she missed hours to take a child to the doctor, for example, reducing her hours below 20, she would have been cut off the program for a year.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains the new work requirements the House hoped to have imposed on SNAP recipients: “Parents would have to prove each month that they worked or were in job training 20 hours per week… About half of SNAP participants had at least one month in which they participated in SNAP but didn’t work at least 80 hours. Even among those who worked 20 hours per week over the year on average, more than one-quarter didn’t meet those requirements every month.”

Unless Congress can agree on a Farm Bill, SNAP will continue helping very poor families who qualify. That is why the collapse of the House version is such a positive development.

But thanks to the Washington Post‘s Caitlin Dewey, however, in the context of the Congressional debate about the Farm Bill, we can learn something about one of the sources of the focus of the House Freedom Caucus’s determination to add work requirements to seemingly every poverty program, from food stamps to Medicaid. Dewey describes a think tank that provides ideological grounding for far-right politicians in Congress and across the states to promote the idea that poverty programs ought to punish the poor out of poverty. Dewey reports that the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) presents politicians with, “proof that most Americans support strict work rules in welfare programs and that such rules boost income and employment… (I)t has churned out a steady stream of infographics, opinion polls and first-person videos to promote its policies, many trumpeting a 2016 FGA study from Kansas that claimed the reinstatement of SNAP work requirements prompted thousands of unemployed Kansans to get jobs and more than doubled their average incomes.”

But there is something very wrong with FGA’s research.  Dewey explains: “The study, while much promoted by Republicans, has been panned by both liberal and conservative economists for cherry-picking data. Among other issues, the paper only reports outcomes from former food-stamp recipients who found jobs after they lost benefits, said Jeffrey Grogger an applied microeconomist at the University of Chicago who has studied welfare. Grogger also said the paper failed to establish a direct relationship between the welfare policy changes and outcomes for recipients. Most welfare recipients obtain jobs and leave the program anyway, he said, regardless of work requirements.  And he said the paper is at odds with the scientific literature that has largely found the rules do not greatly improve recipients’ incomes, and may even hurt them.”

The Foundation for Government Accountability is connected with a who’s who of right-wing ideologues. It is led by Tarren Bragdon, a former advisor to Maine’s Governor Paul LePage, and connected with Sam Brownback, who imposed work requirements on food stamps as governor of Kansas.  U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan is another acolyte: “At a meeting with Bragdon in May 2016, and in subsequent conversation, Ryan expressed interest in FGA’s work and research…. In January 2017, FGA hired its first federal lobbyist.  One year later, Bragdon made a presentation to House GOP leaders on ‘how to successfully move people from welfare to work’ in programs such as SNAP.”

Dewey quotes Bragdon describing his organization’s mission: “Our approach is to really tackle one big issue: How to give more Americans the life-changing power of work, at both the state and federal level.”

The organization’s funders?  One is  Wisconsin’s libertarian Bradley Foundation, whose funding was instrumental in driving the establishment of the nation’s oldest school voucher program in Milwaukee in the 1990s.

Following the practices of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), FGA creates and distributes model bills ready to be adapted and introduced in state legislatures across the country: “FGA developed model state legislation, dubbed the HOPE Act, which bars states from seeking federal waivers from SNAP’s work rules. The bill has been introduced in 16 states since 2016 and passed in Kansas, Mississippi and Wisconsin.  FGA says elements of the bill have been adopted in 28 states total.”

The Foundation for Government Accountability operates a sophisticated communications strategy: “Bragdon said he is ‘proud’ of his group’s research, which he has pushed to get in front of as many lawmakers as possible. FGA specializes in slick policy one-pagers, which—with their color-coded headlines and catchy graphics—appear to bear a debt to Bragdon’s brother, Trevor, a behavioral scientist who has worked with FGA and specializes in ‘persuasive branding’ for conservative causes.”

The Foundation for Government Accountability and the politicians like Paul Ryan who subscribe to its views are libertarians. In a recent Washington Post piece, Greg Sargent described this kind of thinking : “House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R. Wis.)… has declared himself an apostle of the radical individualism of Ayn Rand. In 2009, he claimed that Rand’s achievement was to explain ‘the morality of capitalism,’ which he described as ‘the morality of individuals working towards their own free will, to produce, to achieve, to succeed.’… Ryan has long believed, as many libertarians do, that taxes and the safety net are paramount threats to individual liberty, both because redistribution is confiscation from the productive ‘makers’ and because… the safety net squelches individual initiative, turning them into ‘takers.’”

As Ryan and like-minded politicians across Congress and the state governments pursue such policies to punish those they consider takers, they ignore the realities of low-wage work—low pay, sporadic scheduling which workers cannot control, and the dearth of jobs in many places. They also seem oblivious to the impact on the children living in poor families. Last week, the Washington Post‘s Jeff Stein reported on the findings of a new report from Diane Schanzenbach of Northwestern University and Hilary Hoynes of the University of California at Berkeley: “The federal government now spends less than it did about 30 years ago on some of the country’s poorest children, the result of cuts to federal welfare programs… In 1990, the government spent about $8,700 on every child whose family took in no income from work. By 2015, accounting for inflation, it spent less than $7,000 on children from these impoverished families… Much of the drop was driven by cuts to direct welfare payment programs, which once went to 76 percent of poor families with children but now goes to 23 percent of them.”  And additional federal dollars spent on child welfare are primarily from the Earned Income Tax Credit, an essential program that has raised many families out of poverty, but also a program which assists families where parents are already working and fails to serve the families of the nation’s most destitute children.

How can our politicians have missed the message from the schoolteachers who have been walking out all spring? Teachers have been telling us that poverty affects the children who fill their classes and also creates enormous challenges for their schools. Stein reminds us: “The U.S. spends less on children than almost any other developed nation… In 1995, America ranked ahead of nine developed nations in the share of the economy the federal government spends on children. Since 2004, America has ranked third-to-last in spending, with only Mexico and Turkey lagging behind, as other countries have increased their spending on family benefits.”

Years ago I heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson profoundly assess the ethical implications of our society’s devotion to competition and rewards for individual initiative—saving a few strivers at the expense of the vulnerable: “There are those who make the case for a race to the top for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.” We like to talk about leaving no child behind, but as a society we lack any commitment to such an ethic.

Thank goodness the House Farm Bill was defeated due to political disarray in the House. Let’s work for the day when Congress will assume its moral responsibility for our most vulnerable children.

America’s Dirty Secret

On Sunday, criticizing Ohio Senator Rob Portman for failing to speak out against Congress’s most recent attempt to throw away health care coverage for vulnerable families, Brent Larkin, Plain Dealer columnist and retired director of the editorial page, reminded readers that Portman’s wife serves on the board of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. And yet, Larkin explains, Portman voted earlier this summer to throw away significant health care coverage for children. Larkin quotes a letter to Congress signed by the heads of children’s hospitals throughout the country, a letter that wonders: “Children represent the future of the United States. Where are kids in these discussions? Do Congress and the White House see safeguarding children’s health care as a national priority?”

The struggles of poor children have been omitted from our two-decades’ discussion about school reform as well. No Child Left Behind said we would hold schools accountable, instituted a plan to punish schools and teachers unable quickly to raise scores on standardized tests, and failed to invest significantly in the schools in poor communities. The failure to address the needs of poor children and their schools has been bipartisan. President George W. Bush and a bipartisan coalition in Congress brought us No Child Left Behind. President Obama pushed education policy that purported to “turnaround” the lowest scoring and poorest schools by closing or charterizing them. And Obama’s administration brought us the demand that states’ evaluation plans for teachers incorporate their students’ standardized test scores—without any consideration of the neighborhood and family struggles that affect poor children’s test scores or of the immense contribution of family wealth to the scores of privileged children.  Neither Bush nor Obama significantly increased the federal investment to help our nation’s  poorest urban and rural schools. The topics of rampant child poverty and growing inequality—along with growing residential segregation by income—have been absent from of our political dialogue.

Child poverty is well documented. Just last week the Economic Policy Institute presented a simple bar graph showing that one third of Native American and African American children are (still) in poverty.  Although child poverty declined for most racial and ethnic groups in 2016, here are the stark numbers that describe our society’s reality: While only 10.8 percent of white children live in poverty and 11.1 percent of Asian American children live in poverty, 33.8 percent of Native American and 30.8 percent of African American children live in poverty, along with 26.6 percent of Hispanic American children. These are alarming disparities. Native American and Black children are three times more likely to be poor than their white peers.  The Economic Policy Institute argues for raising the minimum wage; expanding refundable tax credits and the food stamp program, now called SNAP; and expanding Medicaid and affordable health care.  When was the last time you heard a politician seriously advocating for such programs?

In August, Elizabeth Harris of the NY Times once again outlined the extent of child homelessness in New York City—a devastating problem for families and children and for their public schools: “There were 100,000 homeless students in New York City public schools during the 2015-16 school year, a number equal to the population of Albany… If current trends continue… one in every seven New York City public school students will be homeless at some point during elementary school.”

Harris quotes Anna Shaw-Amoah, a policy analyst at the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, the agency which released the data Harris describes: “In every school classroom, that’s two or three kids… And the challenges are not just about whether you’re currently living in a shelter or a doubled up setting, but did they have that experience last year, or did they have this experience in Kindergarten?  The instability really travels with students. If you fall behind in one year, it’s going to be harder to get on grade level the next year.”

Harris continues: “The growing number of homeless children is part of the fallout of the city’s housing crisis, which has seen a growing number of families in city shelters as rents have risen, federal and state aid has dwindled, and a state rental assistance program ended… The typical homeless elementary school student missed 88 days of school…. Families who have lost their home must make the wrenching choice of leaving a child in a school they know, or transferring them to a school closer to where they are staying. Moving to a new school may further the feeling of dislocation but it makes it easier for the child to get to class.”

What effect does all this have on students?  “Homeless children were more likely than those with stable housing to be on the wrong side of a huge array of indicators. They were more likely to be suspended or drop out, more likely to face delays in being identified as needing special education services, and more likely to need services to help them learn English. Their proficiency rates on the state math and English exams for third through eighth graders were about 20 points lower than their classmates.”

John Merrow just published Addicted to Reform, a memoir about what he learned during his decades-long career as the education reporter for the PBS NewsHour. The most stunning section of the book describes the cost to our society of what Merrow derides as our society’s addiction to accountability-driven, test-and-punish school reform—the policies that were mandated by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  Merrow devotes the second chapter of the book, “Calculate the Cost of School Reform,” to examining the education policy in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. He concludes: “Children, teachers, schools, and society have paid a price for school reform, however well-meaning some reformers may have been. Our addiction to school reform has caused significant collateral damage: a narrowed curriculum, thousands of hours spent on testing and test prep, a demoralized teaching force, the resignations of effective teachers fed up with excessive testing, time and money spent recruiting those teachers’ replacements, huge cuts and occasional bankruptcy proceedings in school districts because of dollars diverted to online for-profit charter schools, and the cumulative negative effects on the public’s view of schools caused by the drumbeat of criticism.”(p.54)

But Merrow’s strongest words are for all those who have refused to acknowledge the impact of poverty on the lives of children and who are content to do nothing about poverty:  “To me, the biggest hypocrites in the world of education are the advocates of school reform who preach that ‘poverty can never be offered as an excuse’ for poor student performance but then do nothing to alleviate poverty and its attendant conditions. What they are saying, bottom line, is that it’s the teachers’ fault when kids in poverty-ridden schools do poorly on tests or fail to graduate… Even if these so-called thought leaders genuinely believe that poverty is not an excuse, shouldn’t they be outraged that most states are actively making things worse for poor kids?  At least thirty states are systematically shortchanging poor areas when they distribute education dollars… ‘The richest 25 percent of school districts receive 15.6 percent more funds from state and local governments per student than the poorest 25 percent of school districts….’” (pp.25-26)

Teaching “Grit,” Blaming the Poor, and Undermining the Public Will to Address Poverty

Our preoccupation in American education with character formation defined as “grit” is integral to our culture’s rock-solid belief in the myth of the American Dream.  It doesn’t matter that economists today are documenting rigidifying inequality with the rise of incomes at the top, wage stagnation for families in the middle, and deepening poverty and segregation among those at the very bottom. It doesn’t matter that Nobel Prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz explains: “There’s no use in pretending. In spite of the enduring belief that Americans enjoy greater social mobility than their European counterparts, America is no longer the land of opportunity.” (The Price of Inequality, p. 265)  And it doesn’t matter that last year Robert Putnam published a whole book about the increasing rigidity of social stratification in America: “Graphically, the ups and downs of inequality in America during the twentieth century trace a gigantic U, beginning and ending in two Gilded Ages, but with a long period of relative equality around mid-century… In the early 1970s, however, that decades-long equalizing trend began to reverse, slowly at first but then with accelerating harshness… (I)n the 1980s the top began to pull away from everyone else, and in the first decades of the twenty-first century the very top began to pull away even from the top.  Even within each major racial/ethnic group, income inequality rose at the same substantial rate between 1967 and 2011, as richer whites, blacks and Latinos pulled away ….”  (Our Kids, pp. 34-35)

Despite these economic realities, however, and even though most of us know that some people face overwhelming challenges, we sustain a contradiction by holding fast to our belief in the American Dream.  Heather Beth Johnson, a sociologist, and her team of researchers interviewed hundreds of people about their understanding of the rags to riches story.  Here is a typical transcript of one of those interviews: “*Interviewer: ‘Do you think there are some ethnicities, races, groups in this country that are more disadvantaged than others?’  *Responder: ‘Yeah.’  *Interviewer: ‘So you think there are certain groups… as a whole that have a harder time making it today?’ *Responder: ‘Sure. Definitely.’  *Interviewer: ‘Okay, now, what about the American Dream? The idea that with hard work and desire, individual potential is unconstrained… everyone gets an equal chance to get ahead based on their own achievement?’  *Responder: ‘That’s a very good definition.’ *Interviewer: ‘Do you believe that the American Dream is true for all people and that everybody does have an equal chance?’  *Responder: ‘Yes. Everybody has an equal chance, no matter who he or she is.’” (The American Dream and the Power of Wealth, pp. 146-147)

We pin our hopes on social mobility through hard work and desire. It is an especially appealing myth in an era when we know that addressing the problems of inequality, poverty, segregation, and massive inequity of school resources would be very difficult and very expensive. Yesterday for the NY Times, Kate Zernike reported on an effort in a handful of California school districts to teach “grit” and to make standardized tests evaluate whether students are learning and schools are teaching the character skills thought to contribute to success in life:  “As reward for minutes without misconduct, they win prizes like 20 seconds to kick their feet up on their desks or to play rock-paper-scissors.  And starting this year, their school and schools in eight other California districts will test students on how well they have learned the kind of skills like self-control and conscientiousness… ones that might be described as everything you should have learned in kindergarten but are still reading self-help books to master in middle age.”

Paul Tough, in his 2012 book How Children Succeed, lauded the idea that schools should focus on strengthening character.  He profiled the work of Angela Duckworth and her scale of character traits that included: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity. (p, 76)  Duckworth herself is reported in yesterday’s NY Times piece, however, to oppose the idea of testing character: “‘I do not think we should be doing this; it is a bad idea,’ said Angela Duckworth, the MacArthur fellow who has done more than anyone to popularize social-emotional learning…. She resigned from the board of the group overseeing the California project, saying she could not support using the tests to evaluate school performance.”

Proponents of character education are defending such testing based on an ironic perversion of a provision of the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, that adds one additional element in addition to standardized achievement test scores that states can choose themselves, but which they must submit to the U.S. Department of Education as part of their school evaluation plan. The outcomes-based No Child Left Behind never considered the vast disparities in opportunity created by inequitable school funding, for example, or inequitable access to guidance counselors or inequitable class size.  During the reauthorization process last year, the National Education Association lobbied hard for the addition of an Opportunity Dashboard as part of federally mandated school evaluation. The compromise with a conservative Congress, however, resulted in the addition of only one factor from the proposed dashboard that states could choose to add when they submitted their data to the U.S. Department of Education.  Here is how NEA describes what that extra factor is intended to be: “For the first time in ESEA’s long history, the Every Student Succeeds Act requires that…. (t)o help ensure resource equity and opportunity for all students… state-designed accountability systems must include at least one ‘dashboard’ indicator of school success or student support—for example, access to advanced coursework, fine arts, and regular physical education; school climate and safety; discipline policies; bullying prevention; and the availability of counselors or nurses.”  California’s experiment with making that one extra factor a student’s score on a standardized character education test is a wacky and dangerous perversion of the law.

Of course, apart from the matter of whether character traits should be tested and schools judged by the results, there are the controversial strategies some schools are already using to “teach” character.  We have heard a lot this month about misguided practices being used to “build character” in no-excuses charter schools.  It has become known that in NYC, at Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charters, staff are taught that when a student cries, it means the child is paying attention and is more likely to shape up. We watched a video in which a Success Academy teacher berated a first-grade child and ripped up the student’s paper—a disciplinary technique, we were to assume, would strengthen character.  And then we learned from the child’s mother about her horror as she watched the video in which the teacher insulted her child in front of the child’s peers and undermined her daughter’s confidence.  Also well known is the behavior code used to teach character in KIPP (Knowledge is Power) charter schools, where students are expected to SLANT: Sit up—Listen—Ask and Answer questions—Nod—Track the speaker.

In the 2014 revision of his classic, Why School?, Mike Rose added an extra chapter, “Being Careful About Character,” in response to Paul Tough’s book and to what Rose surmised might be a dangerous educational strategy.  He warns: “When the emphasis on character is focused on the individual attributes of poor children as the reason for their subpar academic performance, it can remove broader policies to address poverty and educational inequality from public discussion… (W)e have to be very careful, given the political tenor of our time, not to assume that we have the long-awaited key to helping the poor overcome the assaults of poverty.  My worry is that we will embrace these essentially individual and technocratic fixes—mental conditioning for the poor—and abandon broader social policy aimed at poverty itself.”

Rose continues: “We have a long-standing shameful tendency in America to attribute all sorts of pathologies to the poor… We seem willing to accept remedies for the poor that we are not willing to accept for anyone else.  We should use our science to figure out why that is so—and then develop the character and courage to fully address poverty when it is an unpopular cause.” (Why School?,  2014 Revised Edition, pp. 112-115)

Child Poverty Among Blacks and Hispanics Persists as U.S. Fails to Address Its Causes

Two new reports document very troubling rates of high poverty among children in the United States. As a society we ought to be ashamed that we tolerate devastating child poverty and residential economic segregation without concerted policy strategies to ameliorate challenges for the children.  African American children are most seriously affected.

In the NY Times, Sabrina Tavernise summarizes new data from the Pew Research Center:  “Black children were almost four times as likely as white children to be living in poverty in 2013, a new report has found….  (T)he poverty rate has remained stable for black children, while it fell for Hispanic, white and Asian children, a sign of just how pervasive and stubborn poverty has been for African American children…. About 38.3 percent of black children lived in poverty in 2013, nearly four times the rate for white children, at 10.7 percent.  About 30.4 percent of Hispanic children and 10.1 percent of Asian children live in poverty.  For the first time since the federal government started collecting the data, the number of black children in poverty appears to have overtaken the number of poor white children, even though white children far outnumber black children in the American population…”  The federal poverty rate is currently $23,624 for a family of four.

Reporting that the economy is finally rebounding but that child poverty remains alarmingly high for African American and Hispanic families, the Annie E. Casey Foundation explores the same problem in its 2015 Kids Count Data Book, released earlier this week: “Although new job growth has occurred at all wage levels, it has been disproportionate in low-wage sectors, such as retail and food services, and in some of the lower-wage positions within health care and home care.  And a stagnating federal minimum wage has exacerbated low wages.  During the last three months of 2014, the unemployment rate for whites and Asian Americans was roughly 4.5 percent, compared with a devastating 11 percent for African Americans and 6.7 percent for Latinos…  As of April 2015, 17.6 percent of African American workers and 14.4 percent of Latino workers were jobless or working only part time when they wanted full-time work.” “Compounding this issue, low-wage hourly jobs are increasingly subject to unpredictable and irregular schedules, which makes it difficult for parents to arrange child care and transportation; erratic schedules also lead to volatile incomes.”

The Annie E. Casey Foundation advocates a “two-generation approach” to helping America’s poorest children.  “The best way to facilitate optimal outcomes for today’s children is to address their needs, while providing tools and assistance to their parents.”  Parents need jobs that pay a living wage: “State and federal programs that boost income, including the Earned Income Tax Credit and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), help individual families a great deal.  But ultimately, we cannot sustain a healthy national economy without more jobs that pay higher wages… Individuals who are willing to work hard should be able to provide for their families.  We don’t need to accept the current proliferation of low-quality jobs as inevitable.”  “Higher pay, paid sick  and family leave, employee input into scheduling, and Unimployment Insurance benefits during temporary spells of unemployment can make a world of difference in the lives of workers and their children by boosting family income, reducing parental stress, and increasing parents’ capacity to invest in their kids”

Residentially concentrated poverty—growing residential segregation by income—has increased significantly according to the new 2015 Kids Count: “One of the most troubling trends for child well-being is that the percentage of children living in concentrated poverty continues to increase.  In 2009, 9 percent of children lived in census tracts where the poverty rate of the total population was 30 percent or more.  That figure rose to 14 percent for the period from 2009-2013.”  Back in 2011, Sean Reardon a sociologist at Stanford University, released massive data reports confirming the connection of school achievement gaps to growing economic inequality and residential patterns becoming rapidly more segregated by income across America’s large metropolitan areas. Reardon documented that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  According to Reardon’s research, the achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

This blog recently covered a new report by Emma Garcia at the Economic Policy Institute that reached exactly the same conclusion as the new Kids Count. Garcia makes concrete suggestions for closing the opportunity gaps among children that exist long before the children reach Kindergarten.  She endorses expanding the affordability, availability and quality of child care and pre-Kindergarten education.  She also advocates improving funding and programming in the public schools in our poorest communities.  But she adds: “The most straightforward way to decrease poverty among children and thus increase the resources available to them is to boost their parents’ incomes” including “policies aimed at increasing  overall wages and employment, especially at the lower rungs of the employment and wage ladders.” “Raising the minimum wage would also help ensure that parents working full-time do not have to rely on public assistance to provide their children with the basic necessities… We could also make those wages go further by increasing the earned income tax credit and child tax credit….  Raising incomes for middle-and low-social class families is key to ensuring their children do not grow up in poverty… Closing education gaps… calls for policies that address…  structural factors that influence a child’s odds of growing up poor.”

Child Poverty Rate Falls Slightly But Poverty Still Casts a Long Shadow

Earlier this week the Census released data for 2013 showing that child poverty fell to approximately 20 percent.  Despite the slight improvement, one in five American children still lives below the federal poverty line of $18,769 for a single-parent family of three.  According to the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), “Almost 9 percent of children—6.5 million—were in ‘deeply poor’ families with cash incomes under half of the poverty level (around $9,300 in 2013 for a family of three.)”  Children are far more likely than adults to be poor, and children of color are far more likely to be poor than white children. Last year 38.3 percent of black children were poor and 30.4 percent of Hispanic children were poor, while only 10.7 percent of white children were poor.  According to CLASP’s report, “Children under age three had the highest poverty rates, and the prevalence of poverty was highest during these earliest, most formative years of children’s lives—with potentially lasting consequences for education, health, and other key outcomes.”

Writing for the NY Times on Wednesday, Thomas Edsall examines the issue of how to intervene in the cycle of poverty to help children transcend their parents economic circumstances.  Exploring a well-known Moving to Opportunity study, which tracked whether academic achievement improved for children whose families were given housing vouchers to move to less poor neighborhoods, Edsall explains that moving did not seem to improve the children’s accomplishments at school.  He interviewed Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, who points out that flaws in the study may have affected its results.  Wilson notes that while many of the families in the study left public housing, they “moved to segregated neighborhoods nonetheless, far from employment opportunities…. Social conditions were only marginally better than those they had left.”  Edsall also interviewed another Harvard sociologist, Robert Sampson, who explains that “many of the adults in the program had lived in extreme poverty for decades and that the children, who were on average 11 years old when they entered the program, had spent their early years living in adversity.”

Edsall concludes, “Multigenerational poverty is self-evidently more than a question of housing.  It is unlikely to yield to even the best-intentioned one-dimensional approach… We have to figure out a better way to approach intervention, whether it’s education-based or neighborhood-based or both.”

For a deeper exploration of the issues facing children who grow up in poverty, one can turn to a recently published and unusual longitudinal study of the lives of a sizeable group of children in Baltimore.  The authors, sociologists from Johns Hopkins University—Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Olson—tracked 790 children from 1982 when they entered first grade in twenty elementary schools in Baltimore until they reached adulthood. The children who are the subject of the study in The Long Shadow reside in several poor and working class census tracts.  Year after year the researchers interviewed the children, their families, and their teachers:

“Members of the Youth Panel were six-year-old children when we first entered their lives in 1982 and young adults when we exited in 2006.  Their voices are heard throughout this volume by way of wide-ranging conversations with them during the summers of 1995 and 1996, and in 2000 throughout the year, all well after high school.  These sessions—162 in all—asked members of the sample to reflect on their years growing up and to look ahead to their anticipated futures… The Young Adult Survey (YAS ) commenced in 1998 with 82 percent of the interviews completed that year…. Parents and teachers of the children also are represented.  Parents were interviewed up to eleven times from first grade to eleventh grade and teachers interviewed up to nine times, the last in ninth grade.”  School records were also collected for the study. (The Long Shadow, pp. 15-16)

It is impossible in a short blog post to do justice to this complex and fascinating study.  I urge you to find a copy of The Long Shadow.  These words from the book’s conclusion, however, shed light on the reasons Edsall struggles to find a satisfying solution to the persistence of the shadow of poverty.  As the children in their study grow up, Alexander, Entwisle, and Olson trace the many formative influences that make escaping poverty  so challenging:

“What ultimately determines well-being in adulthood is how young people negotiate the transition to adulthood, which is rooted in resources all the way back to first grade (and from other literatures, before first grade.)  We see that children are launched onto stable trajectories very early in life….  First, the SES of their schools aligns with that of their neighborhoods, and both trace back to the SES of their parents.  This configuration has the children of the urban advantaged trebly advantaged and their lower SES counterparts trebly disadvantaged across the social contexts that bear on their development, and this before they even make it to school.  Second, parents’ plans for their children are in place long before high school, and these plans are strong determinants of their children’s school performance and goals in life….  Parents’ ideas about their children’s future reflect their own social structural locations.  In addition, the foundational school curriculum in the early years is cumulative.  Not surprisingly then, when children of the Baltimore Youth Panel grow up with parents who have less than a high school education, their school careers tend to be foreshortened.  A few do move up by way of college, but just a few.  For the rest, their SES as adults reflects theirs as children” (The Long Shadow, pp. 187-188)


Will the President Say Something Meaningful in SOTU about Inequality and Public Education?

Sean Reardon, the Stanford University sociologist has extensively documented the impact of neighborhood inequality on school achievement.

In a report released last fall, Residential Segregation by Income, 1970-2009, with Kendra Bischoff of Cornell University, Reardon describes residential segregation by income across our nation’s 117 largest metropolitan areas (those with populations of 500,000 in 2009).  These metropolitan areas are, according to Bischoff and Reardon, “home to 197 million people.”

Bischoff and Reardon study the segregation of families, not households, because, “Segregation is likely more consequential for children than for adults for two reasons. First most children spend a great deal of time in their neighborhood, making that immediate context particularly salient for them, while adults generally work and socialize in a larger geographic area.  Second, for children, income segregation can lead to disparities in crucial public amenities, like schools, parks, libraries, and recreation.”

Children are affected by “neighborhood composition effects” such as the poverty rate, the average educational attainment level and the proportion of single parent families in their neighborhood as well as by “resource distribution effects” that include investments in their schools and recreation facilities as well as the presence of public hazards like pollution or crime.

While the research report is dense, the conclusions demonstrate clearly that in America we are increasingly raising our children in pockets of extreme poverty or pockets of extreme affluence:

  • By 2009 the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods had increased—to 33 percent (from 15 percent in 1970) and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods had declined to 42 percent in 2009 (from 65 percent in 1970), with increased segregation at both ends of the income distribution.  Both high-and low-income families became increasingly residentially isolated in the 2000s, resulting in greater polarization of neighborhoods by income, although, “During the last four decades, the isolation of the rich has been consistently greater than the isolation of the poor.”
  • Income segregation has grown significantly over four decades for black and Hispanic families, but particularly in the years since 2000.  While income inequality among black families did not grow significantly in the two most recent decades from 1990 to 2009, residential segregation by income did grow considerably among black families.  “Low-income black and Hispanic families are much more isolated from middle-class black and Hispanic families than are low-income white families from middle- and high-income white families.  The rapid growth of income segregation among black families has exacerbated the clustering of poor black families in neighborhoods with very high poverty rates.  And while middle class black families were less likely to live in neighborhoods with low-income black families, this does not mean that middle-class blacks gained access to middle-class white neighborhoods…”  Racial segregation continues even for the black middle class.

In an earlier 2011 study, Reardon demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap.  The inequality achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

During the George Bush and Barack Obama administrations, support has been bipartisan for a political agenda that fails to address child poverty and that ignores growing economic inequality and accompanying isolation of the poorest children in urban neighborhoods defined by their concentrated poverty.  The bipartisan agenda, established in the 2002 federal testing law, No Child Left Behind, and perpetuated in ongoing policies like Race to the Top, has operated through sanctions for the schools and teachers struggling to raise test scores in the poorest neighborhoods of America’s big cities. Today’s bipartisan public school “reform” philosophy is dominated by the principles of competition (ranking and rating schools), creative disruption (closing schools and firing principals and teachers), and privatization (assuming that charter schools  and even on-line schools can magically address the needs of children who struggle).  There has been little conversation about addressing inequality, ameliorating poverty, or even bringing school funding up to a level of equity between wealthy and poor school districts.

In a recent guest post published as part of Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column, Kevin Welner, the director of the  National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, asks those who listen to President Obama’s State of the Union Message on Tuesday night, which is expected to address the issue of income inequality, to look for substantive plans to address inequality and not merely  “unproven and ineffectual treatments.”  Welner decries the policies of the Bush and Obama administrations:  “We heap demands on those schools, deprive them of the resources they urgently need, and then declare them to be ‘failing schools’ when they don’t perform miracles.”

Welner suggests our nation’s children living in poverty (an alarming 22 percent of all children in the United States) deserve a serious answer to this question: “How do I design, pass, and implement a package of policies that have been shown to be effective at addressing wealth inequality and the damage caused by that inequality?”  He suggests that strategies aimed to lift families out of poverty are, in reality, policies to improve school achievement.  “We should honestly consider policies like a guaranteed minimum income, increases in the minimum wage, and a tax structure that shifts the burden toward the extremely wealthy.  The way to reduce wealth inequality is to do just that: reduce wealth inequality.  Our public schools can help, but they cannot do it alone.”