Teachers Can’t Fix Poverty or Problems Like Housing Eviction

For twenty years, our society has embraced a theory of school reform whose driving idea is that if schools expect more and teachers work harder, test scores will rise among the students who struggle.  It is a theory that expects public schools themselves to compensate for growing economic inequality and structural racism.  The idea is that schools are primarily responsible for closing the gaps in children’s opportunities.

Social scientists, on the other hand, tell us that children’s standardized test scores seem to correlate not so much with their schools as with their families’ economic circumstances.  An income inequality achievement gap has grown rapidly during the past half century.  Here is the theoretical explanation of Andrew Grant-Thomas and John Powell: “A social system is structurally inequitable to the degree that it is configured to promote unequal outcomes.  A society marked by highly interdependent opportunity structures and large inter-institutional resource disparities will likely be very unequal with respect to the outcomes governed by those institutions and structures… In a society that features structural inequalities with respect to opportunities and institutional resources, initial racial inequality in motion will likely stay in motion.” (Andrew Grant-Thomas and Gary Orfield, editors, Twenty-First Century Color Lines, p. 124)

Although we are a society that features structural inequality and structural racism, most of us are not personally familiar with the lives of families on the edge. Because our American ethos credits success to individual grit, we struggle to understand why hard working teachers can’t get the children in their classes to pull themselves up more quickly.  Michael Harrington tried to help 50 years ago by describing The Other America.  To that same end, from time to time this blog is exploring—in Grant-Thomas and John Powell’s words—“highly interdependent opportunity structures and large inter-institutional resource disparities” that conspire to make it hard for children quickly to raise their test scores and schools to close achievement gaps.

This week’s New Yorker features Forced Out, a stunning piece by Harvard ethnographer, Matthew Desmond, on what happens when families with very low income face a shortage of affordable housing—structural factors that mean some families get evicted again and again and again.  While the public school is the primary institution most middle income parents encounter on a regular basis, in the Milwaukee family Desmond profiles, very different institutions intrude: the shelter, the sheriff”s squad carrying out evictions and foreclosures, the public housing authority, the welfare case worker, and the eviction court. The mother of two boys—ages thirteen and five—cannot possibly forge a relationship with any one school, though it is apparent throughout the piece that her boys’ safety and well-being drive the decisions she makes.

Desmond’s article and his book—Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, that will be published next month—grew from his dissertation research at the University of Wisconsin Institute for Research on Poverty.  Desmond is a 2015 MacArthur genius grant winner.  The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports: “To study eviction, the subject of his doctoral dissertation, he lived for four months in a trailer park on the south side of Milwaukee and nine months in a rooming house in the city’s north side. ‘I came to the realization of how essential a role housing plays in the lives of the poor… Eviction embroils landlords and tenants, lawyers and social workers.’ He discovered there was hardly any data or studies on evictions.”

Evictions as a trend are not something most of us have noticed. Neither have we thought about the likely impact of such a trend on children and their schools: “These days, evictions are too commonplace to attract attention. There are sheriff squads whose full-time job is to carry out eviction and foreclosure orders.  Some moving companies specialize in evictions, their crews working all day long, five days a week.  Hundreds of data-mining companies sell landlords tenant-screening reports that list past evictions and court filings.  Meanwhile families have watched their incomes stagnate or fall as their housing costs have soared.  Today, the majority of poor renting families spend more than half their income on housing and millions of Americans are evicted every year.  In Milwaukee, a city of fewer than a hundred and five thousand renter households, landlords legally evict roughly sixteen thousand adults and children each year.”

When the mother profiled by Desmond tries to get on the list for a Section 8 voucher, here is what she finds: “The list of applicants for Milwaukee’s rent-assistance program was notoriously stagnant… ‘The list is frozen,’ she was told.  On it were more than thirty-five hundred families who had applied for assistance four years earlier and were still waiting for placement.  It could have been worse.  In larger cities, like Washington, D.C, the wait for public housing counted in decades.  Three in four American families who qualified for housing assistance received nothing…”

Desmond concludes: “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”  “In a typical month, three in four people in Milwaukee’s eviction court were black, and three in four of those were women. One female renter in seventeen from the city’s poorest black neighborhoods was evicted through the court system each year, twice the number for men from the same neighborhoods, and nine times that for women from the poorest white areas. Women from black neighborhoods made up less than ten per cent of Milwaukee’s population but nearly a third of its evicted tenants.”

How does eviction affect children in school?  Desmond describes the life of the thirteen-year-old boy in the family he profiles: “He and his brother had grown used to churning through different apartments, neighborhoods, and schools.  In the seventh and eighth grades, Jori had attended five schools; when the family was homeless he often skipped class to help Arleen look for a new place.”

“For many poor Americans, eviction never ends,” writes Matthew Desmond.  I urge you to read Forced Out.