I was dismayed recently when I sat down to read some excellent proposals for addressing child poverty in the United States.
Here are two alternative proposals from the National Academy of Sciences. Both are prescriptions for cutting our national child poverty rate in half within a decade. Each proposal would combine a different set of policy strategies; each combination of ingredients would achieve the same very laudable result:
- “Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit along the phase-in and flat portions; convert the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit to a fully refundable tax credit and concentrate its benefits to families with children with the lowest incomes; increase the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by 35 percent…; and expand the supply of Section 8 Housing… Vouchers to supply affordable housing for 70 percent of eligible families.””
- “Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit by 40 percent; convert the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit to a fully refundable tax credit and concentrate its benefits to families with children with the lowest incomes; replace the Child Tax Credit with a monthly child allowance of $225 per month…; establish a new child support assurance program that provides a minimum payment of $100 per month per child; increase the federal minimum wage to $10.25 per hour… and index it to inflation; and restore program eligibility for non-qualified legal immigrants for Medicaid, SNAP… TANF…, SSI, and other benefits.”
I am sure that, if the people at the National Academy of Sciences who wrote the report say so, either of these prescriptions on its own would cut child poverty in half within the decade. My despair when I look at these plans, however, is that today there is an utter absence of national political will to ensure that Congress would move on any one of the specifics, let alone any combination of them.
Nor do I have any hope that even well-informed people on the street could possibly get a handle on what all these programs are and how they would work together to help our children. We need leaders who can help us understand what each of these programs is, how they would fit together, and—most important—why they matter. And for those of us who care about the future of education, we need to be reminded that child poverty—not failing public schools—is what threatens the future of too many of our children.
Our collective ignorance about what such programs are and how they would help our children is particularly worrisome today, because the best we can look for is to be trapped in a holding pattern right now. It is dangerous that we are forgetting the very tools that someday may help us address child poverty. We are obligated today merely to be grateful when things are not quickly getting worse.
In the area of K-12 public education—which directly affects 50 million of our children—President Trump’s education budget proposal flat-funds Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. These are the huge formula programs that help schools serve children in poverty and children with disabilities. The President’s proposed budget also flat-funds Head Start. For two years now, Congress has agreed to maintain these programs, and there is some assurance Congress will continue to do so. (House Democrats recently proposed adding $4.4 billion to the FY 2020 federal budget for education, including an increase in Title I, although any House education budget is unlikely to be approved by the Republican-dominated Senate.) We must find ourselves grateful for the preservation of the status quo, even though all this flat-funding means the programs are falling behind in inflation-adjusted dollars.
On Sunday, the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler described today’s holding-pattern in stark terms. What she portrays is a crisis in leadership and values, not merely a paucity of programs. In a profile about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Meckler assures us that DeVos has emerged as among the few survivors in Trump’s Cabinet: “(‘T)he president shows no signs of asking her to resign, reflecting in part his lack of interest in the issue of education and the department responsible for it… This account of DeVos’s endurance in the Education Department’s top job is based on interviews with eight people with direct knowledge of the secretary’s relationship with the president and with an understanding of the inner workings of the White House and education agency… DeVos has benefited from Trump’s lack of interest in education, officials say… Also bolstering DeVos’s standing: She hasn’t had a single personal scandal. She’s a billionaire and travels by private plane, but she pays for it herself. She donates her salary to charity. Even detractors say that in person, DeVos is pleasant and easy to be around.”
We have a President who doesn’t care about education, and we can extrapolate: a President who doesn’t care about children. Fortunately Congress has refused to go along with an ideological agenda that features education as an exercise in individual freedom, privatization, and marketplace choice. We have to be grateful for the holding pattern even as we worry about the plight of poor children.
At the same time those of us concerned about a crisis in urban public schools also know that school achievement is affected by factors in the lives of children outside school. The National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel delineate many of the primary challenges for children that threaten their engagement with school: “(W)e need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement. A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities… Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty. While schools are important… policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism… (S)tudents in many… communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.”
These are, of course, the problems the National Academy of Sciences suggests we can address with either of their prescribed mixtures of policy investments. Nobody in this holding pattern of Trump Times, however, has been able to frame poignantly our public responsibility for addressing the needs of what First Focus identifies as 13 million children living in poverty today in the United States. Good leadership is desperately needed to develop the political will in a society barely coping with an executive branch gone mad. As the Mueller report and its implications wash over us, at a time when our president foments hatred at the southern border, and in a society driven more and more by individualism and entrepreneurship, can we recover some kind of commitment to the public good and our collective obligation to our society’s children?
Here are some values we ought to be thinking about.
The late Benjamin Barber describes today’s realities for children and their schools—a reality that has grown more serious than it was when he wrote these words in 1998: “In many municipalities, schools have become the sole surviving public institutions and consequently have been burdened with responsibilities far beyond traditional schooling. Schools are now medical clinics, counseling centers, vocational training institutes, police/security outposts, drug rehabilitation clinics, special education centers, and city shelters… Among the costs of public schools that are most burdensome are those that go for special education, discipline, and special services to children who would simply be expelled from (or never admitted into) private and parochial schools or would be turned over to the appropriate social service agencies (which themselves are no longer funded in many cities.) It is the glory and the burden of public schools that they cater to all of our children, whether delinquent or obedient, drug damaged or clean, brilliant or handicapped, privileged or scarred. That is what makes them public schools.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, pp. 226-227)
John Dewey names the principle that has traditionally grounded our society’s commitment to the well being of our children and their public education: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.” (The School and Society, 1899, p. 1)
Over the past year, there was one public outcry on behalf of children that was loud enough to overcome the inertia of just trying to hold on for two more years. Thank you teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Denver, Los Angeles, and Oakland for your walkouts—state by state and district by district. You who spend your days in our public schools helped us see the damage being imposed on children by huge classes along with the absence of counselors, school nurses, social workers and librarians. And you reminded citizens in many states that their taxes are needed as a public obligation to support their children and to keep a well-qualified and experienced staff of teachers in the public schools that serve their children.
There was also one simple public protest that may point to a strategy for changing the conversation. Before the 2018 election for governor of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools supplied thousands of parents statewide with very simple yard signs that said: “I Love My Public Schools and I Vote.” Without sinking into the policy weeds, the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools very plainly confronted and replaced Scott Walker’s years-long agenda to privatize and otherwise undermine public schools. Perhaps a wave of yard signs helped reframe the agenda: Tony Evers, the state school superintendent, defeated Walker and now serves as Wisconsin’s governor.