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.

Poverty, Eviction, Homelessness and Spiraling Inequality = An Income-Inequality Achievement Gap

Last Thursday evening, about 2,000 greater Clevelanders drove downtown to attend a free program at the State Theater, the largest of the old movie palaces now restored to become a theater district. The program was supposed to be at the much smaller Ohio Theater, but ticket distribution exceeded all expectations—for a book discussion. As the culmination of a region-wide One Community Reads project—a collaboration of all of the public libraries in Cuyahoga County and the City Club of Cleveland—author and Princeton University sociologist Matthew Desmond had come to Cleveland to present the book everybody had been reading, his 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.  As I watched the crowd look for seats in the huge old theater, I was amazed that so many people had come to hear an ethnographer talk about poverty, homelessness, and eviction.

Desmond launched his presentation by naming the reality that never comes up in today’s politics: The United States is the richest nation in the world and at the same time tolerates a level of extreme poverty no other similar society would condone. Most of his talk featured one of the eight families his book profiles—Arleen’s story and the story of her two boys, Jori and his younger brother Jafaris. With public housing filled up and a years’ long waiting list for a Section 8 voucher, Arleen must find housing in the private market. Because her rent in a succession of Milwaukee apartments and dilapidated houses requires 80 percent of her monthly welfare check, each eviction spins her and her children even deeper into poverty: “There is nothing special about Milwaukee when it comes to eviction. The numbers are similar in Kansas City, Cleveland, Chicago, and other cities.  In 2013, 1 in 8 poor renting families nationwide were unable to pay all of their rent, and a similar number thought it was likely they would be evicted soon… Eviction’s fallout is severe.  Losing a home sends families to shelters, abandoned houses, and the street. It invites depression and illness, compels families to move into degrading housing in dangerous neighborhoods, uproots communities, and harms children… We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty.” (Evicted, p. 5)

Through Desmond’s presentation ran the thread of the impact of poverty and eviction on children and on their education. Desmond spent months living as an ethnographer among the tenants and landlords whose stories he tells, but he also verified his observations with an enormous data analysis, highlighting the role of children in eviction: “The data show that the median age of a tenant in Milwaukee’s eviction court was thirty-three. The youngest was nineteen; the oldest, sixty-nine. The median monthly household income of tenants in eviction court was $935, and the median amount of back rent owed was about that much… When I analyzed these data, I found that even after accounting for how much the tenant owed the landlord—and other factors like household income and race—the presence of children in the household almost tripled a tenant’s odds of receiving an eviction judgment. The effect of living with children on receiving an eviction judgment was equivalent to falling four months behind in rent.” (Evicted, p. 332)

As Desmond described his research at the State Theater last week, he mentioned the impact on the children who have been evicted as a constant footnote to the stories of their mothers: “Most evicted households in Milwaukee have children living in them, and across the country, many evicted children end up homeless. The substandard housing and unsafe neighborhoods to which many evicted families must relocate can degrade a child’s health, ability to learn and sense of self-worth. And if eviction has lasting effects on mothers’ depression, sapping their energy and happiness, then children will feel that chill too. Parents like Arleen and Vanetta wanted to provide their children with stability, but eviction ruined that, pulling kids in and out of school and batting them from one neighborhood to the next.  When these mothers finally did find another place to live, they once again began giving landlords most of their income, leaving little for the kids. Families who spend more on housing spend less on their children. Poor families are living above their means, in apartments they cannot afford. The thing is, those apartments are already at the bottom of the market. Our cities have become unaffordable to our poorest families, and this problem is leaving a deep and jagged scar on the next generation.” (Evicted, p. 299)

I thought more about Matthew Desmond’s presentation when, over the weekend, I read education historian Jack Schneider’s reflection on the failure of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and the new Every Student Succeeds Act, all part of the education accountability juggernaut driven by annual standardized tests for children, aggregation of data from all the test scores, and sanctions for the schools that cannot quickly raise scores.  Desmond’s ethnography illuminates the daily realities beneath Schneider’s analysis: “(M)ost education researchers have agreed that economic inequality and social injustice are among the most powerful drivers of educational achievement gaps. What students achieve in a school, in other words, reflects their living conditions outside its walls.  Yet rather than addressing the daunting issues like persistent poverty that shape children’s lives and interfere with their learning, education reformers have largely embraced a management consultant approach.  That is, they seek systems-oriented solutions that can be assessed through bottom-line indicators… This approach fails to address the core problems shaping student achievement at a time when researchers like Sean Reardon at Stanford University find that income levels are more correlated with academic achievement than ever and the gap between rich students and less affluent kids is growing.”

Schneider provides a short video clip of Sean Reardon presenting the implications for children of the rapidly widening income-inequality achievement gap Reardon has documented across America since 1970. Please watch Reardon present his ground-breaking research. Reardon describes the implications not only of the kind of poverty Matthew Desmond describes for the children living in families in the bottom 10 percent of the income distribution, but also the growing educational privileges accruing to the children in the top 10 percent.  Reardon concludes that today’s income inequality is driving a spiraling gap in the opportunities for children at the two ends of the economic continuum.  Schools alone, however excellent, cannot compensate for exploding inequality.

Noticing and Helping Our Poorest Children and Their Public Schools

If you take a driving vacation and you use a laptop instead of a smartphone, you soon learn that the best place to find Wi-Fi in little towns is in the parking lot of the public library.  You don’t have to arrive during the hours when the library is open, and you can even sit in your car to check your e-mail or the news as long as you park very near the building, because the library’s Wi-Fi service is accessible beyond the walls of the building. I know this from long experience looking at e-mail in public library parking lots from Pittsfield, Massachusetts to Red Lodge, Montana, to Laurelville, Ohio.  In our family, of course, we have broadband service at home and we need to use the library parking lot only on special occasions. But what about the people who lack this basic service?

In the New York Times last week, Anthony Marx, president of the New York Public Library wrote about internet access as a necessity. He explains that last year, the Federal Communications Commission declared: “Access to broadband is necessary to be a productive member of society. In June, a federal appeals court upheld the commission’s authority to regulate the internet as a public utility.”  But Marx, writing from New York City, describes what life is like for children in families who cannot afford the internet: “Here in the world’s information capital, New Yorkers are still scrounging for a few bars of web access, dropped like crumbs from a table. With broadband costing on average $55 per month, 25 percent of all households and 50 percent of those making less than $20,000 lack this service at home.”  Marx describes New York City’s children from his perspective at the library: “All summer, kids have been hanging out in front of the Morris Park Library in the Bronx, before opening hours and after closing.  They bring their computers to pick up the Wi-Fi signal that is leaking out of the building, because they can’t afford internet access at home. They’re there during the school year, too, even during the winter—it’s the only way they can complete their online math homework… People line up, sometimes for hours, to use the library system’s free computers. Go into any library in the nation and you’ll most likely see the same thing. They come to do what so many of us take for granted: apply for government services, study or do research, talk with family or friends, inform themselves as voters, and just participate in our society and culture—so much of which now takes place online.”

I thought about Marx’s column in conjunction with two other articles in the New York Times last week.  In The Millions of Americans Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Barely Mention: The Poor,  Binyamin Appelbaum explains that the presidential candidates’ “platforms are markedly different in details and emphasis, (but) the candidates have this in common: Both promise to help Americans find jobs; neither has said much about helping people while they are not working.”  Appelbaum quotes Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond: “We aren’t having in our presidential debate right now a serious conversation about the fact that we are the richest democracy in the world, with the most poverty. It should be at the very top of the agenda.”

Then there was Susan Dynarski’s piece that explores the way our society uses imprecise data to measure poverty among students at school: “A closer look reveals that the standard measure of economic disadvantage—whether a child is eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch in school masks the magnitude of the learning gap between the richest and poorest children.  Nearly half of students nationwide are eligible for a subsidized meal in school. Children whose families earn less than 185 percent of the poverty threshold are eligible for a reduced-price lunch, while those below 130 percent get a free lunch. For a family of four, the cutoffs are $32,000 for a free lunch and $45,000 for a reduced price one. By way of comparison, median household income in the United States was about $54,000 in 2014… The National Assessment of Education Progress, often called the Nation’s Report Card, publishes students’ scores by eligibility for subsidized meals. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, districts have reported scores separately for disadvantaged children, with eligibility for subsidized meals serving as the standard measure of disadvantage.”

Dynarski is a professor at the University of Michigan, and she describes student poverty in her state: “In Michigan, as in the rest of the country, about half of eighth graders in public schools receive a free or reduced-price lunch. But when we look more closely, we see that just 14 percent have been eligible for subsidized meals every year since kindergarten. These children are the poorest of the poor—the persistently disadvantaged… (I)n fact, there is a nearly linear, negative relationship between the number of years of economic disadvantage and math scores in eighth grade… It appears that years spent eligible for subsidized school meals serves as a good proxy for the depth of disadvantage. When we look back on the early childhood of persistently disadvantaged eighth graders, we see that by kindergarten they were already far poorer than their classmates.” Dynarkski recommends that we find a more accurate way to identify the children whose needs are greatest.

In his introduction to an issue of the  Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences that focuses on severe deprivation in America, Matthew Desmond aims to be more precise in defining degrees of poverty in our society: “Poverty is qualitatively different from ‘deep poverty’ (half below the poverty line), which in turn is a world apart from ‘extreme poverty’ (living on $2 a day)… There is poverty and then there is poverty… By ‘severe deprivation,’ we mean economic hardship that is (1) acute, (2) compounded, and (3) persistent.” Desmond adds that most of our public policy to address poverty was developed so long ago that it fails to address today’s realities: “Most research is rooted in theories now a few decades old…. developed before the United States began incarcerating more of its citizens than any other nation; before urban rents soared and poor families began dedicating the majority of their income to housing; before welfare reform caused caseloads to plummet….  In recent years, the very nature of poverty in America has changed, especially at the very bottom.”

Susan Dynarsky is not the first researcher to explore the importance of accurately measuring and addressing extreme poverty in public schools.  In the 2010 book, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, Anthony Bryk and colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research studied Chicago’s public schools to locate the particular schools that serve many children who are experiencing what Dynarski and Desmond describe as persistent and severe deprivation. Here are the characteristics of the 46 schools they identified in Chicago that were far more severely challenged than surrounding schools (many of which serve relatively poor neighborhoods). Truly disadvantaged schools were 90-100 percent African American. “These schools served neighborhoods characterized by extreme rates of poverty.  On average, 70 percent of residents living in the neighborhoods around these 46 schools had incomes below the poverty line, and the median family income in 1990 was only $9,480.  In 6 out of 10 of these schools, more than 50 percent of the students lived in pubic housing.” The schools featured what the researchers call a “consolidation of socioeconomic disadvantage and racial segregation.”  “Many confronted an extraordinary concentration of student needs, including students who were homeless, in foster care, or living in contexts of neglect, abuse, and domestic violence.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp 23-24)

So… what are today’s federal prescriptions for such schools—the schools in every city that serve the very poorest children?  For the past two decades the demanded reforms have included closing the school and turning it over to a charter school or a management company, firing the principal and many teachers, and considering the students’ test scores as a good part of the formal teacher evaluation mechanism.  Many of these same punishments have become the accepted strategies for school reform across our big cities, and are likely to continue even though in the Every Student Succeeds Act the federal government is stepping back a bit from dictating mandatory prescriptions.

As Susan Dynarski explains, despite our capacity now days to make education data-driven, we haven’t even instituted a precise way to measure childhood poverty. And as Matthew Desmond points out, our public policies are not designed to address the real crisis of today’s childhood poverty.  A discussion of these very painful and controversial matters is not really part of the political agenda of either of our major political parties.

The Consortium on Chicago School Research outlines very concrete school improvement strategies to support the people working in the most stressed schools.  Many school districts are also expanding the number of full-service, wraparound Community Schools designed to house medical, dental, and mental health services, after school enrichment for children, job training for parents—social and medical services—right in the school building. We need to recognize that these are an excellent beginning.

But we also need to recognize that local institutions like public libraries and public elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools are struggling to support children trapped in a level of poverty invisible to many of us unless we happen to walk by a public library where, at 7 o’clock in the morning, children are sitting on the steps trying to finish their homework with the Wi-Fi access they can find right outside the library.

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.

Are Low U.S. Scores on International Tests Caused by High Child Poverty or Bad Schools?

Early in November, the NY Times published what seemed to me an inconclusive and confusing commentary by Eduardo Porter on what is causing children in the United States to score below other developed nations on international tests of academic achievement.  Porter discusses research findings of respected academics—one study by Martin Carnoy and colleagues from the education department at Stanford University and another study by Jane Waldfogel at Columbia University and international colleagues—which demonstrate that the primary cause of lower scores on international tests by American children is significantly greater childhood poverty in the United States.  Porter contrasts the point of view of these researchers with the opinion of Andreas Schleicher who runs the international PISA test.  Schleicher claims that PISA’s research demonstrates that American society does not really tolerate such a relatively high rate of childhood poverty at all and that the problem is located in our public schools.

Seeming unable to reconcile such contradictory views, Porter satisfies himself by calling for school improvement: “Whatever the failings of the rest of society, it still seems clear American schools can do better.”  Of course we must expect schools to do the best they can and there exists a need for school improvement, but I found myself dissatisfied with Porter’s analysis. The international data that I have seen clearly demonstrate that the U.S. has far higher child poverty than the nations that outscore our children on international school achievement tests.

Then there are the decades’ of research confirming that poverty, inequality and growing residential segregation by income all affect school achievement.  Most striking is the relatively recent research of Sean Reardon of Stanford University whose longitudinal data confirm the connection of school achievement gaps (among children in the United States) to growing economic inequality across the United States and to the fact that residential patterns have rapidly been segregating by income across America’s large metropolitan areas. Reardon’s research does not track international comparisons, but it conclusively connects income inequality to school achievement. Reardon documents 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 shows that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  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.

In an analysis that speaks directly to the issue of comparative international child poverty, just this month the Russell Sage Foundation published an exploration of the very question that Porter leaves unresolved: Is poverty for American children really so bad compared to poverty in other countries?  In his very readable introduction to Issue 2 of the Russell Sage Foundation’s new Journal of the Social Sciences, Severe Deprivation in America: An Introduction, Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond explores the many ways childhood poverty affects the lives of America’s poorest children—their child and adolescent development, their health, their academic potential, and their life prospects. Desmond begins with the story of Crystal, a premature baby born after her mother was stabbed.  Crystal’s father is imprisoned; she is molested as a preschooler, placed, at age five, in foster care where she begins a life with “dozens of group homes and sets of foster parents.” Crystal drops out of school at sixteen, ages out of foster care at eighteen, and after a litany of other problems, becomes a homeless adult.  Desmond continues: “Should we say Crystal is ‘poor’? She certainly is that—but living in mere poverty would be a tremendous blessing for Crystal. Poverty is defined officially as an income cutoff, a threshold.  But there are many depths below the poverty line.  Poverty is qualitatively different from ‘deep poverty’ (half below the poverty line), which in turn is a world apart from ‘extreme poverty’ (living on $2 a day).  There is poverty, and then there is poverty.  Recent debates about poverty measurement have focused largely on its material attributes…. These debates are necessary and productive, but a relatively small income is but one of any obstacles preventing Crystal from living a full, productive, and healthy life.  Like many people from disadvantaged families, she experienced setbacks at a very young age (even before birth) and never fully recovered from them.  Poverty is more than a material condition.”  Surely we need to improve our public schools, but just as surely we need to learn how to identify and address challenges like Crystal’s.  Today, we pretty much talk as though we expect school teachers to be able, on their own, to turn such children’s lives around.

Desmond’s piece is written for scholars of sociology, but his admonishments are just as relevant for politicians and the rest of us who are relatively blind to the deeper challenges even as we blame school teachers: “(T)he very language of ‘poverty’ can be fuzzy and imprecise… Our current terminology groups all families below a certain income threshold into a single category: the poor.  But doing so can flatten crucial differences in how material scarcity and psychological turmoil are experienced.”  Desmond sets out to unpack the meaning of “severe deprivation”—the kind of “economic hardship that is (1) acute, (2) compounded, and (3) persistent.”

“Acute hardship,” writes Desmond is, “life far below the poverty line, characterized by a scarcity of critical resources and material hardship.  No rich democracy matches the United States in the depth and expanse of its poverty.  As of 2015, almost 50 million Americans lived below the federal poverty line… In 2010, 20.5 million people in the United States lived in deep poverty—that is, on incomes below half the federal poverty threshold—up by almost 8 million since 2000.  That same year one in every fifty Americans reported living in a household with an income consisting only of food stamps.”

“Compounded hardship…. speaks to the clustering of different kinds of disadvantage across multiple dimensions (psychological, social, material) and institutions (work, family, prison).” “The essence of poverty is not simply an economic condition but the linked ecology of social maladies and broken institutions.”

“Persistent hardship,” writes Desmond, is “often stubbornly impervious to change. This component of our definition focuses attention on three interrelated matters.  The first involves the lasting effects of early-life trauma, including abuse, hunger, and violence experienced as a child or even as a fetus… The second matter is deprivation experienced over long stretches, even lifetimes… The third element of persistent deprivation deals with generational poverty passed down from parents to children.”

Speaking directly to Andreas Schleicher’s contention, as reported by Eduardo Porter, that American child poverty isn’t really so bad, Desmond declares: “When Americans compare the poverty of their fellow citizens with the desperation that grips the slum dwellers of Lagos or Caracas, or with the swollen-bellied families in the villages of rural India or inland China, they sometimes conclude that American poverty would be considered downright abundance in other parts of the world, that ours is an unfortunate but ultimately lesser hardship. On some key measures, this is undeniably true.  But this line of thinking can cause us to overlook just how desperate the situation is for those Americans living at the very bottom.  Sometimes such comparisons lead to the presumption that nobody in the United States lives ‘that bad.’… This is tragically far from true…. (T)he number of American children who experienced chronic extreme poverty, living on no more than $2 a day for seven months or more, has increased by over 240 percent since 1996.”

I urge you to read carefully Desmond’s report that explores the factors that have contributed to growing poverty across the United States.  One of those stands out: “The severe deprivation perspective calls attention to what might be called ‘policy skimming’: simultaneously increasing aid for working families and withdrawing some forms of support for the very poor.  In 2012 the federal government spent $54 billion on the Earned Income Tax Credit and $17 billion on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)… Spending on welfare programs for the poor has increased substantially, but the beneficiaries of this spending have been the working poor and families just above or just below the federal poverty line.  Three decades ago the poorest families in America received most (56 percent) of the transfers going to families with private incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty threshold; in recent years, those families received less than one-third (32 percent) of the transfers.”

Desmond concludes: “Today the distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor carries with it a real cash value.  Some parts of the safety net have been patched with cloth taken from other parts.”  Think about the impact on our society’s children as welfare has been redesigned to reward  primarily the “deserving” parents.