The High Cost of Poverty–Education Edition

The effect of being poor is more than not being able to buy things.  It fundamentally affects how you are able to function in life.  This is particularly true for students in poor families, who often come to school hungry, without enough sleep, and without having done their homework because they lack the supplies and the space necessary to do it.  As Brock Cohen, a teacher in the Los Angeles County Unified District writes in a blog for the Washington Post,

What had grown increasingly clear to me was that my students’ academic struggles did not simply stem from inaction, ineffective parenting, drug use, or neglect. While these elements were usually present in various forms, or to greater or lesser degrees, they weren’t the root causes of their failure; they were the effects of poverty. What I’d learned in less than a semester of teaching was that poverty wasn’t merely a temporary, though unpleasant, condition — like a hangover or the sniffles. It was a debilitating, often generational, epidemic.

And students in low-income districts are often taught by inexperienced teachers who are paid less well than their counterparts in more affluent districts.  Because most educational districts are funded on the local level, the property taxes in a given district have a great deal to do with how much the district has to spend on the school and the students who attend it.  So students in poor families, most often living in poor neighborhoods, get shortchanged, not only by their family’s debilitating economic situation, but also by school districts without the means to make up the difference.   Cohen notes, they become “apartheid” schools, where testing is substituted for learning.

Education expert Professor Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University has observed that the U.S.’s famously poor showing in educational achievement among the world’s industrialized nations is directly attributable to the U.S.’s increased population of poor children.

There is another story we rarely hear: Our children who attend schools in low-poverty contexts are doing quite well. In fact, U.S. students in schools in which less than 10 percent of children live in poverty score first in the world in reading, out-performing even the famously excellent Finns.

In high-achieving countries like Finland and Singapore, strong social safety nets ensure that virtually all schools have fewer than 10 percent of their students living in poverty. Although the poverty-test score association is similar across 14 wealthy nations (with the average scores of the poorest 5 percent of students just over half those of their wealthiest peers), our poverty rate for children is much higher than others: 22 percent of all U.S. children and 25 percent of young children live in poverty.

The link between poverty and low academic achievement is well documented.  So if we are counting on education as the primary means for helping poor children escape poverty, but do not address the poverty that robs children of their ability to obtain academic success, we have simply turned public schools into the scapegoats for erosion of the American dream, and abandoned our future in the process.

Why are we writing about this?  Because diapers (and other hygiene products) are part of the long list of things people who don’t have enough money cannot buy.  Why do diapers matter?  Because people ( young and old)  must have their basic needs met and cannot develop optimally without that.  As we observed in June, the EU measures child deprivation by measuring children’s access to items that go beyond the bare minimum to sustain life, but include modest comforts that improve the quality of life.  As we said then, if children are our nation’s future, shouldn’t we give them not just the bare minimum to survive, but the basics they need to thrive?   Without these things, we are impoverishing not only our children’s opportunity to grow but also our nation’s future.

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