Posts Tagged ‘vicious cycle of poverty’

The Result of Cutting School Funding in 1970s: Homelessness and Class Immobility

July 6, 2015 Leave a comment

Today’s NYTimes features an op-ed article by Hector Tobar titled “Welcome to Hooverville, California” describing the increased homelessness in his hometown of Los Angeles. Born in South America, Mr. Tobar senses that his adopted hometown is sliding toward the kind of economic disparity and substandard housing he witnessed when he lived in Buenos Aires.  He describes how neighborhoods of $750,000 residences overlook tent cities and how police are asked repeatedly to roust the residents of these makeshift “developments”.

Two paragraphs jumped out at me:

The paradox of increasing homelessness and rising prosperity has finally got Los Angeles talking about inequality. But the gap between rich and poor has been building here for 40 years. Every boom and bust simply accentuates the trend.

Bill Boyarsky, a retired city editor at The Los Angeles Times, dates the beginning to the decline of industrial Los Angeles in the 1970s: “We lost a huge number of middle-class jobs.” At the same time, the tax revolt led by the businessman and politician Howard Jarvis cut funding for public education. “We ended up limiting the ability of kids to move ahead of their parents,” said Mr. Boyarsky.

In a rational political world where voters look at evidence to inform their decisions, one look at the consequences of CA’s austerity budgeting would compel them to avoid cutting funds for public education. But we tend to think that CA’s problems are the result of unbridled immigration, not the lack of opportunities for children raised in poverty to “move ahead of their parents” because schools have been shortchanged.

Here’s hoping that Mr. Tobar’s assessment of the effects of homelessness has finally gotten the attention of LA residents and gotten them to see the inequality created by their toxic taxation policies has created major problems… and they begin to do more that talk about the issue.

Birth Control, Poverty, and School Success

July 6, 2015 Leave a comment

An article by Sabrina Travernise in today’s NYTimes described the astonishingly positive results the state of Colorado experienced by issuing free long-acting contraceptives to teenagers and young adults:

The birthrate for teenagers across the state plunged by 40 percent from 2009 to 2013, while their rate of abortions fell by 42 percent, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. There was a similar decline in births for another group particularly vulnerable to unplanned pregnancies: unmarried women under 25 who have not finished high school.

This 40% decline over a four year period reflects a huge increase in the number of long-acting birth control devices that prevent pregnancy for up to three years. That gives young women raised in poverty the ability to avoid unwanted pregnancies which, in turn, gives them the opportunity to complete high school and/or college. That, in turn, increases upward mobility:

“If we want to reduce poverty, one of the simplest, fastest and cheapest things we could do would be to make sure that as few people as possible become parents before they actually want to,” said Isabel Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution. She argues in her 2014 book, “Generation Unbound: Drifting Into Sex and Parenthood Without Marriage,” that single parenthood is a principal driver of inequality and long-acting birth control a powerful tool to prevent it.

The article notes that this program, and a smaller, earlier and equally conclusive study, was privately funded by the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, named for the billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s late wife. Unlike many foundations that shy away from political minefields like birth control, the Buffett Foundation listened to those working to prevent poverty and help avoid its human and governmental costs. While the article did not focus on this element, it is clear that from a pragmatic financial standpoint spending on birth control saves huge amounts of money:

The state health departmentestimated that every dollar spent on the long-acting birth control initiative saved $5.85 for the state’s Medicaid program, which covers more than three-quarters of teenage pregnancies and births. Enrollment in the federal nutrition program for women with young children declined by nearly a quarter between 2010 and 2013.

The notion of the state funding this long-acting birth control can be fraught with peril. Many religions explicitly forbid any form of birth control for fear that it will result in promiscuousness and many people see the potential for this kind of long-acting birth control to be imposed by the State either directly or indirectly. Colorado’s program appears to sidestep these issues by providing the long-acting pills to those women who choose this as a means of avoiding pregnancy during the time they are trying to complete school.

This is another example where those with economic means can make a choice that is unavailable to those raised in poverty. Affluent parents and/or children can underwrite the costs of birth control for young women while many young women raised in poverty are forbidden by law to have access to birth control. As Isabell Sawhill’s quote above indicates, this contributes to the vicious cycle of poverty.

Finally, this is a classic example of the government’s failure to spend wisely on the front end and the consequences of not allowing women the freedom to choose. We spend billions on prisons and overlook spending on programs like this that prevent unwanted pregnancies and the social costs that accompany those pregnancies.

Poverty Narrows the Bandwidth of the Brain… and the Scale Isn’t Binary

July 1, 2015 Leave a comment

Kathleen Ebbitt’s Global News article, “This is Your Brain on Poverty: 5 Facts” describes the neurological impact of poverty using the metaphor of bandwidth. She uses her personal experience of moderate financial stress as a starting point and then enumerates five broad findings on poverty:

  1. Research shows that a lack of money affects cognition
  2. Everyday hardships affect those in poverty more than those who are affluent because those with affluence can effectively buy coping mechanisms and/or their status makes them exempt from some stresses. For example, if a CEO is five minutes late for a meeting because his limo gets caught in traffic there are no consequences. A lower level employee, on the other hand, could lose their job if the bus they are taking makes them late for work.
  3. Children are impacted by poverty more so than adults.
  4. Brain scans show that the surface of the brain is different in those experiencing poverty…. and the brains of children whose parents earned $30,000-$50,000 varied considerably from those whose parents earned $90,000 to $110,000.
  5. The last “fact” is that something CAN be done about this… ranging from better school lunches to systemic changes to income distribution.

Alas, getting the things done that would change all of this seems increasingly unlikely as most politicians and many stressed people in the $30,000-$50,000 income range push back against efforts to help them and those who earn less.

Special Education Services: Neediest Get The Least

June 26, 2015 Leave a comment

The title of Wednesday’s NYTimes op-ed article by Paul Morgan and George Farkas posed this question: “Is Special Ed Racist?” The short answer is “No”. The reason?

Black children face double jeopardy when it comes to succeeding in school. They are far more likely to be exposed to the gestational, environmental and economic risk factors that often result in disabilities. Yet black children are less likely to be told they have disabilities, and to be treated for them, than otherwise similar white children.

Based on my experience, poor children of any race face the same double jeopardy because in the final analysis the root of special education’s problem is funding. Everyone agrees we need to meet the unique individual needs of children and everyone agrees that the warehousing of severely needy children is abominable… but no one wants to pay the costs needed to provide these services. When the federal government passed 94-142 it promised to provide 40% of the costs. That has never happened. Worse, the mandated services effectively require districts to hire case managers who serve as quasi-administrators, instructional assistants who often shadow students all day long, and central administrative staff to oversee this personnel and make sure that the program is in compliance. This all costs money… and since the federal mandate is not matched with federal money there is no incentive for schools to aggressively identify children with special needs, especially in districts that are financially strapped to begin with.

But in affluent districts, engaged and informed parents seek the services of attorneys who serve as advocates for their children. Sadly, the parents of the poorest children in the most impoverished schools are often uninformed with it comes to special education services and, as a consequence, their children are underserved. While it is unimaginable that any level of government would fund advocates and perhaps equally unimaginable that some attorneys would take on this work pro bono, absent such a movement children raised in poverty will miss out on the services they are entitled to and schools will be incapable of providing children with the services they need to afford an equal opportunity to all children.

The Street Where You Live Leads to a Better Chance for Success

June 25, 2015 Leave a comment

David Leonardt’s Upshot column last Thursday reported on several reports that underscored the importance of place.. and highlighted the shameful reality that black middle class families live in markedly poorer neighborhoods than white middle class families. This resonated with me based on my experiences as a young adult in Philadelphia where banks, realtors, and politicians conspired to “red-line” certain neighborhoods,  practice that led to the phenomenon called “block-busting”,  practice that took place subtly and explicitly in many northern cities.

I witnessed this block-busting first hand when I rented an apartment in West Philadelphia in the late 1960s in a neighborhood that was bordered on one side by a railroad line and on the other by the University of Pennsylvania. The homes on the “Penn Side” of the rail line were becoming gentrified as the University City neighborhood moved slowly and inexorably westward. The homes on the “other side” of the tracks, however, were slowly deteriorating. One of my many part-time jobs in college was working for Philadelphia Gas, doing door-to-door canvassing in the neighborhood on “the other side of the tracks”. That neighborhood was targeted by Philadelphia Gas because many “new residents” were moving in due to “turnover” in houses because “older people” were moving to the suburbs. After spending a week knocking on doors it became evident to me that every “new resident” was black. Some of the blacks were clearly middle class: their living rooms looked like the one in my suburban home and they were interested in doing everything they could to improve the new home they purchased. Other blacks, though, were clearly struggling. I recall one family in particular who had spent every dollar they had on their home. They had hardly any furniture and could barely afford their electricity let alone gas heat conversions. The man who answered the door was clearly exhausted from working, but he told me he was proud that he had put together enough money to buy the home and hoped someday he’d have the furniture to fill it and maybe someday he’d be able to get gas heat. The few white residents who answered the door did so cautiously: they looked through the curtains to see who I was and peered through a cracked door. They were not interested in any home improvements because like their former neighbors they were looking to move elsewhere.

Fast forward fifty years and you have the reality described in Leonardt’s article: “the typical middle-income black family lives in a neighborhood with lower incomes than the typical low-income white family.” And where you live matters greatly in terms of the schools you attend and the quality of your life. As Leonardt notes at the end of this piece, which is full of data from many carefully researched reports, improving the quality of housing is the best way to address poverty… but it is not a policy that is likely to be pursued any time soon:

Housing developments that allow low-income families to move into higher-income neighborhoods appear to be a cost-effective antipoverty strategy. Vouchers that help lower-income families move into better neighborhoods may be even more so.

Partly inspired by the new research, federal housing officials, including Julian Castro, the housing secretary, have recently shown more interest in varying the value of vouchers to encourage families to move to better neighborhoods. Current policy — both federal and local, on both vouchers and taxes — goes in the opposite direction, creating incentives to put up buildings in worse neighborhoods and for poor families to remain there.

The notion that your neighborhood matters is almost a cliché. But it’s also true — and yet much of the nation’s housing policy effectively pretends otherwise.

Let me conclude this post by concluding my anecdote about life in Philadelphia. Two years after knocking on doors in the neighborhood on “the other side of the tracks” I was teaching in a junior high school in that same neighborhood. The value of the houses had declined and many of the homes were rented. The school was overcrowded and among the worst in the city in terms of its standardized test scores (yes… even in the early 1970s they ranked schools by test scores). As I patrolled the halls and bathrooms to ensure that fights did not break out I often wondered how the homeowners I visited two years earlier felt about their neighborhood.

Presidential Politics: “Appearances” vs. “Assurances”

June 21, 2015 Leave a comment

Let me put my biases regarding the 2016 election on the table: I am 100% behind Bernie Sanders for President because he is the only candidate to date who has made it explicitly clear that he would abandon the practice of relying on standardized tests to “measure” school and teacher performance, made it clear he opposes the privatization of public education, and made it abundantly clear that he opposes the gutting of union contracts.

His opponents in the Republican party all hold the opposite view. To a person they want to use “objective measures” to evaluate teachers and schools, apply market forces to public education, and heap public scorn on “greedy teachers” with “tenure” that makes it “impossible for administrators to get rid of bad teachers”.

The position of Mr. Sanders opponent on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton, is less clear, as a recent article by Allie Bidwell in the US News and World Report indicates. In describing Ms. Clinton’s positions on various K-12 initiatives, Bidwell wrote that she “…appeared sympathetic to union concerns about testing and support for teachers” and she “…appears poised to depart from aspects of the Obama administration’s K-12 education agenda that have alienated some rank-and-file members of the Democratic Party” and that “…the two national teachers unions and national advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform – sides that have often been at odds – all appear pleased with Clinton’s campaign thus far.”


Eight years ago I voted for Barak Obama on appearances. He appeared to be supportive of someone like Linda Darling-Hammond to be Secretary of Education, appeared to be opposed to the mindless testing that drove No Child Left Behind, and appeared to be someone who supported the kinds of anti-poverty programs that were needed to close the widening economic divide. We cannot have another candidate elected on appearances. We need assurance that the standardized test driven eduction policies are eliminated and replaced with policies that will provide equitable resources to all schools and equitable opportunities to all children.

Bad Assumptions Lead to Worse Conclusion: Fundraising, Not More Taxes, Needed

June 21, 2015 Leave a comment

Thanks to Google Alerts I receive a wide range of newspaper articles on public education each day, which gives me an opportunity to see how various news outlets across the country are dealing with public education in their region. Today I read an article from Roger Ruthbert, the editor of the Quad Cities Dispatch Argus titled “Time for Public Schools to Embrace Private Fundraising”. Ruthbert opens his article with this assumption:

Let’s face it, revenue from local property taxes is climbing slowly if at all and increased state funding in Illinois seems unlikely.

And with tax-based funding off the table, where does Ruthbert suggest we turn?

As I noted several weeks ago, Chicago charter schools have been so successful privately funding school projects, it’s something public schools should copy.

If you start with a flawed assumption you will invariably reach a bad solution… and private fundraising is a terrible decision, especially if the goal of the State is to provide each of its children with an equal opportunity for school success. Private fundraising will invariably come with strings: a benefactor will insist that their donation go for a specific program (e.g. classical music) or a specific kind of student (e.g. a student-athlete) or a particular facility (e.g. lights for a stadium). The irony is that this flaw was evident in the Quad Cities:

In Rock Island, almost everyone in the community knows that the development director’s job has been a place to “justify” paying big money for the football coach. A $100,000-plus salary is justified because that person is also out raising money for the district.

The district had piled on three jobs in an effort to entice him here. He was trained as a math teacher, put up a sterling record as a football coach in the suburbs, and then was also given the development job.

But what has drawn the school board’s attention is that while the development director was paid $106,163 in salary and benefits in 2014-2015, only $119,510 was raised. After you figure in some additional expenses, that leaves $11,374 to be spent on students, or about a 10 percent return.

So Rock Island paid a football coach/math teacher to take on the role of development officer and, in doing so, barely covered his salary. But instead of seeing the futility of this effort, Ruthbert suggests a redoubling of the fund raising effort… and implies that every district and every school in a district could underwrite the costs of a development officer and raise more and more money from willing volunteers. Talk about an agreeable fantasy!

Here’s my bottom line: public schools are a public good and should, therefore, be underwritten with public funds. Every successful businessperson, parent, and voter benefitted from the public’s willingness to fund schools when they were children… and every businessperson, parent and voter should be willing to provide the same opportunity for the children in their town and for children across the state. Instead, those who oppose ANY government spending focus on the fact that money doesn’t “go into the classrooms”, it goes to teachers who, they assume, “don’t go into the classrooms”. As the title of this post indicates, bad assumptions lead to bad conclusions… and in this case the students raised in poverty are the ones who will suffer the most.