Home > Uncategorized > Thomas Edsall Describes the Vicious Circle of Poverty, Fails to Describe the Best Way Out

Thomas Edsall Describes the Vicious Circle of Poverty, Fails to Describe the Best Way Out

In his NYTimes column yesterday, Thomas Edsall offered an insightful and thorough description of the vicious circle of poverty with graphs, research citations, raw data, and paragraphs like this that summarize his findings:

The result is a vicious circle: family disruption perpetuates disadvantage by creating barriers to the development of cognitive and noncognitive skills, which in turn sharply reduces access to college. The lack of higher education decreases life chances, including the likelihood of achieving adequate material resources and a stable family structure for the next generation.

The factors that contribute to “family disruption” are being born to a single parent, being born to a mother who lacks a high school degree, and being born into a household that is below the poverty line.  Mr. Edsall offers evidence that those factors are increasing substantially among less educated populous, noting particularly the non marital birthrate which has jumped among mothers with a high school education level or less but remained steady among college educated parents. This circumstance of birth, in turn, leads to better lives for children born into college-educated married families:

The authors of the “Diverging Patterns” paper — Shelly Lundberg and Jenna Stearns of the University of California-Santa Barbara, and Robert A. Pollak of Washington University in St. Louis – make the case that

there are good reasons to think that children are key to the socioeconomic differences in marriage behavior.

For college graduates, they argue, “marriage has become the commitment device that supports intensive joint investments in children,” a cooperative “joint project of raising economically successful children.” In contrast, they write,

the expected returns to child investments by parents with limited resources and uncertain futures may be lower than for more educated parents with greater and more secure investment capabilities.

At the conclusion of his article, Mr. Edsall draws a series of conclusions, which are summarized below:

First, the spectrum of noncognitive skills and character strengths are a major factor in American class stratification.

Second, neither religious leaders nor practicing politicians nor government employees have found the levers that actually make disadvantaged families more durable or functional.

For liberals and the Democratic Party, the continued failure of government initiatives to achieve measurable gains in the acquisition of valuable noncognitive skills by disadvantaged youngsters constitutes a major liability.

Advocates for the disadvantaged must also highlight and capitalize on the many demonstrably effective antipoverty solutions already well known to the academic, research and nonprofit communities. Without better funded and better crafted organization and advocacy on behalf of the poor, the propaganda and accusations now emanating from the right will ineluctably reshape the law of the land — and once institutionalized, such “remedies” could prove staggeringly difficult to reverse.

For public schools, these translate into the following action steps:

  • Schools need to emphasize noncognitive skills and character strengths. These have long been a part of the “hidden curriculum” that is implicit in codes of conduct and the timely submission of homework, term papers, etc.
  • Schools need to work collaboratively with religious leaders, practicing politicians, and other government employees to identify intervention strategies that have promise. This is easier said than done in the hostile environment that exists today where much of the political capital is spent on shifting the blame and most of the agencies expend much of their efforts fighting for increasingly scarce tax dollars.
  • The media need to emphasize the pointlessness of gathering data that measures “non cognitive skills”. If the public and politicians have learned anything from the “school reform” movement it should be thiscollecting data for the purpose of “measuring performance” of groups of students is pointless and will always lead to the same result. Whenever time is a fixed part of the measurement of anything (e.g. by the time a student enters “x” grade or is “y” years old), the students who have the strongest start in life— in the development of cognitive and non cognitive skills— will always do better. As noted in earlier posts, when I began my career as a public school administrator in the mid-1970s the state of Pennsylvania administered a test to all students and determined that there was a high correlation between test scores and a mother’s education and father’s occupation based on a metric that scaled work from professional careers to laborers. Mr. Edsall breathlessly reported the same findings— forty years later.
  • Intervention programs need to begin MUCH earlier: It is clear that nurturance is crucially important for both the acquisition of non cognitive and cognitive skills. It is also clear that mothers who were not raised in an environment where nurturance was present are challenged to provide that kind of environment without support.
  • Only government programs can provide those programs. That is “Government is the solution, NOT the problem”. Mr. Edsall is correct in his final point: “Advocates for the disadvantaged must also highlight and capitalize on the many demonstrably effective antipoverty solutions already well known to the academic, research and nonprofit communities.” And here’s my hunch: when those advocates highlight the successful programs they will find that the only way to bring those programs to scale is to provide money raised through taxes to make them government programs. As noted frequently in this blog, before we can restore our faith in the ability of anyone to climb out of poverty we need to restore our faith in the ability of government to provide programs for those in poverty. We need to recognize that part of being a citizen in this country is to help those in need and share the fruits of our good fortune.


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