While there is widespread agreement that family poverty is highly correlated with low achievement at school, it is a difficult issue to discuss because people immediately become defensive. “Don’t tell me poor kids can’t learn,” people say. Many children living in poor families do thrive at school. But life circumstances present challenges that too often interfere. Here is long-time education researcher David Berliner explaining that, in the aggregate, poverty lowers school attainment: “For reasons that are hard to fathom, too many people believe that in education the exceptions are the rule… These stories of triumph by individuals who were born poor, or success by educators who changed the lives of their students, are widely believed narratives… But in fact, these are simply myths that help us feel good to be American… But the general case is that poor people stay poor and that teachers and schools serving impoverished youth do not often succeed in changing the life chances for their students.” There is much to read this week that elucidates the kind of crisis poverty imposes on poor families and explains how families’ circumstances affect children in school.
What would it be like to raise children while living in extreme poverty? In their new book $2.00 A Day, Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer follow some of the 1.5 million American households (including roughly 3 million children) living without any cash income—only food stamps. (This blog covered Edin and Shaefer’s book in January when it was published.) Too often families in extreme poverty cannot find anywhere they can afford the rent: “Every family whose story is told in this book has doubled up with kin or friends at some point, because their earnings haven’t been sufficient to maintain a place of their own. While living with relatives sometimes offers strength and uplift, it can also prove toxic for the most vulnerable in our society, ending in sexual, physical, or verbal abuse. The trauma from this abuse is sometimes a precipitating factor in a family’s fall into $2-a-day poverty, or the calamity that keeps them in such a state for far too long.” (p. 73)
Edin and Shaefer report that parents discover that the jobs they find—and they do work—are hard to keep and almost impossible to manage for single parents due to unpredictable schedules that change from day to day: “Work schedules are often variable, meaning that the days and times you are required to work can shift from day to day or week to week. To get enough hours at any given job, an employee has to be flexible… Even more challenging for workers than an unpredictable schedule are abrupt ups and downs in the number of hours a worker gets. Many employers with a large low-wage workforce engage in a practice termed ‘work loading,’ which responds to downturns in demand with informal layoffs: employers keep employees on the payroll but reduce their scheduled hours, sometimes even to zero…. The extreme of this phenomenon is the growing prevalence of ‘on-call’ shifts. In recent years, many service sector employers have begun requiring workers to be available on certain days and at certain times even when they aren’t working… If they are not needed, they get no compensation for the time spent on call.” (pp. 43-46)
A new book by Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond, just published this week, will help us learn more about the shortage of affordable housing and the effect of serial evictions on families. Desmond is an ethnographer who studied evictions in Milwaukee as the topic of his Ph.D. dissertation. This blog covered a short excerpt published in the New Yorker from Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. And currently the New York Review of Books features a review of Desmond’s book by Jason DeParle, a respected reporter whose own noted book American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare (published in 2004), traced the growth of extreme poverty among Milwaukee’s families following the 1996 elimination of the federal welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
Reading Desmond’s book will be essential, but one should also attend to DeParle’s insightful article: “It is odd that the shortage of low-income housing gets little attention, even among experts on the left. Decent affordable shelter is a primal human need, and its disappearance is one of the most troubling results of growing inequality. Housing patterns shape more visible issues like schools, jobs, and crime… A major point to keep in mind is that the US spends huge sums to subsidize housing for people who are well-off (through the mortgage interest deduction and other tax breaks) while most poor renters get nothing: only one of four low-income households that qualify for assistance gets it.” “Part of the message is that evictions are much more common than previously thought. Desmond’s survey found that more than one in eight Milwaukee renters faced a forced move in the course of three years… The numbers sound extraordinary but not in light of the shelter burdens that low-income households carry. The government says that rent and utilities are affordable if they consume no more than 30 percent of a household’s income. Analyzing census data, Desmond finds that the majority of poor households pay over 50 percent of their income for shelter and more than a quarter pay over 70 percent. Among the tenants in housing court, a third spend at least 80 percent. Evicted‘s families double up with strangers, sell food stamps, and pirate electricity but inevitably fall behind.”
In his review DeParle traces the impact of what he calls “the eviction industrial complex” on neighborhoods and on lives—the ways poverty affects the prospects of children at school by disrupting their lives and undermining the stability of their parents. DeParle explains that one child profiled attended five different schools in seventh and eighth grade: “He once missed seventeen consecutive days. The disruptions cause workers to get fired. Letters sent to wrong addresses cause people to miss appointments and lose public aid. Evictions mar the tenants’ records…. One in two recently evicted mothers reports multiple symptoms of clinical depression…. Eviction isn’t just another hardship… but a detour onto a much harder path—“a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.” And the shortage of housing for poor families has grown more serious in the past quarter century: “Demolition and gentrification claimed the cheap units, and sputtering incomes swelled the number of needy renters. In 1970, the US had nearly a million more affordable units than poor households, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Two decades later, the situation had reversed: there were five million more poor households than affordable units. Housing was better but cost a lot more. The severe recession that began in December 2007 delivered a double whammy. Foreclosures turned millions of homeowners into renters, which kept rents rising even as incomes fell.” “The big problem is that it costs more to build even modest housing than millions of households can pay….”
DeParle examines Desmond’s thesis that our society should provide universal housing vouchers and presents studies that question the value of what would be an enormous public investment. But he also presents the data from a study last year by Harvard economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence F. Katz, who demonstrate, with historical data, that children younger than eight years old showed statistically improved life chances after their families moved from poor to middle income neighborhoods.
Finally—Growing residential segregation by income across America exacerbates challenges for schools and for families. This week, in The Concentration of Poverty in American Schools, The Atlantic directly examines the impact of economic segregation overlaid on racial segregation on students’ attainment at school: “In about half of the largest 100 cities, most African American and Latino students attend schools where at least 75 percent of all students qualify as poor or low income under federal guidelines. These stark results emerge from an analysis of data from the National Equity Atlas. The Atlas is a joint project of PolicyLink and the University of Sourhern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity…. (O)verall, concentrated poverty is tightly correlated with gaps in educational achievement. ‘It’s the measure of segregation that is most strongly correlated to the racial achievement gap,’ said Sean F. Reardon, a professor at Stanford University’s graduate school of education and one of the nation’s leading experts on residential and educational segregation… The latest figures from the National Center for Educational Statistics show that nationwide about three-fourths of both African American and Hispanic young people (compared to about one-third of white students) attend schools where most of their classmates qualify as low income.”
Reardon believes that our society must recognize and face the daunting challenges of poverty and racial-economic isolation of children in America’s public schools: “We don’t have much evidence that we can make major improvements in educational equality solely through school policy alone. Educational policy has to be part of the picture. But we need more than that. We need to think about residential integration… we need to think about school integration, which gets easier when you have more residential integration; we need to think about increasing economic parity between blacks and whites.”
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