Did the War on Poverty Fail? How Can Schools Play a Role in Breaking the Cycle of Poverty?

Let this session of Congress be known as the session.. [that] ..declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States …

This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.

It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it …

Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support. But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the State and the local level and must be supported and directed by State and local efforts.
For the war against poverty will not be won here in Washington. It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.

January 8, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson’s State of the Union Address

Fifty years later the richest country in the world has done little to eradicate poverty. Yes, federal and state governments have provided a range of programs, Earned Income Tax Credits, food stamps, Medicaid, Section 8, etc., all programs which ease the impact of poverty, not erase the causes of poverty.

Taken together, the Supplemental Poverty Measure data and simpler apples-to-apples poverty comparison suggest that poverty is less widespread and severe than it was in the 1960s, but is still quite substantial. Poverty remains higher here than in most other western industrial nations.

We have made gains in a number of areas and watched gains eroded in other areas.

… incomes and the poverty rate improved in the last 50 years for several reasons. The share of the population that finished high school and went to (and finished) college rose; more women participated in the labor force; the average size of families fell as parents had fewer children; some racial gaps narrowed; and some families, especially working-poor families and families modestly above the poverty line, received more government support, especially non-cash benefits and tax credits.

At the same time, other forces pushed downward on incomes and upward on poverty. These included the decline in wages of less-educated men, increased incarceration, a larger number of single-parent families, and, in recent decades, a weakened safety net for many without jobs.

Perhaps the most disturbing metric is the widening income inequality, in New York City, the rich are getting substantially richer and the poor continue to wallow in the depths of poverty.

The heartrending series in the New York Times, “The Invisible Child” follows the life of a sixth grader living in a bleak, pest-ridden homeless shelter. In her neighborhood, Fort Greene in Brooklyn, “the top 5 percent of residents earn 76 times as much as the bottom quintile.”

The roots of poverty have been a politically explosive topic. “Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report for the U.S. Department of Labor, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” provoked a firestorm of debate in its probing of the roots of black poverty and the decline of the black nuclear family.” Administration after administration avoided the exploring the social and cultural causes of poverty: why were generation after generation seemingly fated to succeed their forbearers?

Nearly five decades later, “The Moynihan Report Revisited ,” … gauges how the circumstances of black families have changed and how they compare with other racial and ethnic groups; documents how blacks still suffer from intersecting disadvantages that Moynihan referred to as a “tangle of pathologies”; and suggests ways to improve the circumstances of black families and reduce racial disparities.

Among the findings in “The Moynihan Report Revisited”:

• The statistics that so alarmed Moynihan have only grown worse, not only for blacks, but for whites and Hispanics as well. Today, the share of white children born outside marriage is about the same as the share was for black children in Moynihan’s day. Meanwhile, the percentage of black children born to unmarried mothers has tripled, remaining far higher than the percentage of white children born to unmarried mothers.

• In 1960, 20 percent of black children lived with their mothers but not their fathers; by 2010, 53 percent of all black children lived in such families. The share of white children living with their mothers but not their fathers climbed to 20 percent in 2010, up from 6 percent in 1960.

• There has been a marked retreat from marriage. In 1960, just over one-half of all black women were married and living with their husbands, compared with over two-thirds of white and Hispanic women. By 2010, only one-quarter of black women, two-fifths of Hispanic women, and one-half of white women lived with their spouses.

• That the decline of traditional families occurred across racial and ethnic groups indicate that factors driving the decline does not lie solely within the black community but in the larger social and economic context. Nevertheless, the consequences may be felt disproportionately among blacks as black children are far more likely to be born into and raised in father-absent families than are white children.

“Reducing the structural barriers to black economic progress, enhancing the incentives to work in the mainstream economy, and improving family dynamics are all important components for reducing racial and ethnic disparities. Addressing those diverse barriers will require concerted governmental, community, and family engagement,” said Gregory Acs, the lead author of “The Moynihan Report Revisited.”

Presidential administration after administration, governors from coast to coast danced around the underlying issue of poverty. The Obama administration saw education as the key to “reducing structural barriers to black economic progress,” unfortunately the path they chose, the Race to the Top, has morphed into a world of accountability: testing, school closings, charter schools masked as school choice, “grading” principals and teachers and the Common Core.

The billions of dollars in Race to the Top lured state after state, trading dollars for the Obama/Duncan agenda.

New York State jumped on the band wagon, especially with the appointment of John King as Commissioner of Education. The opposition to the range of federal initiatives exploded with the results of the Common Core state tests, two-thirds of students across the state failed the exams, children of color failed at staggering rates. Parents from the suburban school districts attacked the Commissioner and the Board of Regents, in forum after forum parents packed school auditoriums to express their outrage.

While schools may be part of the problem, simply teaching “harder” will not eradicate poverty.

The New York Times Opinionator blog suggests economists, sociologists and psychologists have been studying poverty for decades. In a new book Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (2013) take a fresh look,

Poor people have more self-destructive habits than middle-class people. The poor don’t plan for the future as much. Compared to middle-class people, the poor have less self-control and are quicker to turn to instant gratification. These habits perpetuate a cycle of poverty … the authors propose a way to explain why the poor are less future-oriented than those with more money. According to these authors, one explanation for bad decisions is scarcity — not of money, but of what the authors call bandwidth: the portion of our mental capacity that we can employ to make decisions.

The bad decisions of the poor, say the authors, are not a product of bad character or low native intelligence. They are a product of poverty itself. Your natural capability doesn’t decrease when you experience scarcity. But less of that capacity is available for use. If you put a middle-class person into a situation of scarcity, she will behave like a poor person.

Mullainathan and Shafir argue that the effects of scarcity go further. Its capture of our brains leads people into a tunnel; your only focus is solving the emergency of the moment. If the rent is due, you use money that would have gone to the car payment. The fact that this will end in getting your car repossessed, and therefore losing your job, doesn’t really register. You take very little notice of what’s outside the tunnel.

Discussions with the poor must take place “inside the tunnel.”

On the “Ideas 42” blog a range of scholars make specific recommendations for addressing the burden of poverty. The site explores limited attention span, personal finance, economic mobility, status quo bias, health, procrastination, etc., and link to a range of basic principles. Take a look: a fascinating site!

One of the few locations where children and families of the poor lives intersect: schools. A possible answer to breaking the cycle of poverty are community schools, schools that are the hub of social services: from health services to job searching and job training, from educating children to educating the parents of children; from working with families in crisis to working with adults whose families have been tied to poverty for generations. Community schools offer the opportunity to use the decades of research to provide interventions.

For the past fifty years the federal government and states have created a range of programs to ease the impact of poverty, there are, however, too few interventions to break the generational cycle of poverty.

Programs to ease the impact of poverty are essential, we all agree that expert teaching and learning are essential, however, if kids are hungry, or poorly clothed, or live in dysfunctional households; if role models are grandparents and parents and relatives who are replicating behaviors that impede any movement out of poverty, poverty will not abate. Community schools offer a hub at which the range of scholarship can be converted to actual meaningful interventions.

What is so sad is that the rush to the Common Core or the other Duncan “(de)forms will do little to break the cycle of poverty.


2 responses to “Did the War on Poverty Fail? How Can Schools Play a Role in Breaking the Cycle of Poverty?

  1. Pingback: Did the War on Poverty Fail? How Can Schools Play a Role in Breaking the Cycle of Poverty? | MemePosts

  2. Rachel deAragon

    To begin with the NYC public schools should be emphasizing thrift and value; not only of money but of time spent– and saved. It should not be not encouraging and/or demanding that parents supply students with truck loads of expensive supplies, and unneeded gadgets. The priorities of the schools have beebn so distorted in the last 12 years that cartons of unsed ‘materials’ arrive but basic pencils and paper– let alone copy paper and copy machine access remain part of the donated portion of the teacher’s salary. let’s begin by re-distrubting the priorities in the schools and we will do a better job of conveying these values to students.


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