How to Fight Poverty: Provide Options


The Network Effect

Last week, Will and I took up the topic of poverty in response to an op-ed by Eva Moskowitz. Poverty is rightfully a major point of discourse in fields such as education, sociology, and economics, especially given the symbolic and vaunted “golden door” of opportunity for the “huddled masses” presented by the ideal of the United States.

For those of us who work in communities entrenched in poverty, we see firsthand the devastation that poverty and its associated ills can wreak on our children and their families. You won’t catch me blithely trumpeting “poverty doesn’t matter” anytime soon. Poverty matters. Which is another way of saying that capital—and who has an abundance of access to it, and who doesn’t—matters.

Optionality—or the Lack Thereof

I like to think of capital, or wealth, as optionality (with a nod to Nassim Taleb). In other words, capital is the possession of options, which can be social, psychological, physical, or otherwise, and not simply a matter of money. As an example, there are folks who may not have lots of money per se, yet are willing to take fairly large (calculated) risks and thus gain wealth. Such people most likely have access to other forms of capital, such as a solid network of family, friends, or other formal or informal sources of guidance and support. And as we know with capital, the more you have, the more you accumulate. This effect, known as the Matthew Effect, has also been much written about in education, especially in regards to vocabulary development.

Unsurprisingly, a child’s exposure to vocabulary corresponds very closely to the socio-economic status of his family.

There’s No Denying the Challenge

There’s a strong tendency in the ed reform crowd to present a righteously indignant insistence that poverty should not determine life nor career outcomes. It certainly shouldn’t. Not in a world that is fair. But it does. Research suggests that poverty can even have long-term consequences on brain development. In summarizing the research from a longitudinal study, Emily Badger on Atlantic’s CityLab said,

Poverty taxes the ability of parents to do all kinds of things, including care for their children. And the developmental challenges that children face in a home full of stressed adults may well influence the adults that they, themselves, become.

To acknowledge the impact of factors associated with poverty does not mean to give up, nor to suggest that our schools can’t do better. It’s rather to acknowledge the extreme challenges our children might face, as well as to acknowledge that such challenges extend well beyond the purview of the classroom.

By acknowledging these challenges and the stark reality that children and their family may face in fact validates yet more the tough work that educators do. It’s our job to provide an environment where our children not only will be challenged at the highest level, but furthermore provided extensive support, both academic and otherwise. A recent post by CJ Libassi on New America’s EdCentral makes this explicit, based on recent findings from a Mathematica study:

“To catch up,” the authors say, “high-risk children would need to make almost twice as much progress during kindergarten as low-risk children.”

Depressing as these findings may be, more discouraging still is the fact that exposure to risk factors that impede kindergarten readiness has not improved since the 1998-99 cohort of students. And, it may be getting worse. In the 1998-99 group, 58% of kindergartners had no risk factors, compared to the most recent cohort’s rate of 56% students with no such obstacles in their lives. Though we can’t be certain that the number of children experiencing risk factors is trending upwards, it is safe to conclude that the problem is at least getting no better.

Let’s Pull Up Our Big Person Pants

Rather than needlessly polarizing the issue of poverty in education by pointing to outliers, the real question is: how we can better serve communities entangled in poverty and seek to mediate the toxic effects?

Let’s go back to the idea of wealth and capital as optionality. We want to provide our children and their families with more and better options.

  • Having options means that you have some place to go to enrich yourself after school ends.
  • Having options means that you have some place within walking distance to obtain healthy food.
  • Having options means that you have access to different spaces of respite and serenity, places with trees, or water, or flowers, or scenic views.
  • Having options means that you can decide not to go to college, and still develop skills for a viable career.
  • Having options means that you can decide to raise a child before you’ve invested in a career or college, and still find support with child care.
  • Having options means that you can decide to start your own business, because you still have a savings or insurance to fall back on if you fail.
  • Having options means that you can decide to move to another part of town, because there will still be affordable housing options there.

It’s incumbent on all of us, as a society, to provide more and better options for each other. And while the seeds of change can be sown in the classroom, they are sustained and scaled by the overarching structures and policies of our economy and government. Our schools may be on the front lines in the fight against poverty, but the real battle occurs on each of our front lawns.

We’re all accountable for the poverty of communities in our nation. What are we doing to provide opportunities for children and families in those communities?

When framed in this way, we can acknowledge the opportunities that educators are providing without the need to denigrate them for political points. We can acknowledge, say, the great work that Eva Moskowitz’ network provides with Success Academy schools, while also acknowledging that it is simply not enough. We can appreciate the effort Geoffrey Canada has made to make a school provide more than just an education, while acknowledging that it’s still not enough.

And we can acknowledge the hard work that educators in our district schools are doing each day across this vast system, while also acknowledging—it’s just not enough.

In this nation, we’re scared of taking big and bold collective action and pulling up our big person pants. What do I mean by big and bold action? How about reparations for people of color? Or affirmative action? Or integrated and affordable housing? How about a global wealth tax?

Yeah, I thought so. Not in my backyard, right? To each his own. Too bad, so sad. The endless charade of American independence.

Since big and bold action is unlikely any time soon, and we know that simply throwing big money or big names at the problem isn’t effective either, fighting poverty is unfortunately about incremental change. It’s about playing the long game.

So, what’s the long game? I’m going to argue that it has a lot to do with trees.

To be continued in our next post. . . 

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