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Monday, February 17, 2014

“I didn’t know it could be any different”

One of four children in this country is growing up poor.  What’s even worse perhaps is that so many of those children are growing up resigned to their own helplessness, because they cannot envision any other possibilities or opportunities.  It should not be a surprise to anyone that our nation, with a high level of income inequality, is also becoming a nation with an equally high inequality of possibilities, when compared to the richest one-percent.  As has been said by Diane Ravitch in Reign of Error, ‘Demography is not destiny, but students’ social and economic family characteristics are a powerful influence on their average achievement.  On average, the advantages and disadvantages into which children are born make a difference.”
Then, Ravitch launches into a litany of disadvantages that children born into poverty are likely to experience.  Although fairly long, it’s worth quoting in its entirety:
Children born to poor mothers are less likely to:
--receive regular medical care
--have books and magazines in their home
--be read to by a parent or guardian
--be enrolled in a pre-kindergarten program
--have their own bedroom or a quiet place to study
--hear a large and complex vocabulary at home, as compared to professional families
--receive three nutritious meals every day
--live in sound housing
--live in a safe neighborhood
--take family trips to the local library or museum
--participate in organized activities after school
--take a family vacation or go to a summer camp
But are more likely to:
--be born preterm or with low birth weight and consequently to suffer cognitive impairments, learning and attention deficits
--suffer “fetal alcohol syndrome” (occurs ten times more often among low-income black children than among middle-class white kids)
--live in a dwelling infested with rats and roaches
--have a parent or guardian who is incarcerated or unemployed
--be homeless
--move frequently and change schools frequently
--to have asthma (caused by low-grade heating oil, excessive dust, reactions to mold, cockroaches, and secondhand smoke)
--be ill without getting treated by a doctor
--be hungry or suffer anemia because of poor diet
--have undetected vision and hearing problems
--have toothaches and cavities
--be exposed to lead in paint on their walls
“The burdens imposed on children by poverty are physical, emotional, cognitive, and psychological.  Because of poverty, the achievement gap begins before the first day of kindergarten,” Ravitch concludes.  The Shriver Report says that “by the time they turn 4, poor children are typically 18 months behind their middle-class peers and the vast majority never catch up!.”
One of my vivid memories from a recent symposium on poverty is of a young woman who spoke of her struggle to break out of her childhood of poverty.  She described something of her life –lack of food, lack of early education, lack of parental guidance, a dysfunctional family, and then she said what stayed with me:  “I thought it was the way things were; that what I had was normal; that there was nothing beyond what I experienced!”  And then, as a teenager, she found something: an opportunity that had not been available before; a program for young adults that changed her life.
Joseph E. Stiglitz in his book, The Price of Inequality comments: "The United States has become a society in which there is less equality of opportunity, less than it was in the past, and less than in other countries."  He cites three examples of items that could be broadened to make a significant difference for those in or facing poverty: the earned income tax credit, health insurance for poor kids, and access to a good education.
It occurs to me that everyone of us individually and collectively has an obligation and a responsibility in this democratic society: to create, to provide or to support the possibilities for a better life, not just for people living in poverty, but for those who live on the brink of poverty, and for those who live with special challenges no matter their place or status.  We must all be possibility-makers, so that those who do not know that life can be any different, will be able to find something that can change their outlook; their vision; their life story.  We must be the possibility-makers so that others can be successful possibility-seekers.
  
I realize at this point that I just avoided using a word that distresses radical conservatives.  They do not like “takers”; they appreciate only those who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, and create their own possibilities and successes.  I understand what they believe.  What I don’t understand is how they miss the obvious point that for so many in our society, there are no bootstraps!  Providing bootstrap possibilities is a whole lot different than providing temporary, means-tested programs that comprise a "safety net" into which one can simply fall and flounder.  There are so few possibilities available to the poor to be able to pull themselves from the depths of deprivation onto the heights of success and wealth. And sometimes, tragically, opportunities and possibilities exist of which they know nothing, or they exist but can’t be seized because of mitigating factors.  It is fair and just policies that tend to be the engines of change, not just programs that make-up a very disconnected safety net that is almost as impossible to navigate as it is to escape poverty itself.
The one concept that so often gets left out by the radically conservative viewpoint is that even successful people in the private sector – the bankers, the financiers, the manufacturers and the retailers, the service providers and the care-givers – are all flawed and imperfect in one way or another (an influential concept for our Founding Fathers in developing “ checks an balances.”).  We and they are all guilty of the same shortcomings – greed, avarice, cheating, fraud, and indifference.  Because we all fall short of perfection, we ought not to act as though certain people are somehow better than others and deserve special privileges, while some deserve fewer possibilities than others simply because they have not achieved some so-called "success" in life.  It is primarily because of our commonality, our interdependence, and our common destiny no matter who we may be, that we bear a mutual responsibility for each other while living in this imperfect world.
It is that interdependence and mutual responsibility for each other that prompts me to say that every one of our institutions should be dedicated to the proposition that the more possibilities for a good life that can be invented and offered to all of our people by both the public and private sectors, the better off our whole society will be.  Instead of imposing an austerity that seeks to limit possibilities, we should be looking to create a plethora of possibilities that can be offered to all.  To the contrary, we have gotten ourselves into a stupid fight over “benefits and entitlements,” “givers and takers,” “rich and poor,” “class warfare”; “deficits and debt.”  It seems as though we have all but forgotten the “self-evident truths” upon which we based our Declaration of independence: “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable RIGHTS, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.  That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

We also seem to have overlooked  the mission of government as proposed in the Preamble to our Constitution: “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the General Welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Somewhere in our haste to be frugal, safe and secure - and perfect - we have laid aside our obligations to equality, justice, the pursuit of happiness, the blessings of liberty and the very broad obligation to promote the general welfare.   Have we cherry-picked our obligations and narrowed them to civil obedience, defense, law and order, an austere budget and to liberty as defined by a very small cadre of plutocrats? I wonder…
How then can we open up the possibilities for the governed to enjoy full participation in the possibilities of life, liberty and happiness?  Certainly not by simply developing more governmental programs that attempt to soothe, or alleviate, or temporarily relieve the inadequacies of our system and the special needs of our people.  We are apt to get further toward creating more relevant possibilities by following a process similar to that outlined in the Shriver Report: “Women on the Brink.”  Here we have relevant polls, studies and stories that lead us to think of what the problems are, how people view them and what possibilities might be engendered to address those problems and concerns.

The first disturbing fact in this report is that more than 70 million women and children live on the brink today in our nation, and that one in three women is living in or near poverty.  While most of these women are white, they are of every color, creed and ethnicity.  What’s more, many of these women are part of the working poor: they are our dental hygienists, our restaurant servers, our receptionists; the caretakers of our aging parents or of our children. Yet they are living on the brink of, or in the grip of, poverty.
Another disturbing statistic is that we have moved from the small pockets of poverty in the 1960’s to a broad-ranging financial insecurity now experienced by a third of the country, mostly women and children.  According to the Report, if women working full time, year round, were paid the same for their work as comparable men, we could cut the poverty rate for working women and their families by half.  Our public policies have not adjusted to a world in which nearly two-thirds of mothers are primary or co-breadwinners.  The consequences are particularly troubling for single mothers, who are much less apt to receive decent wages and family-friendly benefits.  We need new policy prescriptions for new circumstances.  The Report suggests that the lack of policies to help families manage conflicts between work and family takes the possibility of working away from too many women. Adequate child care and sick days or “family leave” days would open up work possibilities for many women right away.

It is also clear from the Shriver Report that one of the major problems for women on the brink, or actually within poverty, is the lack of an adequate education, and perhaps, more cogently, the lack of possibilities for pursuing an adequate education.   Here are just some examples of the lack of opportunities:
--most young children do not have access to affordable high-quality preschool, and without this possibility an at-risk child is 25% more likely to drop out of school, 40% more likely to become a teen parent; and 60% more likely never to attend college.
--the effectiveness of a kindergarten teacher appears to have lifelong effect upon children, yet schools  that serve children in areas of poverty are the least likely to be able to afford to hire experienced kindergarten teachers, and are more apt to be using part-time less-experienced teachers at that level.
--the lack of an adequate tax base is one reason why schools in poverty areas are not equipping students for the daunting task of learning; the poor don't have the resources to be able to live in affluent neighborhoods, and most of them are renters anyway, not owners.  The lack of an adequate tax base  clearly translates to a lack of the resources necessary for hiring excellent teachers, buying up-to-date text books; for providing excellent resources like computers for every child, or small classrooms for every student, or classroom assistants in every class, to say nothing of lacking after-school activities, or in-house counselors, or social workers to work with families.
--the absolute need for parents to work at all hours of the day or night has a deleterious effect upon the early parent-child relationship in terms of reading books, teaching math in simple everyday ways, or taking kids to libraries, museums, or other cultural venues.
--coming to school hungry has a measurable effect on being able to learn; cut-backs in school breakfast and lunch programs are having an effect upon the performance level of many poor children
--the drop-out rate, although decreased, is still abysmal compared to other developed countries
These are just a few of the many factors that undermine, or result from, schools that are located in zones of poverty or near-poverty.  The most important lesson that can be learned from these factors is that it is because of the lack of money  that these exigencies exist; they are not the result of the behavior or characteristics of those living in poverty.   Poor behaviors are not the cause of poverty - they are, most often, the results of Poverty -- and they can be rectified.  Students who are most likely to succeed are clustered in certain school districts that are already rich in resources and who have a leg-up on students struggling with poverty, inadequate teaching and under-funded resources.  In fact, a good education depends increasingly on the "income, wealth and education of one's parents," says Joseph Stiglitz.  A lack of money and opportunity is the cause upon which we must focus our attention. 

It is important to list some of the suggested solutions contained in the Report to understand that we need to attack the roots of poverty, not the poor, and to remedy the lack of resources, not the behavior of the poor; and we need to be aware that these aren't just "women's issues."
1)    Early childhood education is one of the best investments we can make in America's future.  Forty states now have publicly-funded preschool programs, but they serve only a quarter of 4-year-olds.  Nobel prize winner, James Heckman (Economics), has found that every public dollar spent on high-quality early childhood education returns $7 through increased productivity and savings on public assistance and criminal justice programs.  Head Start helped to change the lives of more than 30 million children and their families, and study after study has confirmed young children who experience secure, stimulating environments with rich learning opportunities from an early age are better prepared to thrive in school.  President Obama's administration is committed to closing unfair opportunity gaps by expanding high-quality early learning services for children from birth to 5 years of age, including high-quality preschool for every 4-year-old in America. 
     
2)    Another writer in the Shriver Report, the Mayor of Fort Worth, Texas, suggests that one of the vital necessities in a young person's life is after-school activities, many of which are inaccessible to families on or over the brink of poverty. She says, "The evidence is clear: Kids in after school programs are more engaged and interested in their education, have better school attendance; rate their school experience more positively; and are less likely to commit or to be victims of crimes."  These programs not only help the kids toward higher achievement, but they allow working parents to keep their jobs while their kids are provided with a safe place to learn and grow.
3)    Miami Dade College is a diverse campus where 70 percent of the students come from low-income families (46% of whom live below the poverty line).  Many of these students are the first in their families to ever attend a college, and they need supports to help them finish a degree.  MDC assists them (especially young women) to gain access to federal and state programs that can provide supports, such as Medicaid, SNAP, Head Start, legal counseling and pregnancy support.  Additional partnerships with mentoring organizations, internship possibilities, career planning, peer-engagement programs are also integrated into their college lives.
 
4)    Higher education is one answer to the gaps of opportunity and equity in our society, especially for women. Women with only a high school degree are three to four times more likely to live on the financial brink than those with a college degree.  Today's girls need to think of themselves as providers, not just as caretakers.  Preparation for that larger role in families means seeking out degrees that enhance one's chances for success in this new role.
5)    Improving the health of children birth to age 5 is a necessity, because the connection between chronic childhood stress and long-term health is something that cannot be ignored.
6)    Women must mentor younger girls to teach them about the importance of making smart decisions -- financial, personal and educational.  "Foster the mindset that girls must invest in themselves, and that they have the power to succeed."
Conservative intellectuals, commentators and politicians have one thing in common: they blame the poor for being poor.  According to an article in the Shriver Report, "Time to Wake Up: Stop Blaming Poverty on the Poor" by Barbara Ehrenreich, "By the time of the Reagan Era, it had become a cornerstone of conservative ideology that poverty is caused, not by low wages or a lack of jobs and education, but by the bad attitudes and faulty lifestyles of the poor. In their view, the poor are shiftless, irresponsible, and prone to addiction... have too many children and fail to get married.  So, if they suffer from grievous material deprivation…they have no one to blame but themselves.”  Poor single mothers were singled out as “welfare Queens” who chose to stay at home and collect welfare rather than to find work.  Welfare “reform” was the conservative answer for ending such laziness and curing the self-induced “culture of poverty” that was supposedly at the root of their misery.  It was meant to counter the prevailing attitude that the poor were entitled to welfare benefits without working for those so-called “hand-outs.” 
Ehrenreich says the Great Recession should have put the victim-blaming theory of poverty to rest after millions of educated, hardworking and ambitious workers (including tech workers, managers and other once-comfortable professionals) began to slip into poverty, and found themselves applying for food stamps, showing up in shelters, and lining up for level-entry jobs in retail and fast food.  No one could rightly accuse these “nouveau poor” of having made bad choices or bad lifestyle decisions.  It could have been a moment for the prevaricating pundits and blustering politicians to finally admit the truth: “Poverty is not a character failing or a lack of motivation. Poverty is a lack of money,” and I would add, a lack of possibilities and opportunities because of the lack of money!
She concludes: “Sadly, this (conservative mantra) has become the means by which the wealthiest country in the world manages to remain complacent in the face of alarmingly high levels of poverty by continuing to blame poverty not on the economy, or inadequate social supports, but on the poor themselves.  It’s time, she says, “to revive the notion of a collective national responsibility to the poorest among us, who are disproportionately women and especially women of color.” 
The Shriver Report includes a poll of 3,500 adults that indicates just as forcefully, if not more so, that the financially vulnerable women who participated in the poll --blue-collar women, single mothers, low-income women, women of color -- say that they are optimistic about their economic future and confident in their own ability to turn their lives around.  In policy terms, they are not looking for handouts, but for specific policy accommodations that would allow them to fulfill their dual role as primary caregiver and breadwinner.  But, they see a disconnect between their own ability and motivation to move ahead and the inability of the current economic structure to change with the changing family structure, and with the dynamics in this country caused by so many women in the workplace.  Thus, they advocate for paid sick leave, flexible hours, pay equity, job security for pregnant women and college assistance for single mothers -- all of which find overwhelming support among the people, Democrat or Republican!
The specially-commissioned poll to determine from a broad cross-section of women what they have to say about their own situation was undertaken jointly by a Republican polling firm and one that is operated by a Democrat.  The questions and the results were bi-partisan.  When was the last time the radical Republicans in Congress (or even the Democrats, for that matter) commissioned a non-partisan poll, overseen by professional pollsters, to determine what those polled say are the real problems they are facing, and what factors contribute to their circumstances? 
If the basic job of Congress is to legislate to enhance the General Welfare and the possibility of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness for all citizens (who are said to be created equal), then why aren't Congresspersons gathering reliable statistics on which to base their budgets, policies and programs?  Unfortunately, they are more committed to propagandizing every little bit of data they can gather in order to make it seem like they are resolving problems, not just seeking re-election.  In essence, they are simply trumpeting ideology that appeals to their base, and to their real constituency: the special interests and large corporate donors. 
Meanwhile, Congresspersons are failing at their primary task:  representing grassroots constituents in the making of laws, policies, and programs that present a myriad of real possibilities for the enhancement of Life, Liberty, success, happiness and the general welfare.  Their present behavior toward the poor is inexcusable.