More than 1/2 of Public School Children are Low-Income: Or, why we need to stop talking about “equality”

The Washington Post recently featured an article that talked about the increasing percentage of youth in America who both live in poverty and attend public schools. The article was problematic in itself — and not only because the actual study, if you look it up, points out that more than half of children in public schools in the US actually live in low-income families (not in poverty).

Poverty is currently defined as $24,300/year for a family of four.

Of course a number of public school children live in poverty. Of course a large number of them are low-income. Public schools were designed to educate the masses. Private schools were designed to educate the financially elite.It should really come as no surprise to anyone that children attending public schools are more likely to be living in poverty than those attending private schools. Since, you know, private schools cost money.

This is inequality in action.

At one point in the WashPo article, Kent McGuire, president of the Southern Education Foundation says:

“The fact is, we’ve had growing inequality in the country for many years[…]It didn’t happen overnight, but it’s steadily been happening. Government used to be a source of leadership and innovation around issues of economic prosperity and upward mobility. Now we’re a country disinclined to invest in our young people.”

But, inequality is not the right word choice. This isn’t just semantics. We can, theoretically make everything equal, and it will still be inequitable. We need to do better than just working toward equality in a system plagued by systemic inequality and inequity, and we need to stop perpetuating the history-blind myth that everyone is given equal opportunity and therefore should have equal outcomes.

The article points out that Republicans would like to offer private school vouchers, but that doesn’t actually address the problem, which is poverty and the fact that an increasing percentage of Americans are living in poverty.

Instead, private school vouchers are a band-aid. And if private schools are really* better educational options than public schools, that speaks even more to the need to address how we fund and support public schools and public school educators.

Public schools, and educators, are stretched thin. They are doing their best to provide support services to students, and families, in the face of decreasing support from, or trust in, other institutions which used to fill this role.

A personal story:

I worked with under-resourced youth in an after-school program for several years. I saw the way that families were struggling to make ends meet. I listened to the parents pleading with us to help their children with reading and homework because they (the parents) worked multiple jobs or barely felt competent in the material themselves or because by the time they took their children home, it was bedtime or because English wasn’t the language spoken at home or because the new math with the dots isn’t something they know how to help their kid with.

I worked with the teachers and the school social worker. I sought advice from the other social workers in my life on how to create trauma-informed spaces for the youth. We fed children dinner, delivered from the food bank, because nearly 100% of the youth I worked with came from families who qualified for free or reduced lunch. I worked with parents  to find shelters with open beds, to refine their resume, to practice their interview skills, to learn alternate parenting methods different from the ones they were raised with. I volunteered my time with some of these parents to help them study for their GEDs, and others to help them understand their rights as tenants.

Which isn’t to say I worked with all the parents.

It wasn’t that any of these parents didn’t care — but it was often that they were stretched to capacity. It was often that they were also under-resourced; often as a result of generational poverty (meaning, of course, no access to wealthier relatives to might be able to help support them or their child(ren)). It was that their concern might have been on providing food for their family over the weekend or keeping the lights on or keeping their children alive in the face of street and police violence, both of which are realities for many people in the US.

We must remember that the economy is not recovering for everyone. We can see this by the increasing number of people living in poverty. We can see it by the increasing number of people facing homelessness in cities across the nation. We can see it in the fact that shelters for people who are experiencing homelessness are closing. We can see it in the fact that there are never enough beds in shelters for people hoping to escape domestic violence. We can see it the housing markets where prices are rapidly increasing — and forcing those whose wages have stagnated well below inflation to live further and further from their jobs.

We can sit down, and talk about the ways the increasing economic disparities show up. And we should be doing this. We should be having conversations about how these changes are dramatically impacting America’s future via the education system.

As bad as the article was, the comments were (and no surprise here) even worse.

I know that comment sections are terrible neighborhoods. But comment sections also allow us an insight into how another part of the population thinks. And so, as easy as it would be to dismiss the comments to the WashPo article, to do so is the equivalent of sticking our heads in the sand.

I can’t address all of the negative comments that were made about the article (or WashPo itself), nor would I want to try. Responding to any one of the negative comments could easily result in a blog post at least as long as this one. And, many positive and supportive comments do work to address these negative comments, which are often explicitly racist (by which I don’t mean necessarily dropping slurs, but the only slightly more subtle references to this only being a problem of particular races).

But many of the comments are incredibly close-minded to the fact of systemic inequalities and the reality that poverty doesn’t have a single face. This is crucial to consider when a number of cities around the country, and the entire state of Hawaii have declared homelessness a state of emergency. It is crucial to consider when we know that some people who are homeless are the working poor, and that families who become homeless often first result to “doubling up” or moving in with family/friends for a period of time in the hope that they can avoid the shelter system.

It is also crucial to remember in the shadow of the aforementioned state of generational poverty, and despite what people in the comments section of the WashPo article would like to believe, it is difficult to support a family of 4 on $44,000 a year in many places in the US at this point (roughly what qualifies a family as low income). Really difficult, in fact.

$24,300/year for a family of four — the federal designation of poverty — is a laughably low number.

In my state, being able to afford a 2-bedroom apartment means making roughly $19/hour, which is in line with the national average. Think about that: a 2-bedroom apartment for a family of four. Think about what it means to make $19/hour, and who, realistically, makes that. Not the working poor and low-income families, who according to the study linked to above spend at least half of their income on housing. Not, either, many in the shrinking middle class.

In my city, in particular, to designate only 1/3 of your income toward rent — which is still, in many cases, a deciding factor on who is rented to — an average 2-bedroom Craiglist apartment that is on the outskirts of the city is only “affordable” if you make at least $54,000. Affording to rent middle-of-the-road apartment (meaning one, for these purposes, not located on the outskirts of the city, but certainly not central) would necessitate you making $61,000/year.

Minimum wage, in my state, is a bit over $8/hour. You/your household would need to work about 130 hours a week (of the 168 available hours), at minimum wage, to afford that $54,000/year apartment according to the standard that only 1/3 of your income go toward housing.

And that’s not just my state:

Currently, an average American needs to earn $19.35 to afford rent on a two-bedroom unit. That’s a few dollars more than the $15.16 average hourly wage earned by the average American renters, and 2.5 times the federal minimum wage. It’s also more than the median hourly wage of the the average American worker, which is $17.09.

So, when do we start talking about the generational impact of this type of sustained low-income and impoverished living? When can we start talking about how we should not, regardless of our belief in how we got to this point, be punishing children for the situations they are born into? When can we start talking about how broken our economic system is, and how we would like to try to fix it?



*It’s crucial that we don’t lump all private schools against all public schools. We should also compare schools, as much as possible, on the basis of not only dollar spent per student at school, but also the resources available to children once they leave school– and what we value in education. And, as long as we’re talking about public and private education, I think it’s also important to look at the varied ways the charter school movement — and the fact that it is a weird hybrid of public and private school in practice, but receiving public funding — has impacted public education, overall, and to look at this with a critical eye, especially when it comes to who is allowed to stay, and how discipline is doled out.


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