Caleb Rossiter has just published a book about high-poverty schools, after teaching in the D.C. schools. The book is titled Ain’t Nobody Be Learnin’ Nothin': The Fraud and the Fix for High-Poverty Schools. He was especially upset by the rampant grade inflation that he witnessed in both public and charter schools. Jay Mathews wrote about Rossiter’s book here. Rossiter sent me a brief excerpt from his book, which I post here with his permission.
Yes, There Is an Answer for High-Poverty Public Schools
It’s the same as for our wealthier schools: a relevant curriculum, an orderly environment, and strong families
by Caleb Rossiter
If education is supposed to be the bridge to the middle class for low-income Americans, then the bridge is definitely out for children in high-poverty communities who attend segregated open-enrollment public and charter high schools. Tragically, that is nearly all the children in these communities. Very few escape to private schools, or the handful of public and charter schools that function like them by using selective admissions to keep out, or academic and discipline rules to push out, weak or disruptive students and troubled families.
In those schools most students can build the perseverance, knowledge, and study skills needed to gain and maintain the free ride that nearly all poor children need to complete college. In contrast, in the open-enrollment schools half of the students drop out and the other half are simply passed along until they graduate years behind grade level, helpless before a college curriculum.
Poor families have been the focus of a 20-year experiment of repairing the bridge to the middle class with a package of “reforms” in public and charter schools, including teaching to grade level tests regardless of students’ skill levels, insistence on a packaged college prep curriculum for all students, and most of all test-based “accountability,” in which teachers, and administrators are punished for the well-documented fact that being poor, black, or Hispanic correlates strongly on average with weaker performance in class and on standardized tests. These reforms came with the best intentions to produce better teaching and, as a result, better learning, but the experiment has failed spectacularly.
I know this not just because, when you strip away the “gaming” of the numbers that reformers use to make perpetual claims of progress, exam, SAT, graduation, and college completion statistics continue to show the same abysmal results for the poor and for blacks and Hispanics as 20 years ago. I know it also because for three and a half years recently I left university teaching to lend a hand as a math teacher in high-poverty high schools, and I failed just as spectacularly. (That “half-year” is the dead give-away. I recently resigned from a charter school because it demanded that I record passing grades for the 40 percent of my ninth-grade students who were delivered to Algebra 1 six years below grade level and then made little effort to catch up.)
But really, are we surprised? Was it logical to expect that with the poorest, most stressed families increasingly segregated into separate schools we could help them overcome the challenges of poverty just by changing teaching methods? Looking for the bridge to the middle class only in schools for children rather than also in jobs and support for their families meant that we could ignore the toxic legacy of America’s unique brew of slavery, segregation, and the passing of the cultures and opportunities of poverty and wealth to the next generation. How convenient!
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Kenneth Clark was the psychologist whose research on black children’s self-image, in which most preferred a white to a black doll as a “good” playmate, underpinned the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board finding in 1954 that segregation was inherently unequal to the excluded group. In his work in Harlem in the 1960’s Clark discovered that poor African-Americans teenagers were “encumbered” by the devastation of the black family and of the black, particularly male, psyche by the violence and degradation of slavery and segregation. Clark identified the results as the “tangle of pathology of the ghetto:” a sense of inferiority, embedded discrimination and dysfunction, group and self-hatred, “defeatist attitudes,” and lower ambition. However, he also found that many children were not derailed by being encumbered.
Clark was not blaming the victim, but rather recognizing what the victim needed to recover. It has been a stunningly tough row to hoe, or chop, or pick, for African-Americans. The degradation and brutality of 250 years of slavery, a century of segregation and denial of opportunity by law, and now 50 years by practice, have created a burden of anger, confusion, poverty, and dysfunction that only the strong survive, and in which only the fortunate thrive.
Clark’s findings ring true today. Roughly half of my students exhibited the external symptoms of what has been called post-traumatic slave syndrome, and what I call currently-traumatized segregation syndrome. The causes are physical isolation and social alienation from the middle class, damage in pregnancy, shortage of intellectual stimulation in infancy, and high levels of violence, threat, and unemployment. The symptoms are stress, braggadocio, “joning” (verbally humiliating others in your cohort), responding violently to being joned, early and sustained language and academic deficits, fear of trying and failing, and looking for affirmation in gangs, crime, and early sexual activity. For the fortunate fifty percent who did not exhibit serious symptoms, there was almost always a strong adult somewhere in the family who had guided them through school, demanding solid performance and behavior.
While teaching on the poor side of town I would find myself regaling people on the richer side with tales of this wildly counter-productive “tangle of pathology.” I would always warn them not to interrupt me with “you’re kidding.” In the Peninsular War of the early 19th century the Duke of Wellington left the list of transgressions by his retreating troops to the imagination of the listener by saying only that every outrage imaginable was committed. Similarly, by listing these realities I am only providing a sample. Whatever outrage you can imagine, these students have seen it, carried it out, or been victims of it.
A partial litany: virtually no men in the homes, shootings by and of students, nearly half of boys involved in the criminal justice system, nearly half of girls pregnant, drug-running students and drug-chasing parents, violence and murder in the home and on the street, teenage prostitutes pimped out by family members, a third of the students classified special education or emotionally disturbed (four times the share for middle class schools), a 50 percent daily attendance rate, endless joning and fighting in and out of class, and worst of all a massive, active, nihilistic resistance to caring, planning, or doing homework or classwork that leaves students years behind, even as they are passed along with their grade cohort.
This last condition, externally-driven but self-imposed, is the primary constraint on poor black students, far more important than poverty itself, or having a young birth-mother, early health problems and language deficits, or an absent father. All of those can be overcome with a student’s modest effort, so the cultural resistance to that effort is the linchpin of today’s disaster.
Invariably, my stunned listeners would ask: “But what’s the answer?” I would demur, saying that we teachers couldn’t think about overall policy when we were focusing all our creative energies on helping one kid and supporting one family at a time. I did learn quickly what didn‘t work: “school reform.” The reformers claim that they can improve college prep performance to middle class levels by browbeating teachers with daily packaged lessons, firing the reluctant ones, and “teaching to the test.” This latter method was so all-consuming and so aligned with the expected test format and questions that I prefer to call it “cheating to the test.”
Reformers repeat and repeat that “we know what works” and that, in the words of the Edward Brooke charter schools in Boston, “research tells us that the number one predictor of student achievement isn’t race…or socio-economic status,” but great teaching. Such claims are often based on complex “value-added” computer models that compare students’ test scores to their “expected” scores, factoring out their own and their school’s socio-economic background and previous years’ scores. At present, though, these models are too crude to surmount the difficulties of accurate measurement and the variability of the causes of student performance.
The reformers’ cheerleaders among politicians and newspaper editors tell us every year that they have “done wonders” because “test scores are up.” But repetition doesn’t make any of it true. In fact, they don’t know “what works,” because after nearly 20 years of school reform no non-selective school has changed the basic trajectory of its poor children. The claims of progress invariably dissolve under examination of who is being tested in year-to-year comparisons and which comparisons are being picked and which ignored, revealing that the top predictors of average student success in America are still, and for a long time will be, the class and race.
I also knew what would help but couldn’t be used: integration, by race and class. If you have a solid majority of white, wealthier students in a school, their families create the dominant learning culture by expecting them to focus and behave in class, complete homework, and succeed. Research in cities that have maintained some integration, such as Berkeley and St. Louis, has consistently found “significant, if not dramatic” improvement for lower-income blacks who attend such schools, particularly in graduation rates, with no reduction in white scores. In addition, middle-class and wealthy families are far more active than poor parents not just in advocating for their children with teachers and administrators, but in taking part in school activities and, most importantly, demanding resources for the school from the central administration and school board and in the media. However, creating a norm of largely white, or for that matter black, middle class schools with a small share of low-income families is demographically and socially impossible in America as a whole.
America’s race and class-based residential patterns create initial school segregation in urban and suburban areas. When school districts try to promote integration, middle-class and wealthy families choose private schools, move to wealthier jurisdictions, or bring lawsuits that have recently been validated by the Supreme Court. In small towns throughout the South most white children still attend “private academies” that were set up to resist integration. Nationally, black isolation is returning to the levels from before Brown vs. Board. Over 40 percent of black and Hispanic students attend schools that are over 90 percent non-white. For the indefinite future, the front line for the education crisis for poor minority children will be in schools in which they are the overwhelming majority, and our strategy must be planned accordingly.
Now I am back in the cozy confines of university teaching, where I tell my students every day, “Thank you for doing your homework and not throwing anything at me,” and I tell my administrators, on the rare occasions I see them, “Thank you for letting me teach.” I have finally been able to find time to think through the crisis facing my previous students. And I am happy to report that yes, an answer has come clear to me. It’s simple, and its principles, though not its practice, has been proven in private schools and in public schools for wealthier families. The principles are, at heart, just common sense: schools should be built around the likely careers of the students, and families must be strengthened so they can safeguard health and develop intellect in the critical pre-natal and early infancy period.
Wealthy families already know that these are the two keys to success. They demand and receive a college preparatory curriculum because their children typically go to and complete college. Their children benefit from healthy, low-stress pregnancies and intellectually stimulating early childhoods because the families are intact and have resources. Either one parent focuses well-developed mainstream social and verbal skills on the child all day, or the family pays handsomely for an experienced care-giver while they both work at a professional level. Families in poverty need, and deserve, the same two keys.
The easier half of this proposal to implement — restructuring high-poverty schools to fit students’ needs, rather than forcing students to fit theirs — can be handled within existing school funding if federal and state school reform requirements are waived or rescinded, putting curriculum back in the hands of local boards. This would allow school districts to offer top-quality vocational and college prep programs for students who keep up and don’t act up, as well as a remediation track for those whose skill level or behavior requires temporary separation so that the other students can succeed. The harder half — hammering at the legacy of poverty and slavery by promoting employment and setting up programs that help poor families provide a strong base for their infants — could cost as little as $120 billion per year. We would probably get that investment back in spades in a decade through increased economic growth and taxes and reduced poverty payments and criminal justice expenses.
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Schools: Appropriate Goals, Choice of Vocational or College Prep, Separation by Behavior
There are three things that must happen for high-poverty schools to prepare poor students to have a productive life in the middle class. First, schools must pursue behavioral goals that keep students alive and able to thrive; second, families must be offered a choice between vocational and college prep; and third, weak effort or disruption should never result, as it often does today, in suspension or expulsion for students, but rather in temporary separation from students who are working hard, with remediation intended to allow a new start in a new class the next quarter.
Pursuing appropriate goals can rescue some students from crime, disease, and pregnancy. Vocational education can rescue more from being drop-outs. Remediation and the end of automatic promotion can give on-task students a chance to gain a credible degree and off-task students a chance to pull themselves together. Many of the most encumbered students will drop out, as they do now, but some will take the bridge to the middle class. Those failing to cross the bridge could be reduced from today’s almost 100 percent to perhaps 25 percent, and the long-held goal of transforming high-poverty neighborhoods into working class settings could take place over a few generations. Selective public and charter schools could continue to “cream” off the families with the wherewithal to apply and therefore the easiest students to teach, but they wouldn’t really be necessary. Each open-enrollment school would have become selective within itself, able to offer parents an environment within the school where effort and success, rather than lethargy and chaos, would be the norm.
Appropriate goals: I used to tell my students that it was a waste of time to work on math problems if they wouldn’t first pledge to “take no life, make no life” each night — short-hand for staying out of violent situations and using a condom. To have even a chance of getting to the middle class as an adult you first have to make it out of the teenage years alive, without a criminal record, without a baby, and healthy enough to work. This reality is one that high-poverty schools need to acknowledge by providing lessons and counseling for every child on these topics. Once that is in place, the next goal is to gain the social skills needed to hold a middle class job: be ethical, cooperative, reliable, creative, perseverant, and confident in mainstream settings. Again, that is a huge challenge in a high-poverty neighborhood, and it must be met in a structured manner as in any course, with curriculum and assessment.
Next comes the ability to read, interpret, write, calculate, and strategize as needed for an entry-level job. Currently, most poor students are dazed and discouraged from elementary school on up because they have not solidified these basic skills before they are buried by the required flurry of college preparatory “Common Core” objectives. Only when the basics are solid should we turn to the supposed primary goal of high school, and the only one that gets a structured curriculum today: develop the more advanced skills that are needed for a career or college.
Vocational Choice: In a sort of reverse racism and classism, reformers who are mostly rich or white have claimed that offering vocational high schools to the poor or people of color is, to quote President George W. Bush, evidence of a ”bigotry of low expectations.” But only about 80 percent of all Americans graduate from high school, and then only about 60 percent start and 35 percent complete a college degree. When 65 percent of your clientele end up not needing your service, you’d better rethink your approach. For poor children all the percentages are far lower. Combining in high school classes with a college prep curriculum poor students who could succeed in college and poor students who cannot or who want to move more quickly into a blue collar career means that hardly anybody can succeed at either.
Parents deserve an honest appraisal of their child’s skills and interests, so they know exactly how their children compare academically with college-bound peers. Then they deserve a choice between college and vocational prep. It should first be offered after elementary school, because today’s middle school curriculum already looks like college prep, which will turn many students off to any schooling. The choice should be offered again after middle school for families who want to go in a new direction.
A minimum wage job pays about $18,000 a year. That is all that drop-outs or fraudulent graduates of a watered-down college prep curriculum can obtain. Careers that will easily pay twice as much for the indefinite future include plumbing, carpentry, electrician, cosmetology, hotel and restaurant management, fire-fighting, police work, computer technician, audio tech, web and social media design, computer programming, heating and air conditioning, medical records and technology, and bricklaying. In rural America there are many programs in which kids go to a home school and take practical, rather than college prep, academic courses half of the day and then go to a trade school the other half. Practical academics means checkbook math, not number theory; percentages, not calculus; angles for construction, not for Euclidean proofs; the physics of plumbing, not molecular motion; and analysis of newspaper articles, not Shakespeare’s plays. Success, not stigma, is associated with these programs. In urban areas, though, they have fallen into disarray.
There are a large number of mildly-challenged special education students in high-poverty schools. Our legal framework places far too many of them into mainstream classes that are simply overwhelming, but parents rightly resist the alternative of isolated classes and a dead-end special education diploma. Vocational training would often be a viable alternative for helping these most vulnerable young people prepare for a middle class career.
The vocational option would have to be exempted from the school reform curriculum and punitive testing because Common Core standards and improvement rubrics are illogical for it. For the college prep option, school reform may, unfortunately, hold sway for a while, but it does far less damage to administrators, teachers, and students when the students can largely handle the work.
Discipline and Remediation: Whichever program a family chooses, student effort and behavior will determine success far more than the quality of teachers and curriculum. College prep or vocational, schools must build their rules around a recognition that the culture of poverty so well identified by Kenneth Clark in the 1960’s is alive and not well today. To neutralize the culture of poverty we need to have two tracks in every course, from French to gym, from refrigeration to cosmetology, in high-poverty open-enrollment schools: the regular class for kids who are trying and succeeding, and a separate remediation section for the rest of the quarter, at most ten weeks, for those who have disrupted class or earned a failing grade for the quarter.
All students would start the course together in the fall, but in contrast to today educators should quickly remove students from class for disruption or earning a failing grade, so that all students can get the help they deserve. The high share of students, up to a third, who are now under disciplinary measures, including suspension, on any given day in high-poverty schools would indicate that these two tracks could be almost equal in size for the first few years.
Being removed from a course for disruption or failure to work enough to keep up would knock students out of their graduation cohort. After completing the quarter in remediation, they would be a quarter behind, and have to start that quarter’s material the next time it is offered with a new group of students. Remediation could include basic academic methods and skills, but would largely consist of students and families working with counselors and administrators to identify and address the students’ behavioral barriers to success in school.
The largest subgroup of poor Americans is white. However, the greatest barriers to school success are found in poor black communities. The kids themselves acknowledge the reality of the culture of black poverty, saying, “I can’t help myself. Sometimes I just be so ghetto.” In the television drama “The Wire” teachers classify middle school students as “stoop kids” or “corner kids,” based on what they did when their parents left them alone in elementary school and told them to stay on the stoop of the house. Those who stay on the stoop as ordered typically have parents who, while poor and stressed, have the strength and perseverance to rise above their deluge of problems and maintain control of their children. Those who ignore the command to stay on the stoop, and just head on down to the corner, rarely have an adult in their life who can control their behavior at home, on the block, or in school.
Stoop kids can respond, and actually want to respond, to structure and academic challenge. When they are taught as a group, without distractions from the corner kids, they can thrive in college preparatory or vocational classes. With strong funding and follow-up in college or post-secondary vocational training, they can be successful. They will make up the bulk of the regular class track. Corner kids actively resist taking direction from parents or teachers, and they melt down in dramatic misbehavior when pushed. They do little work and quickly fall behind in early grades, and only get to high school by being falsely promoted for years. They will make up the bulk of the remediation track, but after each quarter will get a chance to being again, with a new cohort.
Today the stoop and corner kids are mixed in every class and setting. The corner kids’ personal dramas and low skill levels deprive the stoop kids who are ready to learn of the chance to do so. We owe it to both groups to separate them so that stoop kids can succeed and the corner kids can address whatever is keeping them from trying.
On the surface it seems like this would amount to cold-hearted triage of those who can’t handle school, be it college prep or vocational. But that is misleading: we are already losing not just the corner kids, but the stoop kids as well. Establishing clear rules for attendance in courses for credit would permit the stoop kids to learn and put the corner kids exactly where they need to be: in a separate setting within the school that is devoted to finding their deficits, be they behavioral, psychological, family, or academic, and providing support so that in the next quarter they can try again. Far from cold-hearted, this recognition of their reality would be a warm-hearted landing for them.
As one of my funniest students used to say when he used a new math method, “Boom, there you go.” Simply by setting rules for class attendance we have freed at least half of our kids to succeed and given the other half a clear path back to success. Good teachers will stay in such an environment, and even if we can’t end the school reform paradigm right away, it is far easier to teach and learn in the absence of chaos.
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Strengthening the Family: Jobs, and Prenatal and Infancy Support
As social worker turned congressman Ron Dellums once told me, the motto of his former profession was, “you have to take people where they are, not where you want them to be.” So, where are our poor children? Where their families are. There is no solution to the educational disaster for high-poverty kids without reducing their families’ challenges. And the families are weak, largely father-absent, alienated, and under crushing medical, psychological, and economic stress.
In the case of poor black families, there is an additional challenge from our long history of racism and discrimination. A reduction in overt racism since the 1960’s cannot magically wash away that history. This is an international phenomenon of violent race rule, in which some share of the oppressed are extremely affected. At about the same time Kenneth Clark was writing about America’s “dark ghetto,” psychiatrist and revolutionary Franz Fanon concluded that the source, or at least the compounding agent, of the mental illnesses he treated in his Algerian patients in the 1950’s was colonialism by race, the daily drip and sometimes deluge of segregation and structural abasement that some transformed into self-doubt and self-hatred.
Assistant Secretary of Labor (later Senator) Daniel Patrick Moynihan completed a study in 1965 called “The Negro Family: the Case for National Action.” In a memo to President Johnson on his study he called for the government to confront the history of “unimaginable mistreatment” of blacks and the “racist virus” that continues to live in white America’s bloodstream, and to make a national commitment to move the segregated, dysfunctional, black lower class into a successful and largely integrated middle class.
Moynihan borrowed much of his logic and language from Clark’s studies of Harlem youth. He identified the “crumbling” of the “Negro family structure” under a “tangle of pathology” as “the master problem,” and called strengthening this structure “the work of a half-century.” After just half of that period Moynihan looked back in despair at the lack of funding and commitment, and the resulting lack of progress for the lower, as opposed to the middle, Africa-American economic class. Now the full term has passed, and the poor black family is even more distressed. If we falter again we will be having this same conversation in another half- century.
Attacking poverty is a humbling task, like educating children. There is no silver bullet, many unique structural and historical barriers must be addressed, and any approach that works at one time and place may be inappropriate for another. Consider the efforts Western countries, the World Bank, and private organizations have made to “save Africa” by “ending poverty” since the days of colonialism. Despite a trillion of dollars of their cash, goods, and services, most Africans have not escaped grinding poverty, nor joined the rest of the world’s path to longer life expectancy. The World Bank cannot address some root causes because it is actually run by the world’s wealthiest countries, and they keep Africa from sharing in the wealth of refining and manufacturing by paying off dictators for exporting raw materials. Poor governance, corruption, civil war, lack of investment, and myriad other explanations are offered, but at its core the historical seizure of Africa’s political and economic power by brutal colonialism has not been reversed.
Experts debate whether international anti-poverty efforts should focus on delivering economic growth that allows a country to improve living conditions through employment and income so people can afford clean water and modern medicine, or on simply delivering water and medicine right away. The answer is both, of course. China has seen a tremendous reduction in poverty and a similar increase in life expectancy through rapid, capitalistic economic growth. Socialist Cuba reduced the worst effects of poverty with direct services, heavily subsidized by the Soviet Union. The same lesson holds true for the United States: both income and direct support are needed to break the grip of poverty.
Our poverty rate remains high, upwards of 20 percent, despite significant spending to lower it. In addition to a proliferation of efforts by private foundations and individuals, there is no doubt that taxpayers are paying their share. A credible compilation by the libertarian Cato Institute identifies a trillion dollars of annual spending by all levels of government, 75 percent at the federal level, on programs specifically targeted to help the poor. That amounts to $20,000 for every person in poverty, raising for Cato and others the obvious alternative that perhaps those funds should be turned into cash transfers in the same amount, rather than be spent on programs.
This concept has surfaced repeatedly, on all sides of our political divide. It hearkens back to one of Moynihan’s proposals, which was endorsed by both President Nixon and his challenger George McGovern in the 1972 election but never implemented, of a guaranteed annual income to help people rise out of poverty. Liberal economist James Tobin, conservative economist Milton Friedman, and anti-poverty crusader Michael Harrington all endorsed such schemes.
These cash proposals seem to founder on the American public’s moral problem with solving poverty directly by making the poor rich, with cash. It seems to offend our sense that the “deserving” poor should be helped, but not the dissolute poor. This sense found expression in the 1996 Republican Congress and its “welfare reform” bill that imposed minimum wage work requirements and cut-offs of cash to those who were unable to find or hold these jobs. The bill also ordered poor women to get married before having babies, and reinforced the order with various cash penalties and incentives.
Unlike King Canute of legend, who ordered the tide not to come in to make a point about the limited power of government over natural phenomena, the Republican leadership actually seemed to believe that their demand that the poor work and get married would succeed. All it succeeded in doing was dramatically reducing the cash provided to the most challenged poor families. President Clinton “triangulated” politically and signed the bill, which led to the resignation of his top anti-poverty aides over the counter-productive nature of these moralistic restrictions.
Political problems aside, how credible is the concept of converting today’s poverty funding to cash transfers? Well, half of all poverty spending is for Medicaid, one of Lyndon Johnson’s babies that has been, literally, a life-saver for generations of Americans. Health insurance would be just about as expensive for individuals to buy themselves, so as long as we want poor people to have access to medical care, there really is only $10,000 per person to consider as a cash grant. Many of the remaining programs are already cash-like, like the largest five other federal programs: Food Stamps, at $75 billion, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, which each return about $60 billion to minimum wage workers, Supplemental Security Income for the elderly and disabled, at $50 billion, and Welfare (now called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), at $30 billion. Smaller non-cash programs help poor students go to college, aid schools based on the number of poor children, subsidize housing support, provide job training, and care for the homeless. It is not clear that providing these targeted programs as cash would reduce poverty, once the initial sum was spent.
So if not a guaranteed income, what should be done? What is missing in all the spending programs is simply Moynihan’s national commitment to do whatever it takes to disrupt the transmission of poverty, such as assuring living wage jobs for parents and promoting health and intellectual stimulation in the crucial pre-natal and infancy period.
Jobs: Like the Cato Institute, Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan in his March 2014 budget proposal continues to make the mistake the Republican leadership made in 1996, confusing correlation with causation. They all argue that if poor people stayed in school, did not have babies until they were married, and took any job and kept it, they would rise out of poverty. Yes, middle-class people have far higher graduation, marriage, and employment rates than poor people, but that is as much an effect as a cause of their income. The sort of meaningless high school degree handed out in a high-poverty school gets you at best a minimum wage job, which pays well below the poverty line. A good-paying job, along the lines of $15 an hour, or about $30,000 a year, is the surest way to strengthen a family.
Most developed countries consider it a recession, requiring direct government employment or government subsidies for private employment, when official unemployment reaches about seven percent. During America’s depression, unemployment soared to 25 percent, and President Roosevelt responded with a bevy of employment and assistance programs. Well, for the past 50 years black America as a whole has always had an unemployment rate in the mid-teens, so it is always in a severe recession. The black rate is always twice that of whites, across all levels of education, and the Hispanic rate is only a quarter of the way from the white to the black rate, which looks a lot like blacks are being discriminated against, consciously or unconsciously, by white employers and managers. Black high-poverty areas in cities often top 25 percent unemployment officially, which is a depression in itself, but so many people are not searching for jobs that this often translates to well over 50 percent. Where are the crash jobs programs for these recessions and depressions?
There are 15 million students in public high schools, about half of whom are low-income, so there are 15 million mothers and fathers of poor high school students. The federal government should offer $30,000 public sector or subsidized private-sector jobs to any unemployed or poorly employed parents who want them. Local governments and non-profit organizations have experimented widely with this sort of employment program, and have stockpiled lots of plans, particularly in infrastructure repair and maintenance using basic skills. Even if some jobs were make-work rather than directly addressing needs in the community, they would be delivering a benefit by strengthening at-risk families. Some families may be able to move to a middle-class black or integrated area, which is the hidden, unspoken goal of poverty programs anyway.
Perhaps three million parents might both want these jobs and then be able to hold them by showing up and performing well. Eligibility would depend on them bringing their child in to school on time each day, before going off to their assignment, and on staying up to date on child support payments if, as is usually the case, the parents are not both living with the child. The cost of the program would be 3 million times $30,000, or $90 billion, including $10 billion for administration. The income should be uncounted for taxes and social services, so as not to reduce existing assistance, such as Medicaid, food stamps, or welfare.
Whether it is direct services or jobs, we must acknowledge that some families are too distressed to benefit. The program need not be distorted to chase them down or give them multiple chances. It should focus on those who can benefit. In the 1970’s I worked in a desperately poor country in upstate New York for the Appalachian Regional Commission and its Home Start program. I recall a meeting of all the government-funded social agencies trying to help a legendary, extended rural family, which squatted on abandoned land, living in burned-out school buses. The men hauled junked cars for cash, the women scavenged for surplus food from public and private sources, and the children were malnourished, hampered by escalating medical problems, and lost in school before they even showed up.
The family members were trapped by violence, illness, poverty, and chaos, before even considering the psychological damage of being the poorest, unhealthiest people in the county. When I went to the meeting room in a shiny new county social service building I could barely get in the door: health clinic staff, social workers, psychologists, special education teachers, food stamp administrators, anti-poverty organizers, probation officers, heating specialists, cooperative extension agents, job training managers…it seemed like virtually everybody on the federal, state, county, and town payrolls except maybe the grave digger was there. All of us, this phalanx of two dozen helpers, had extensive and useless experience with the family. I remember thinking that if one-tenth of our salaries went to the family, just for one month, they all could move to a mansion in Malibu. We should accept the fact that some families cannot be helped, and focus on the large number that can be.
Neo-natal and Infancy Support: As America expands pre-school programs for poor three and four year-olds, it needs also to be focusing on the far more crucial developmental period between a child’s conception and first birthday. I worked as an analyst with Cornell University’s Longitudinal Early Childhood Consortium Study, which studied pre-kindergarten programs that featured high teaching hours, highly paid professional teachers and intense verbal stimulation, and heavy interaction with and support for families through home visits. Such programs (which should not be confused with typical Head Starts) can have surprisingly solid, but not dramatic, benefits on such long-term behavioral variables as high school graduation, employment, and prison rates, and age at first child. However, their impact on cognitive variables like test scores recedes quickly. This is because brain development and learning style are set much earlier than three years old. In fact, from conception, the longer you wait to intervene in poor children’s development and families’ interaction styles, the less intellectual benefit you get.
In my Home Start program in Appalachia in the1970’s I visited the same 15 pre-kindergarten children each week in their homes for an hour and a half. I was 21 years old with a child development degree, and my job was to encourage poor parents to talk, play, and read with their children in ways that would stimulate their cognitive growth and prepare them for kindergarten. As condescending as that sounds, it was a great model, and it was guided by rigorous research. A consistent finding, then and now, about social class and cognitive development is that poor children, on average, have millions (by one study, 32 million) less words, questions, and demands for responses directed to them by their parents in the first few years of life than middle class children. This gap, which I sensed literally the second I walked into the eerily quiet Appalachian homes, creates significant developmental and social lags that more than explain the so-called “achievement gap” between poor and middle class children. Because black families are poor at three times the rate of white families, the racial achievement gap is also exacerbated by poverty. In addition, the word gap is also extreme between black and white parents, controlling for income.
A helper should be sent out to every single expecting low-income father and mother for up to two hours twice a week, from the middle of pregnancy to the middle of the first year of life to collaborate, to teach by example how to interact to increase stimulation, to make suggestions about healthy living, and simply to help navigate the burden of being a parent of limited means. The good news is that pilot programs are already underway in a variety of guises, backed by public donations and about a half a billion dollars of federal funding for local efforts under the much-maligned Affordable Care Act. They have a variety of names, such as Parent to Parent, Nurse Family Partnership, Early Head Start, Parents Helping Parents, and the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, some use professional staff and some use volunteers, and some are focused on children with disabilities rather than poor families. They all, though, can all be collapsed under one rubric: Voluntary Home Visiting Family Support Programs.
The purpose of home visiting programs is to help parents become more effective at child development, from pregnancy through the first birthday. Given the rigors of poverty and race, even an excellent program with wide coverage will be no panacea. Poverty and the lack of resources and support it implies is strongly correlated with infant mortality. Black women, partly because of their disproportionate poverty, have twice the rate of white women. But consider this strange finding by the Centers for Disease Control: college-educated, well-paid, married black women have twice the infant mortality of their white peers. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies calls this the stress effect of being black in America. The constant pressure of being black in, for middle class women, the mainstream white culture and the constant worry about how your children will be treated combine to stress your body during pregnancy, resulting in increased prematurity and resulting low birth weight. No amount of home visiting will remove the stress effect of being black, but it should certainly help in the long-term for individual children.
Most parents, especially young parents, would agree to take part in the program, and would, in my experience, come to look forward to the visits and be eager to mimic the activities with their children they are shown by the visitor. However, some of the most needy may choose not to take part, out of fear of getting any agency close to their business. This is similar to the resistance by poor high school students to telling anybody anything about one’s family, because that might lead to investigation and trouble. This is a good point to note in closing this article. We are working with individuals, each different and each with their own set of strengths and stresses. A little humility about our limitations and theirs, a little attention to what real people are telling us about their lives, would go a long way in the high-stakes debate over educating the children of poverty.
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