More and more, the evidence is mounting that problems in education have much more to do with childhood poverty than with teachers, unions, or curriculum. And before we invite further change, or destruction, to our system of public education, we need to pay more attention to this reality.
An epidemiologist at Duke Medical School, Dr. Jan Costello, found herself in a position to study the effects of poverty on children before and after the Cherokee Indians of Western NC opened a casino and paid a yearly stipend to every member of the tribe. It turned out that the extra money for families living in poverty resulted in children who had fewer behavior and psychiatric issues, and the younger the children were when the family received this extra income, the more likely the child was to see positive results. (No difference was seen for children who were not living in poverty prior to receipt of the stipend.)
Many do not understand, or do not want to understand, how much time and energy the poor put into just putting out fires; juggling which bill to pay, or how to manage a car repair or an illness takes a lot of energy and creative thinking. Receiving a stipend of, sometimes, $6-9,000 a year, allowed Cherokee parents to actually devote more of their time and energy to their children, and we all know that parental interest in a child’s school career is a necessity for that child’s success. According to her study:
“The poorest children tended to have the greatest risk of psychiatric disorders, including emotional and behavioral problems. But just four years after the supplements began, Professor Costello observed marked improvements among those who moved out of poverty. The frequency of behavioral problems declined by 40 percent, nearly reaching the risk of children who had never been poor. Already well-off Cherokee children, on the other hand, showed no improvement. The supplements seemed to benefit the poorest children most dramatically.
When Professor Costello published her first study, in 2003, the field of mental health remained on the fence over whether poverty caused psychiatric problems, or psychiatric problems led to poverty. So she was surprised by the results. Even she hadn’t expected the cash to make much difference. “The expectation is that social interventions have relatively small effects,” she told me. “This one had quite large effects.”
She and her colleagues kept following the children. Minor crimes committed by Cherokee youth declined. On-time high school graduation rates improved. And by 2006, when the supplements had grown to about $9,000 yearly per member, Professor Costello could make another observation: The earlier the supplements arrived in a child’s life, the better that child’s mental health in early adulthood.”
It’s time our own, NCGA, began to focus on the real problem in education: poverty. And all of us need to hold their feet to the fire on this. Many studies are pointing out that helping to keep a child out of poverty during early childhood can save much greater expenditures in that child’s adulthood. Pre-school is cheaper than prisons.
Cutting unemployment benefits actually contributed to this problem. One in four NC child lives in poverty. Poverty is not due to parental laziness. We know our rural counties lack job opportunities. Just as we know many of our rural schools are not up to par. We know that middle class children arrive at school with a vocabulary of about 3,000 words while poor children arrive with a vocabulary of around 300 words. And we know that vocabulary is a result of interaction with parents. How do we improve that? Parents find it hard to create a warm, nurturing environment for their children when they are strained and exhausted from trying to provide. Parents with two and three jobs have nothing left at the end of the day. The constant uncertainty of knowing where your next paycheck is coming from has life-long consequences.
This kind of information does not suit those who want to privatize education, and they are likely to brush it aside. After all, it has nothing to do with the scheme to put public money into private pockets. But it should matter to anyone who cares about the future of North Carolina. I hope you are one of them.
You can’t care about education and not care about poverty. To claim you want to improve education and not deal with poverty shows only a real ignorance of life.
Actually, in some perverse way, we must thank the GOP for bringing this situation into the public eye and the popular media. Without their intent to destroy the traditional public schools the role played by poverty may have remained below the radar and on the back burner. But now they have brought it out into the sunshine. And here in NC, the question that remains is, what are they going to do about it?