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Why Poverty Persists in America, pt. 1

There are four reasons, says Peter Edelman, author of “So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America”:

With all of that, why have we not achieved more? Four reasons: An astonishing number of people work at low-wage jobs. Plus, many more households are headed now by a single parent, making it difficult for them to earn a living income from the jobs that are typically available. The near disappearance of cash assistance for low-income mothers and children — i.e., welfare — in much of the country plays a contributing role, too. And persistent issues of race and gender mean higher poverty among minorities and families headed by single mothers.

In the wake of the recession, with so many people currently unemployed, the poverty level in the U.S. continues to grow.  And, while Edelman’s diagnosis is right, the fixes for at least some of the problems seem more difficult.  The number of low-wage jobs in America reflects the spread of globalization and the movement of jobs overseas.  This process has been ongoing for several decades, as manufacturing steadily moved abroad and, increasingly service industries, like call centers and business process outsourcing, followed suit.  Ironically, America’s loss became the developing world’s gain, as hundreds of millions of people climbed above the poverty line in places like China, India, Brazil, and the Philippines.  On a global scale, the trend toward low-wage jobs in the United States may actually reflect a global poverty reduction trend.

Still, working a low-wage job in the U.S. is no doubt difficult.  More than 100 million people – nearly a third of the population – live below twice the poverty line ($38,000 for a family of three).  Edelman says that this trend has been ongoing since the 80’s, but we only opened our eyes after the recession.  This is true, but doesn’t tell the whole story.  Amidst one of the longest, deepest recessions since the Great Depression, corporate profits have broken records for the last three years.  As companies retrenched and laid off their employees to cope with a crash in demand, they became more nimble and cost-conscious.  As the economy recovered, instead of hiring back old employees, they outsourced jobs overseas or automated wherever possible, lowering their operating costs and increasing profits.  In the long-run, the U.S. economy will be stronger and more globally-competitive as a result.  But, in the short-term, the number of people living below the poverty line in the US will surely increase.

Those jobs are not coming back.  Edelman suggests investing more heavily in education and skill development, and I agree.  Because the funding source is local, our current public education system is failing to educate huge swathes of the population in a vicious cycle that creates a poverty trap.  Setting aside the fact that discriminating on the basis of zip code is morally wrong, as I have discussed on this blog, it will only exacerbate our competitiveness problem.

On the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, a global test given to 470,000 students in 2010, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in math.  But these numbers do not tell the entire story.  When the results are segmented by the percentage of students participating in the subsidized lunch program, which is the most accurate gauge of poverty levels in schools, the level of stratification is striking.  In schools where less than 10% of students apply for subsidized lunch, the U.S. has the highest PISA scores of any OECD nation.  In schools with more than 50% participation, the U.S. sits between Austria and Luxembourg.  Mel Riddle, the head of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, explains the other side of that coin:

The problem is not as much with our educational system as it is with our high poverty rates. The real crisis is the level of poverty in too many of our schools and the relationship between poverty and student achievement. Our lowest achieving schools are the most under-resourced schools with the highest number of disadvantaged students. We cannot treat these schools in the same way that we would schools in more advantaged neighborhoods or we will continue to get the same results. The PISA results point out that the U.S. is not alone in facing the challenge of raising the performance of disadvantaged students.

This is a travesty for a number of reasons.  Not only are we denying huge numbers of children a decent education, we are also diminishing our own competitiveness as a nation in the future.

In the next post, I will talk about the other three reasons.

Develop Economies’ Music Recommendation

A Tale of Two Education Systems: Finland & India

A private school serving Muslim students in India. (Kuni Takahashi for The New York Times)

Two interesting articles in the Atlantic and the New York Times highlight two very unique approaches to education.

The first, “Many of India’s Poor Turn to Private Schools,” discusses the prevalence of private schooling at every socioeconomic level in urban and rural communities.  These private schools, many of which are low-cost and bare-bones, provide a comparable education to government schools and offer an English-language curriculum – something highly valued by the low-income populations who see English as a path to a higher-paying job and a path out of the slums.

The second, “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success,” discusses the Finnish government’s reliance on exclusively public schools to train its young people.  Rather than pushing rote memorization of letters and numbers, the Finnish public education system gives less homework tries to foster creativity among students.  Its teachers must have a master’s degree to teach, and the job is highly coveted.  As a result, Finland ranks among the highest in the world on standardized test scores.  By focusing on equality across all socioeconomic strata, rather than school choice, which is the revolutionary approach to education being pushed in the United States, Finland has managed to provide its children a top-notch education.

A low-cost private school in India. (Mukesh Gupta/Reuters)

In India, the government is taking a similar tack.  In April 2010, India passed the Right to Education Act, which guarantees every child, age 6-14, an opportunity to receive an education.  The program is clearly a step in the right direction, but could have some unintended consequences.  Private primary schools exist because of inherent inequality in the education system.  For whatever reason, parents who send their children to private schools feel the quality of education at the government schools is inferior.  Some do not appreciate the emphasis on local languages.  Others feel the government schools are overcrowded, preventing their children from receiving the level of teacher interaction they feel is necessary.  And others believe the teachers, with no incentive to perform, do not take their job seriously.

These are all very real concerns.  In India, like Kenya or the United States, people send their kids to private schools when they think they could do better somewhere else.  The Right to Education Act, which will increase the presence of public schools and government spending on education, tries to address those achievement gaps.  But the strict regulations imposed on private schools as a result may cause them to close.  From the New York Times:

Few disagree with the law’s broad, egalitarian goals or that government schools need a fundamental overhaul. But the law also enacted new regulations on teacher-student ratios, classroom size and parental involvement in school administration that are being applied to government and private schools. The result is a clash between an ideal and the reality on the ground, with a deadline: Any school that fails to comply by 2013 could be closed.

Kapil Sibal, the government minister overseeing Indian education, has scoffed at claims that the law will cause mass closings of private schools. Yet in Hyderabad, education officials are preparing for exactly that outcome. They are constructing new buildings and expanding old ones, partly to comply with the new regulations, partly anticipating that students will be forced to return from closing private institutions.

“Fifty percent will be closed down as per the Right to Education Act,” predicted E. Bala Kasaiah, a top education official in Hyderabad.

This is unfortunate, and the repercussions could be severe.  If the government is not able to provide a good quality education, the children whose parents would normally pull the kids from school and send them to a private school will be stuck.  They will underperform, with little recourse.

Perhaps more importantly, the education sector in any country is often the most corrupt.  Not even the United States is immune, as the Atlanta testing scandal made clear.  With so much money going toward public education, it could very well become a piggy bank for corrupt officials, undermining the efforts of the program.  These points bring me to the second article, and the success of the Finnish education system.

Educators worldwide look to Finland’s model for guidance.  How is it that a purely socialist, egalitarian model to primary education could produce such amazing results?  Well, there are a few reasons.  First of all, the teachers are highly educated and incentivized to perform.  The Atlantic:

For Sahlberg, what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master’s degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. If a teacher is bad, it is the principal’s responsibility to notice and deal with it.

Finally, in Finland, school choice is noticeably not a priority, nor is engaging the private sector at all. Which brings us back to the silence after Sahlberg’s comment at the Dwight School that schools like Dwight don’t exist in Finland.

“Here in America,” Sahlberg said at the Teachers College, “parents can choose to take their kids to private schools. It’s the same idea of a marketplace that applies to, say, shops. Schools are a shop and parents can buy whatever they want. In Finland parents can also choose. But the options are all the same.”

By investing heavily in education, and ensuring that all schools provide the same level of quality, Finland has created a more equitable system that produces results across the board.  In India, that simply will not be the case.  The schools in the major cities, where educated teachers are more likely to settle, will have a disproportionate advantage.  Schools in slums and rural areas will almost certainly suffer from a lack of resources and qualified personnel.  And the prospect of a fully equitable public education system similar to that of Finland is very unlikely.

If the private schools serving the poorest segments of the Indian population are forced to close as a result of the Right to Education Act, it will be a tragedy.  And, as is usually the case in these situations, the children caught in the middle will be the ones who suffer.