"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Childhood Well-Being: A Mirror of the American Character

It is a dangerous and potentially failed thing to manipulate an audience by evoking our tendency to be compassionate for children. I have often used the documentary The Corridor of Shame, concerning the inequity in school funding in my home state of South Carolina, in my education courses both to highlight the corrosive power of poverty in the lives and learning of children and to confront the dishonesty of emotional appeals that do more to harm a valid message than reinforce it.

With that acknowledgement in mind, I was struck by the 60 Minutes piece on childhood poverty in the U.S. especially as we place this report in the context of two recent reports on child well-being: the State of America’s Children 2011 Report (Children’s Defense Fund) and Kid’s Count 2011 (Annie E. Casey Foundation).

The 2011 Kids Count report notes the rise in childhood poverty in the U.S. and makes this claim:
“In the 2011 Data Book message, Casey Foundation President and CEO Patrick T. McCarthy emphasizes the importance of preparing America’s children for the future by focusing on the economic prospects of families today and investing in early childhood strategies that can improve young children’s health, development, and educational success. Six strategies that can help move low-income families onto the pathways of prosperity are: 1) strengthen and modernize unemployment insurance and promoting foreclosure prevention and remediation efforts; 2) preserve and strengthen existing programs that supplement poverty-level wages, offset the high cost of child care, or provide health insurance coverage for parents and children; 3) help families gain financial knowledge and skills; 4) promote responsible parenthood and ensure that mothers-to-be receive prenatal care; 5) ensure that children are developmentally ready to succeed in school; and 6) promote reading proficiency by the end of third grade.”
Along with the data on the rising poverty and consequences of poverty in the lives of American children, the State of American Children’s Report add disturbing evidence about the disproportionate negative impact of these conditions:
“State of America’s Children 2011 tells us that children of color are behind on virtually every measure of child well-being. They face multiple risks that put them in grave danger of entering the pipeline to prison rather than the pipeline to college, productive employment and successful futures. Children of color are at increased risk of:
Being born at low birth weight and with late or no prenatal care. . .
Living in poverty and extreme poverty. . .
Lacking family stability. . .
Greater health risks. . .
Lacking a quality education. . .
Being stuck in foster care, without permanent families. . .
Being caught in the college completion gap. . .
Being unemployed. . .
Killed by guns. . ..” (ix-x)
In 2011, then, I believe that child well-being is the single greatest mirror of the American character—evidence of what we value and what we tolerate as a people.

Child Well-Being, Education, and Who’s Responsible

“It’s taken a plunging stock market, the deficit debate, foreclosure signs on neighborhood houses and the threat of a double-dip recession to force Americans to say it out loud: Poverty,” explains Mulady, but I am not convinced that we truly are mentioning poverty (see this consideration of Secretary Duncan avoiding the word) and certainly not convinced that we are facing the facts found in the two reports noted above.

Poverty is increasing in the lives of children in the U.S., and the corporate and political elite are either perpetuating these conditions or tolerating them; certainly when we are considering children, no one truly believes children—with no political or economic power or agency—are the cause of their stations in life.

If we are starting to face poverty in the U.S., as Mulady claims, we are not confronting those responsible for that poverty.

As well, while we mask and avoid ascribing accountability for childhood poverty to the powerful in the U.S., we also maintain a Utopian claim that public education can and will eradicate that poverty if we simply increase standards, find the right tests, weed out bad teachers and replace them with elite teachers, and eradicate the influence of teachers’ unions.

Yet the evidence is overwhelming that education will not eradicate poverty on its own, as Traub explained in 2000, “The idea that school, by itself, cannot cure poverty is hardly astonishing, but it is amazing how much of our political discourse is implicitly predicated on the notion that it can,” echoing the same sentiment by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967: “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”

But political and corporate discourse remains focused on school reform, despite the data on child well-being in the U.S. and despite the evidence about the well-being of children and income equity in the U.S. compared to the rest of the world:

• According to a study for UNICEF from 2007, the U.S. ranks 20th out of 21 industrialized countries in child well-being.

• The U.S. fares poorly in income equity when compared to other countries: “To no one's surprise, the ratio between rich (households in the top 10% of the income distribution) and poor (those in the bottom 10%) is considerably larger in the US than in any other rich democracy.”

The persistent claim, then, from the political and corporate elite that education is in crisis and that same education system that has been in perpetual crisis can overcome a long history of childhood poverty and income inequity that is currently increasing throughout the U.S. is factually inaccurate and ultimately distracting us from addressing the lives of children, lives that are a mirror held up to what we truly value as a people.

Each child in our free land is everyone’s child, and social reform must be embraced as educational reform in the U.S. in order to fulfill our claimed faith in democracy and freedom that has yet to be realized—and slips further from its promise on the backs of children trapped in poverty and inequity not of their making.


“Poverty. Just Say It,” truthout
“One in Four California Families Can't Afford Food for Their Kids,” New America Media
“Children in Poverty: How Are Kids in Your State Faring?” PBS Newshour
“Class Warfare: Fact checking pages 1 through 100”
“Poverty and education reform—and those caught in the middle,” The Hechinger Report
“Americans Don't Realize Just How Badly We're Getting Screwed by the Top 0.1 Percent Hoarding the Country's Wealth,” AlterNet
“Children are hidden victims of the economic crisis, report says,” LA Times
“What No School Can Do,” James Traub
“Poverty worsens, and children are hit hardest,” The Tennessean
“Taxing the Poor”
Summer 2011 Issue of PATHWAYS: A magazine on poverty, inequality, and social policy
“On Turning Poverty Into an American Crime,” truthout
James Baldwin on Education

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