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Poverty Matters


Sometimes I read something that just stops me in my tracks.  Makes me think about what’s really going on.  Causes me to wonder why so many people just don’t get it.

Just days after the defeat of Mayor Adrian Fenty in the September primary election, while so many Fenty supporters were wringing their hands and trying to figure out why someone who ‘did so much’ for DC ended up so completely defeated, the Census Bureau released a report revealing that the poverty rate for Black children in the District of Columbia rose from 31% to 43% in just a two-year period, from 2007 to 2009.

That’s right.  A 12% increase in the poverty rate for Black children even as DC erected a new baseball stadium, touted new recreation centers and bike paths, and encouraged the ongoing gentrification of the center city that continues to push poverty to the far eastern edges.

One of the more infuriatingly fashionable declarations of the education reform movement these days is that poverty is “not an excuse” for the obvious fact that many children fail to thrive in urban public schools.   Some of the reformers go so far as to hurl the “racist” word at anyone who raises questions about the link between poverty and academic failure.

So glib.  So wrong, at so many levels.  Yes, poverty is not an excuse —- poverty is a reality, and a scandalous, chronic social condition that historic racism has imposed on generations of African Americans.   Yes, many white families also live in poverty, particularly in rural areas.   And, yes, there are examples of great schools in impoverished urban areas.  But the insistence on always changing the subject, or citing an unusual example, or bringing up a different issue, deliberately avoids one of the central problems in the reform efforts for the DC schools and other urban school systems.

Many studies demonstrate the clear impact of poverty on the ability of children to be successful in school.   Reform efforts that ignore the reality of poverty, or worse, act like poverty is unimportant or some kind of character flaw, betray the very children they claim to care so much about by imposing impossible expectations on performance without offering solutions for the conditions that undermine the child’s ability to achieve.

Because beating up on the academic performance of poor children would seem impossibly cruel, teachers have become the surrogates for expectations about how much children should be able to demonstrate about what they have learned.   So, if a child goes home at night to a mother who cannot read (maternal literacy being a major factor in a child’s academic success), and then that child goes to bed hungry (hunger being poverty’s unwelcome companion), and perhaps cannot sleep for the gunshots she hears through the night (violence being another symptom of poverty), and then that child fails the standardized test the next day, the teacher gets fired since the teacher is now the surrogate for unresolved social dysfunctions.

Certainly, bad teachers should go, but the current pervasive war against teachers is misplaced.  Whatever happened to the War on Poverty?  Democrats have become so afraid of their once-proud social justice agenda.  Are we mad at teachers because we abandoned that other war too soon, or because it proved impossible?  We can fire teachers, but we can’t seem to fire all the poor people.

We need excellent teachers, of course, and I’m all in favor of holding teachers to high standards.  But educational failure is not solely the province of some failing teachers, and that’s where I disagree with the current fashion of blaming teachers for all that’s wrong with urban education.

Another great characteristic of poverty is adult illiteracy.  DC has one of the highest rates of adult illiteracy — 35%.   This in a city that also brags about the fact that it has the highest percentage of people with college degrees — 47% of the population have bachelor’s or master’s degrees.  Well, hooray.  But what about the 35% who can’t read?

Along with ignoring poverty, education reform efforts largely ignore adult illiteracy, which is a symptom of poverty that has significant impact on children.  Numerous studies show that when parents read to their children, children do much better in school.

We have failed policies, not failed people.   We need public officials and policymakers who understand that educational failure is a product of chronic and pervasive social conditions that have deep roots in poverty, racism and classism.

Great teachers can certainly help students to rise above their personal circumstances to become academically successful.  We see examples of that every day here at Trinity.  But, even as hard as our faculty and students work together at Trinity to reach new levels of academic success, we know that, sometimes, some students simply cannot make it on the timetable or at the levels we expect because a lack of resources — many students here know, too well, the conditions of poverty — becomes an impossibly high barrier to success.

Trinity is a private institution and small enough to be able to find creative ways to work with students to overcome those barriers.  It’s not always about what happens in the classroom.  Sometimes, what a student really needs is good health care, a personal counselor, a solution to a child care problem, maybe a meal card or bus fare home.  Even with so much care, sometimes we fail, because social conditions overwhelm even the best efforts.

I think of what we have learned at Trinity over the years, and how hard our faculty and staff and students work to achieve success.  And then I think of the daunting task that faces teachers and staff in the public schools every day in a city where 43% of Black children now live in poverty, a city where 35% of adults are functionally illiterate.

The new mayoral administration has a big agenda, perhaps none so daunting as the need to move the education agenda away from brinksmanship toward complete solutions that include all community resources.    More direct attention must be paid to alleviating the conditions of poverty that afflict so many children in the city — and not simply encouraging development that drives them further to the edges.   Providing more adult basic education programs, better child care and early childhood programs, and improved health care services including mental health services must be an essential part of the future of education reform in DC.

See my graduation address to the Washington Literacy Council

See Valerie Strauss on the poverty gap in DC

See DC Fiscal Policy Institute Report

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One Response to Poverty Matters

  1. Steve Smith says:

    Poverty is terrible for children and it cannot be understated. Not only is the child subject to toxic stress which is detrimental to brain development, they also won’t have adequate nutrition which puts them at a significant disadvantage.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: