The October 9, 2016, Columbus Dispatch article Poverty Link Remains Key to Test Scores for children in school did not tell us anything new. We have known for a long time that, as stated by Howard Fleeter from the Ohio Education Policy Institute, “Districts face a greater challenge when you have a preponderance of your kids who are economically disadvantaged.” The recommendations for alleviating this issue are also nothing new. In fact, 20% of Ohio children live in poverty, the 18th worst in the nation, and the situation for our children is not improving.
The purpose of schools is to help children learn so that they can get jobs, become part of the economic mainstream and climb the income ladder. But where you grow up matters, according to Nathaniel Hendren, a Harvard economist, in a study described in a New York Times article entitled In Climbing Income Ladder, Location Matters. The study found, “all else being equal, upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods.” The article held out Columbus as a place where the odds are notably low of climbing out of poverty due to the housing patterns in our region.
The problem of educating children living in poverty is not one that schools can solve alone. “One of the most effective strategies for lifting families out of poverty is to plunk them down in a completely new neighborhood far away from their past lives” where they lived in areas of concentrated poverty (The Atlantic, Is Ending Segregation the Key to Ending Poverty). This strategy stems from much research over the past 50 years. According to Alex Polikoff, one of the attorneys who filed a lawsuit in Chicago in 1966 to create mixed income housing opportunities, “We know so much about the harm of young kids growing up in severely distressed neighborhoods. If we have a way to enable kids to escape to better life opportunities, it’s immoral not to do that.”
I couldn’t agree more.
I recently met a young professional woman who told me about her family. Her single mom was working hard at a low wage job and ended up getting evicted when she got behind on her rent. This is a common story and, in fact, Franklin County has the highest eviction rate in Ohio. She, her mom and her sister ended up in the homeless shelter after being evicted, a terrifying experience for these young girls. Somehow her mom was able to find an apartment in a low poverty suburb with high performing schools and the family moved. The woman I met credits living in this safe environment with good schools as providing the opportunity and environment the family needed to succeed. Without the stress (with the related negative impacts on mental and physical health) of constantly worrying about the family's safety, her mom could focus on her job, her kids’ education, and just being a good mom. Both of her daughters got scholarships and graduated from college.
To help other families climb the economic ladder, we need to provide them with the tools to succeed. Now is the time for new thinking for addressing the issue of children and families living in concentrated poverty. We need disruptive innovations such as those we are seeing in the automotive and technology industries. Now is the time for action before we lose another generation of children.