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The Angry Moderate Reformer, Part IV: Poverty Reduction as Education Reform

Note: Jonathan Plucker, a Professor at the University of Connecticut, is guest posting this week.

A truism among ed reformers is that poverty is a problem, but we can't do much about it, therefore we can't let poverty be an excuse for poor learning results.

I bought into this for many years, but no longer, for several reasons. First, recent data on income and wealth disparities has stunned me. Such monumentally huge gaps between rich and poor are never good for a society's long-term health.

Second, I do much of my writing in coffee shops, cafes, and bookstores. Many people I interact with on those days are working hard to make ends meet, often working (usually multiple) low-wage service jobs. Recent stats suggest that's around 40-50% of Americans, but whether it's 32% or 47%, that's too many people. Hearing their stories - none of them, by the way, are asking for sympathy or handouts - has made an impression on me. Hunger and homelessness are endemic in almost all communities in this country.

Third, I stumbled on this 2012 UNICEF report while preparing a talk on giftedness and poverty. It has lots of redeeming qualities, from the honest attempt to explore how best to measure child poverty, to the accessible yet not pedantic writing, to the well-presented data. The goal of any policy report should be to change the reader's perspective a bit, and this report definitely did that for me.

Although it is easy to get caught up in the superficial data (e.g., Child poverty in the U.S. is that much worse than in other industrialized countries?!?!?), look carefully at Figures 8/8a and 11a. In Figures 8 and 8a, data suggest that many industrialized countries would have higher child poverty rates if not for the existence of programs to reduce child poverty. The reason we look so bad in the stats is that we do so little compared to the size of our population living in poverty; we are, after all, the third most populous country in the world. That's a lot of poor people, and if you don't do anything to get them out of the cycle of poverty, they stay in it. It's called a cycle for a reason!

Figure 11a appeals to my fiscal conservatism, showing the relationship between spending on poverty reduction programs and the resultant change in childhood poverty. Shockingly enough, if you do little to reduce childhood poverty, it won't reduce. But it also suggests that throwing money at the problem doesn't result in the maximum benefit. How governments spend money matters, and we need to acknowledge groups such as the Coalition for Evidence-based Policy that work to inject smart spending into federal and state policies.

Why don't we get more worked up about childhood poverty in the U.S.? When I talk with people about poverty, I ask them, when they leave the building, to look for poverty. Really LOOK for it. It's everywhere, in every community, but we generally don't see it. We don't talk about poverty more in education reform - when perhaps it should be the foundational issue - because we've chosen not to see it.

It's everywhere, it's solvable, and education reform can't truly succeed until we start reducing it.

One final caution when thinking about poverty and education reform: Poverty and race are not the same thing. The work of John Ogbu speaks to this point, and in my work I've found evidence that controlling for poverty doesn't make racial differences disappear. But the person who deserves the biggest hat tip in my thinking is Donna Ford at Vanderbilt. She helped me see that racial differences in student performance will exist even if we can find a way to reduce poverty sharply, and that for many Americans equating race and poverty is a bit offensive.

--Jonathan Plucker

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