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Disputing Destiny

July 22, 2014 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

One of the most frequent and laudable refrains in education reform is, “Poverty is not destiny. ” The sentiment is clear and incontestable: Being born into poverty should not determine your future. While it’s certainly more aspiration than reality right now, it is at least the right goal.

Recent research from Johns Hopkins University has reinforced how far our society’s present situation is from that ideal, and how inequitable the chances of escaping poverty are. Starting in 1982, the researchers followed 800 people in Baltimore from first grade into their thirties, and they saw just how tough it is for people born into poverty to enter the middle class. Overwhelmingly, the rich stayed rich and the poor stayed poor. Mobility from the bottom bracket to the top was less than half what one would expect in a fair, meritocratic system, and mobility from the top bracket to the bottom was less than a fourth of what such a system would produce.

Of particular painful significance is the difficulty African Americans faced in escaping poverty compared to white people born into similar circumstances. Roughly half of the 800 subjects were born into low-income households, and of those, two out of five were white. As of age 28, very few of the students from under-resourced families had graduated from college, but the white men were much more likely to be employed and to be paid more than the black men.

It’s also worth noting here that -- contrary to some stereotypes -- white men had higher rates of binge drinking, marijuana consumption, and heavy drug usage, yet still enjoyed better employment situations and pay. Even when black and white men were employed in construction and the trades (possibly the best sector to be in for the observed group) whites were paid twice as much on average.

These gaps among people without college degrees mirror the gaps among those with college degrees. As Minnesota 2020 has discussed previously, black college graduates between 22 and 27 face an unemployment rate twice the national average for that age group, and that proportion doesn’t improve much with age. The disparities at both ends of the educational spectrum demonstrate the persistent power of implicit bias, white privilege, and social connections to affect employment and pay. These enduring power disparities trace their roots back to a long, countrywide history of racist policies extending well past the end of slavery. (For an introduction to some of these issues, I’d recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations,” which provides a detailed history of racist housing policy and explores its many damaging effects.)

The depth and persistence of implicit biases and institutional racism that maintain these gaps cannot be addressed through colorblind policy. Policymaking must be explicitly anti-racist and actively invite and prioritize the voices of those communities hurt by racist policy in the past. This includes the school system, a major public institution that will default to perpetuating institutional racism unless its leaders consciously choose a different path.

An anti-racist school system will look a little different in each school and district, since communities of color vary from place to place and have had different experiences in different towns, cities, and regions. (While many of the economic studies focus on the black-white gaps, gaps exist for other communities of color.) Top-down policy can help somewhat in providing equitable resources, funding universal public early childhood education, and supporting full-service community schools, but much of the work will need to be done at the level of districts, schools, and classrooms. Teachers and school leaders must be well-versed in the culture and experiences of every community they serve, and should be more representative of those communities than they are at present.

To achieve this, we will need more power wielded jointly by families and teachers in schools. Families and teachers will need to work together to set goals for students and hold themselves accountable for meeting those goals. This community-driven approach to accountability is more likely to win support from families and teachers alike, who will appreciate the trust and power it grants them in contrast to the test-driven system that’s more common today. The goal must be a genuine sharing of power by the people with the deepest connections to students and classrooms.

The sad fact is that, too often today, poverty is destiny. This is especially true for people of color. It should not be that way, and it does not need to be. For the situation to change, though, we need empowered teachers and families working together with the trust and support of state and local policymakers. Even building an inclusive, anti-racist school system will not be enough to achieve society-wide equity, but it can be a starting point. We have significant work ahead of us to build the political will for such a system.

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