July 10, 2019

Poverty Pulls Schools Down, But Schools Don't Pull Poverty Up.

Pub Notes

Working poverty has a strong effect on schools, and, hey, America is No. 1.

When I was growing up, a man could work at a service station and make enough to support his family, while his wife stayed home to look after them. (That’s the way the genders bent at that time and place.)

Now, there aren’t many service stations left (thank goodness for Alps Road 76!), and in most families, it is necessary for both spouses to work, and they’re lucky if they’re only working one job each. Many are working, but still in poverty; some are working, but are homeless.

We all have enough statistics rattling around in our heads to understand that our full-employment economy, booming stock market and corporate profits mask the reality that most of the benefits accrue only to the companies and people at the very top of the economy. We also know that, in spite of the rich folks’ boom times, the average person’s earning power has shrunk since the 1970s, and of course the cost of living has skyrocketed, as if we were all driving a Lexus.

We know, too, that Athens has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, even if you eliminate those “low-income” kids living in their luxury student high-rises. And we know that a high percentage of those Athenians in poverty are black, many of them qualifying as the working poor. We also know that many of the children from these poor families are having trouble in school. And we think we know that the solution to all these problems is better schools.

But is that the solution? Recently, The Atlantic published an article titled “Better Schools Won’t Fix America.” Surprisingly, the article says, basically, that better schools will not solve poverty, but that solving poverty will bring better schools. No matter how much you improve the teaching of science and math, students won’t do much better if they are coming to school from impoverished families who are desperately trying to make a living and have no time or money for the kind of vital home support middle-class families can provide.

The point of the Atlantic article is that while we all always want better schools, this is not an educational problem, but an economic problem. Schools cannot pull people out of poverty, and poor people do not have the means to push for better schools.

To say that better schools are the solution, while 30 percent of our people live in poverty, is a cruel delusion that deflects our attention from the real problem. It is a popular delusion, because it does nothing and spends nothing to fight the root cause of academic inequality: economic inequality.

Our national and state economies are carefully rigged to ensure a constant supply of poor people, who must take low-paying jobs with no benefits and work so many hours to try to make ends meet that they cannot help their children with their homework or participate in the activities of their children’s schools. In many cases, they see their children go on from school to prison. 

Our real debate should be about how we here in Athens can break this cycle of poverty. We have a local government that can grasp this dilemma and has the will to confront it. We know that our Republican legislators and governor will do nothing to alleviate income disparities. In fact, our state legislature specifically prohibits our local government from raising the minimum wage here above the state-mandated $5.15 an hour, thus guaranteeing that parents working minimum-wage jobs remain below the poverty line.

The point of the Atlantic article, obvious whether or not you read it, is that as long as our community is crippled by poverty, our schools will be crippled, too, no matter who the superintendent is, or the principals, teachers or board of education members. 

Our Republican legislators—senators Cowsert and Ginn, representatives Gaines and Wiedower and our governor, Brian Kemp—must be amused to see us fighting among ourselves over educational policy. They know such squabbles won’t have any effect on their corporate and well-heeled sponsors. None of them will have to worry about paying any more taxes, which is the only way income inequality will ever be addressed, and the only way our schools will ever be improved.

It’s the best of all possible worlds—for Republicans, and those they serve.