Closing the Education Gap by Attacking Poverty Among Children

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How much does location affect ability to get a job, because the folks living on $2 a day tended to live in cities or in old manufacturing towns. Due to locational limits, cultural and economic capital were restricted and the parents therefore could not provide a substantial education for their kids.

In reference to the never-ending cycle of educational inequality for people lacking social and economic capital, Joseph Wresinski observes that the poor are pushed into areas where others dare to penetrate: inner city slums, the outskirts of towns, and isolated rural dwellings. When they appear in the public eye, it is often because they have been made homeless in their own neighborhoods or because they seek to interact with those in a drastically better neighborhood. Geographically segregated and socially isolated, they are cut off from the cultural, political and civic life of the country. Wresinski’s 1987 study suggests that it is this exclusion that traps poor families in a second-class-citizen status and that any effort to reduce poverty cannot be successful unless it addresses the effects of exclusion. Social inclusion is seen as a key characteristic in many approaches to eradicating poverty in Europe. Measuring social exclusion is difficult because it focusses on specific failures and social relations, which may be due to the nature of the situation. Several attempts have been made in different European countries, specifically Belgium and the United Kingdom, to estimate social exclusion, and to establish a relationship between social exclusion and other aspects of poverty that lead to the denial of basic freedoms. This growing appreciation for the detrimental effects of social marginalization has contributed to the current holistic view of poverty as being a composite of income level (below a minimum level barely sufficient to meet the basic needs), human development (deprivation of food, health, education, housing and social security needed for any human development), and social exclusion (being marginalized, discriminated, and left out in social relations).

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One of the most severe effects of poverty in the United States is that poor children enter school with a “readiness gap,” which frequently grows as they get older. Children feel alienated from society and suffer insecurities because of their socioeconomic status. Those from lower-income families are more likely than students from wealthier backgrounds to have lower test scores, and they are at a higher risk of dropping out of school. Those who complete high school are less likely to attend college than students from higher-income families. Although many governments have eliminated the biggest obstacle to enrollment by taking away school fees, other financial barriers such as uniforms and exam fees still prevent many of the poorest children from going to school. For many poor families, the long-term benefits of sending their children to school, especially their daughters, are outweighed by the immediate benefit of sending them to work or keeping them at home to help with chores.

This paper was initially inspired by a video that went viral on Facebook. The video, titled The Privileged Race: A Social Experiment, was about an experiment by CNA Insider in which about 20 young adults stood in a line shoulder to shoulder. The researcher asked questions and if the subjects agreed with the statement, they took a step forward. If the subjects disagreed, they took a step back. This experiment has been replicated dozens of times for educational purposes in schools, and each time different questions have been asked, based on if the theme of the experiment was race, sexuality, socioeconomic status, or gender. Those who ended up in the front supposedly enjoy more social privileges than those in the back. This time, students were told that they were racing to win an $100 bill. The researcher said “Before I say ‘go’, I am going to make a few statements. If those statements apply to you, I want you to take a step forward. If the statements don’t apply to you, stay where you are” (CNA Insider). The experiment went as follows:

“Take a step forward if your parents are still married. Take a step forward if you grew up with a father figure in the home. Take a step forward if you had access to a private education. Take a step forward if you had access to a free tutor growing up. Take a step forward if you never had to worry about your cellphone being shut off. Take a step forward if you never had to help pay the bills. Take a step forward if it weren’t for your athletic ability, you could still pay for college. Take a step forward if you never wondered where your next meal would come from” (CNA Insider).

After responding to the questions, the students were told to turn around and observe. Nearly all of the white students from private schools were closest to the finish line and all of the students of color and from public schools were closest to where they had started. Some students never even got the chance to take a single step forward. The researcher went on to point out that every question he had asked had nothing to do with anything the students had done. Yet it was very clear that the people toward the front had a better chance to win the $100 because they had enjoyed greater opportunities growing up, not because of their ability or drive.

The moral of this experiment is that certain groups of people in society are afraid to recognize they’ve been given a massive head start. At the end of the video, the researcher says, “But whoever wins this $100, it’d be foolish of you not to utilize that and learn more about someone else’s story” (CNA Insider). If this had been a fair race from the beginning and everybody was back on the line together, some of the students of color would have beaten the white students. It is only because the white students had advantages and opportunities that they advanced. The student who was closest to the $100 bill said, “By the end, I couldn’t even see people moving back, which is a metaphor in itself.” This is to say that people with extreme privilege may not even realize how far ahead they are.

To take a closer look into the lives of people living in poverty and experiencing educational inequality, the documentary Poor Kids: Real Stories shot in the UK and released in 2016 shows the living conditions and educational opportunities of families in poverty and how it affects the child’s education and future job opportunities. The documentary follows four children from different poverty-ridden regions. Interestingly, the children’s guardians gave them permission to speak on behalf of their families to narrate the video, instead of the adults. In doing so, the kids speak on behalf of three million kids suffering from poverty in the UK.

The first child, Sam, is eleven years old and lives with his dad and older sister. His mother walked out on his family on Sam’s second birthday and he seems to be almost emotionally numb from the event. Sam’s family doesn’t have heat in their house, so he gets sick often and then can’t go to school. A boy down the road stays with them occasionally because his mom cannot fully care for him. She is a drug addict and cannot keep a job. The communal effort to raise these children and emphasis on family is a distinctive characteristic of underprivileged communities. Instead of having organized afterschool activities, Sam and his siblings play outside on their lawn, completely unsupervised and unstructured. Meanwhile, wealthier children have structured activities that offer greater intellectual stimulation. When Sam’s older sister turned sixteen, they lost 15% of their benefits because his sister was of age to work. The sister does not currently have a job, however, because she is in school. It seems like families have to choose between making money and getting an education. It is a Catch 22. Although this scenario is not in the U.S., there are similarities in this country.

The second case in the documentary focuses on Courtney, an eight-year-old living with her mom and three sisters. In describing her home life, Courtney says, “We’re like a poor family. We’re different because we can’t do that much in our house. Rich people play board games, we have to go inside and watch TV. Mom can’t get a job with such young kids” (Real Stories). Yet again, the emphasis on how free time is wasted in unproductive, unstructured, non-educational activities is a recurring theme. Even an eight-year-old child notices the differences in structured time between her family and her peers. When discussing food, Courtney says, “If you’re too skinny, you could die; if you’re too fat, you could die” (Real Stories). This seems to be the sense of hope her mother instills in her. That both rich and poor people have food problems, it is not just their situation. Courtney’s story concludes with her saying, “I were really poor when I were born because I wasn’t meant to be born in October” (Real Stories). Not only was she fully aware that she was an unplanned child, it seems she was taught that the family is poor because of her, which adds to her feelings of guilt.

These children all seem to be highly aware and knowledgeable about their financial situation. In Unequal Childhoods, author Annette Lareau wrote that a characteristic of a middle-class family is that the parents do not share how much they make. They leave the family finances ambiguous. In lower-class homes, however, the parents do not seem to hold back any secrets from their kids and share the harsh realities of life. I am not sure if this is a universal difference of socioeconomic classes or a cultural difference between the UK and U.S. Lareau also discusses how different socioeconomic classes are taught to interact with people. Middle-class workers will look people straight in the eye while blue-collar workers tend not to (169, Lareau). Lareau believes that this behavioral characteristic helps to get jobs. Certain behavioral tendencies that underprivileged youth are not exposed to at a young age may seriously affect their future. Courtney’s mother says, “Money is the main priority; I always worry about it” (Real Stories). It was striking that the perceived problem is money, however something that could be solved without money is structured and productive free time. Lareau’s theories and the real-life observations of the documentary really show how opportunities as small as afterschool activities can significantly impact a child’s future. But despite all their struggles, parents in the poorest societies in the world share a desire to invest in their children’s education. In a 2014 speech, Villa Kulild, Director General of the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), wrote, “That is their first priority when they are asked what it most important to them. We therefore owe them a school that responds to their expectations – and to the opportunities that comes after completed education” (Kulild). Kulild’s urge to hone in on education for underprivileged youth could be the best option for diminishing the cycle of child poverty in future generations.

In the same fashion, the study Education for Young Children Living in Poverty: Child-Initiated Learning or Teacher Directed Instruction supports why experiential learning and using resources effectively is equally important as actual school time. According to Schweinhart et al, in 1986, children under age six constituted the U.S. age group with the greatest percent of members living in poverty – 22%, as compared to the 14% overall rate and 12% of people age 65 and over. Over two of every five black and Hispanic children under six were poor. Young children whose families lived in poverty lacked educational and economic resources. They were also more likely than their middle-class piers to fail in school. It is reasonable to assume this because their families had less to spend on such educational and cultural, educational, and for pleasure goods; because their parents had experienced educational failure and were less prepared to support educational success (and often live in stress-producing settings). The issue is how to provide children with experiences that enable them to use these resources effectively.

Poverty affects young people’s physical readiness for education as well. In a Norwegian study, there was a correlation found between education and nutrition. In this study, drastic statistics were found, like such as if all girls in developing countries were educated through high school, infant mortality rates would drop by 1/6th in one year, saving 1 million lives. Not only will education benefit the children, but communities want to hire teachers that are relatable for the kids, so this will bring more jobs to impoverished communities. Secondary education has an even greater impact: if all women in these countries completed secondary education, the under-five mortality rate would fall by 49%, saving 3 million children’s lives annually. Furthermore, a study in Uganda found that children who finished secondary education were seven times less likely to contract HIV as those who received little or no schooling.

Education is also one of the central building blocks of a strong, cohesive society. According to a study of 100 countries, educating girls and reducing the gender gap can promote democracy. Girls and women are hit the hardest by extreme poverty across every area of life, but they also hold the key to change, according to new analysis published by The ONE Campaign. ONE’s report, “Poverty Is Sexist: Why Girls and Women Must Be at the Heart of the Fight to End Extreme Poverty” shows how unlocking women’s economic potential could improve the lives of everyone in society.

Looking to the future, what can be done to improve the quality of education and opportunities for poverty-stricken youth? Sengupta says that we should make educating the poor part of the legal system and have it enforced by the government, so that if a state is not making an effort to accommodate those children, it gets penalized. Since 1989, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has been discussing poverty as a major source of deprivation, affecting all human rights, which constitute a violation of human dignity. It has therefore called for urgent national and international action to eliminate them. In response, Sengupta writes, “an important requirement to conduct human rights policy is for all states that have ratified international human rights treaties to incorporate them in their domestic legal system and establish their own national human rights commission that can adjudicate, review and recommend appropriate remedial actions when human rights are denied, for individuals and groups who seek such actions” (89). Sengupta believes that in order to remove poverty, such programs must be targeted at people lacking income and human development, because they are the most vulnerable. A rights-based approach adds a distinct value to a poverty-reduction strategy, which will affect a significant portion of the population suffering an extreme form of poverty. It is hoped that more empirical studies will refine and improve the rights-based approach to reducing poverty, leading to its eventual eradication (93).

Poverty’s effect on children and their education has a greater impact long term than meets the eye. We must find ways to funnel greater resources to the world’s children so that they can grow to be productive, contributing members of society. We need to expand targeted programs for improving the educational opportunities for underprivileged youth and not simply expect them to join the educational system made for everyone else. In his book, Khan asks, “What do schools do, how do they do it, and how do the advantage within systems of schooling eliminate such advantages and be fair…How is it, when there is no longer a nobility where status can be legitimately inherited…that elites still seem to be a kind of ‘nobility,’ transferring their position from one generation to the next” (81, Khan). Why is it that society keeps reinforcing the advantages for people already at the top of the social pyramid, yet people at the bottom are left to languish? The elite preserve their power and maintain their exclusivity in a host of ways. What they fail to understand is that raising up the people at the bottom is not only good for the poor but good for the society as a whole, leading to fewer social ills—crime, drugs, disease, etc. Breaking this cycle starts by creating opportunities for the young. Through this essay, I have tried to illustrate that there is a severe lack of educational opportunity for underprivileged youths and the self-reinforcing ripple effects that can have. While there are many fine organizations aimed helping poor children, these need to be significantly expanded and integrated into school systems so that no child is left behind and the cycle of poverty can be broken.

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