The Inconvenient Truth of Child Poverty

Child Poverty Rates: Maine’s child poverty rate is slightly lower the national average at 18.2 percent. However, this figure is skewed by poverty rates in southern Maine that are as low as 13 percent. Washington County has the highest rate in Maine at 30 percent.

Why is it that we hear so much about the fact that student test scores in the United States are lagging behind other countries in the industrialized world?

Why is it that we hear so little about the fact that when it comes to child poverty,  the U.S. ranks as worst among similar countries in the industrialized world?

Like the melting of distant glaciers, child poverty is an an inconvenient truth that conservatives would rather avert their eyes from.  Confronting the truth of child poverty, would — after all –  force them to come to terms with the shortcomings of their own political ideals.  Far more convenient — and politically expedient — to hold that the impoverished 8-year old can raise himself on the bootstraps of his own academic achievement.   According to this narrative, any lack of achievement can rather conveniently be blamed on political adversaries such as teachers and teachers unions.

While the correlation between economic status and academic achievement has long been recognized, the convenient new conservative narrative holds that we should make no excuses for kids living in poverty.  With the right teachers and right administrators, the mantra holds, those kids can do as well as their more privileged peers.

However, it is not clear whether that mantra has any basis in fact.  As Valerie Strauss states, “The “no excuses” rhetoric . . . is one that is dearly beloved by the corporate education reformers  because it allows them to perpetuate (what many recognize to be) the American myth of meritocracy and continue the privatization movement under the guise of “improving schools” while avoiding addressing deeply entrenched inequities that exist in our society and are perpetuated by school structures. ”

Strauss goes on to explain how many of the measures that are part of the no excuses movement may actually hurt impoverished children rather than helping them:  “Standardized tests have cultural and racial biases; charter schools have been shown to disproportionately underserve children of color, English Language Learners, and special needs students; closing down “failing” schools forces children out of their home communities and disproportionately puts teachers of color out of work.”

From a competitive testing standpoint, at least, there may not be anything wrong with American schools at all.  As Mel Riddile documents, students at American schools that have low poverty rates actually test out better than their overseas counterparts.

Simply put, as Eugene Robinson argues, family income is a much more important factor in determining academic achievement than the much ballyhooed “teacher effectiveness.”

As stated by Tre’ Maxie in his Seattle TImes Op-Ed, in recent years, the income gap has surpassed the gap between racial groups in terms of limiting academic achievement:  “The achievement gap between low income and non-low income students has surged by more than 40 percent, and is now double the gap between African Americans and whites, according to a recent study by Stanford University Professor Sean Reardon.”

What we know is that poor kids face a whole set of physical, emotional, and mental challenges that are not faced by kids who are better off.   What we know is that the lives of those kids aren’t likely to get any better unless we as a society come together and, somehow, make them better.

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