by Félix Pérez/image courtesy of Judy Baxter
Children from low-income families can’t catch a break. First, the federal government’s across-the-board sequester eliminated Head Start services for 57,000 children. Now, adding insult to injury, a new report concludes that a majority of students in the South (53 percent) and, for the first time, the West (50 percent) live in poverty.
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Thirteen of the 17 states where the majority of students are from low-income families are in the South, according to the Southern Education Foundation. In Mississippi, more than seven out of 10 children (71 percent) are low income, followed by New Mexico (68 percent), Louisiana (66 percent), Oklahoma (61 percent) and Arkansas (60 percent).
The prevalence is “stunning,” said Peter Edelman, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy. He attributed the numbers to the ongoing recession and especially “the fact that we’ve become a low-wage nation.”
“If we don’t respond, these students and our country will face a terrible future,” said Edelman
Little Rock, Arkansas, elementary school teacher Wilfred Dunn sees the real-life consequences of poverty in his school every day. “I have students whose only meals are at school,” said Dunn. One hundred percent of the students at his school participate in the free and reduced-price meals program.
“You see it in the classroom. They can’t concentrate because they’re concerned with, ‘Am I going to have something to eat when I get home?’ or ‘Will the lights be on?’ ”
Dunn pointed to the recent federal government shutdown as emblematic of “Congress and politicians having their priorities in the wrong place. It didn’t matter to them what happened to people’s jobs. We need to provide for the lower economic part of our country and take care of our families.”
The Southern Education Foundation analysis underscored the short- and long-term consequences of pervasive student poverty: “Low-income students are more likely than students from wealthier families to have lower tests scores, fall behind in school, dropout and fail to acquire a college degree.”
The report continued:
With huge, stubbornly unchanging gaps in learning, schools in the South and across the nation face the real danger of becoming entrenched, inadequately funded educational systems that enlarge the division in America between haves and have-nots and endanger the entire nation’s prospects.
Additional research suggests a link between childhood poverty and the long-term development of mental and physical illness. Commenting to Bloomberg News on his study in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Pilyoung Kim, director of the Family and Child Neuroscience Lab at the University of Denver, said, “Living in poverty at a young age can cause long-lasting changes in brain development, which contribute to difficulties in regulating of emotions and future devastating health outcomes, including mental illness and high mortality and morbidity in adulthood.”
Edelman pointed to the continuation of tax incentives for low-income families such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and social safety net programs as cost-effective ways to address poverty. Beyond that, he added, public education has an “absolutely essential” role to play in “improving economic outcomes.” For that to occur, schools in high-need areas must have adequate resources and offer wraparound services that “help the child and the family.”
Edelman continued, “We need the voices of educators, civic and faith leaders, and union leaders to say to policymakers, ‘We’re not going to give our kids a future of opportunity and hope unless we take more seriously the effort to reduce poverty.’ ”