Is it poverty or parenting?

Education reformers are accused of blaming schools for achievement gaps caused by poverty and inequality, writes Mike Petrilli on Ed Week‘s Bridging Differences.

If the issue is poverty, as in not enough money, then the solution is to give low-income families extra cash in the form of welfare, the Earned Income Tax Credit or a  minimum wage hike, he writes. But “research and experience” tells us that won’t erase achievement gaps. Kids who are born in poverty and grow up in poverty share certain traits:

 Most were born to single mothers, and their fathers have been absent from the start, or by the time they turn two or three;

Most of their mothers were teenagers or in their early 20s when they gave birth;

Most of their mothers have very little education—a high school diploma or less–and thus few marketable skills;

Many of their mothers suffer from mental illness or addiction or both;

More money might ease poor mothers’ stress or enable them to afford “marginally better childcare or preschool, or books, or educational games,” he writes.

But will it erase the huge gaps in early vocabulary development, non-cognitive skill-building, and other essential school readiness tasks between these disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers? Between these kids and their age-mates born into two-parent families? With highly-educated mothers and fathers? With parents who were in their 30s when they started families, instead of their teens?

To believe so, you’d have to put as much faith in cash transfers and social services as some reformers put in schools. You’d have to believe in miracles.

The issue isn’t just poverty, Petrilli argues. It’s parenting. Children are “growing up without fathers, and they are doing terribly,” especially black boys. Schools could provide “transformational” interventions that give children “the hope, confidence, and skills to find a different path.” If not schools, then what?

In absolute dollars, the U.S. child poverty rate isn’t much higher than the rate in Finland.

bridging-differences-blog-chart-poverty.jpg

Source: “Poor People in Rich Nations: The United States in Comparative Perspective,” Timothy Smeeding, 2006

But the U.S. looks  very bad when it comes to fatherless families:

bridging-differences-blog-chart-single-parent.jpg

Source: World Family Map.

 

Tennessee bill cuts welfare if kid fails

Welfare parents could lose up to 30 percent of their aid if their child fails in school, under a bill in the Tennessee legislature, reports Ed Week. Special-education students would be exempt.

Republican state Sen. Stacey Campfield wants to penalize parents whose child is held back for poor performance — unless parents enroll the child in tutoring, attend a parenting course or attend “multiple” parent-teacher conferences. ”It’s really just something to try to get parents involved with their kids,” Campfield told the Tennessean. “We have to do something.”

Tennessee already docks welfare parents up to 25 percent of aid if their child is truant.

End welfare — but what about the kids?

Abolish cash welfare, food and housing aid, except for the elderly and disabled, writes Peter Cove, founder of America Works, in What I Learned in the Poverty War in City Journal.  We need to “move from a dependency culture to one of work-first,” writes Cove, whose company trains “the supposedly unemployable” for jobs.

The federal government would use the huge savings from eliminating welfare to create or subsidize private-sector jobs, sending money to companies to reduce the cost of hiring and paying new workers. The government could also create programs similar to those run by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, paying workers to build parks, refurbish bridges, clean streets, and so forth. The workers’ wages would pay for the basics—food, clothing, and shelter.

But once we dismantle cash welfare and other forms of aid and offer paying jobs in their place, what about the children of those few people who simply refuse to work? I think that we should seriously contemplate removing these unfortunate children from their irresponsible parents. Under current child-welfare laws, social-services agencies can already take kids away from their parents if their home environment is unsafe. Is it so extreme to extend that policy to homes ruined by willful poverty and neglect? I concede that the alternatives here are not pretty; government-regulated foster care, in particular, has its own risks of abuse. Adoption, however, works fairly well in most of the country. Another solution would be the establishment of government-funded institutions, operated by voluntary and religious nonprofits, to care for the children.

It’s time to think the unthinkable, writes Cove.

When I was reporting on welfare reform, every recipient I met said she wanted to work, if she get safe, reliable child care. My colleagues and I followed five welfare families. All found jobs. Only one quit — the one raised in a middle-class family. She got kicked out of a housing program too for refusing to make an effort to get off welfare. Her child wasn’t doing well. If she’d lost custody, her parents could have taken the child and tried to do a better job the second time around.

When illiteracy pays the bills

In the hills of Appalachia, parents pull their children out of literacy classes for fear they’ll lose their “learning disability” label and the federal check that goes with it, writes Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times.

Many people in hillside mobile homes here are poor and desperate, and a $698 monthly check per child from the Supplemental Security Income program goes a long way — and those checks continue until the child turns 18.

“The kids get taken out of the program because the parents are going to lose the check,” said Billie Oaks, who runs a literacy program here in Breathitt County, a poor part of Kentucky. “It’s heartbreaking.”

America’s safety net can entangle the poor by rewarding failure and discouraging marriage, writes Kristof.

When SSI was extended to children 40 years ago, only 1 percent of poor children qualified, writes Kristof. They had severe physical or mental handicaps that required intensive parental care. Now 55 percent of children on SSI have vaguely defined “learning disabilities” that essentially mean they’re not retarded and aren’t doing well in school. Eight  percent of low-income children now receive SSI disability at an annual cost of more than $9 billion.

. . . a 2009 study found that nearly two-thirds of these children make the transition at age 18 into SSI for the adult disabled. They may never hold a job in their entire lives and are condemned to a life of poverty on the dole . . .

Kristof recommends community visitors to help low-income mothers, pre-kindergarten and encouraging marriage. (Marriage! It’s not just for gays!)

I’d suggest eliminating SSI disability for children unless their disability imposes extra costs on the family.

When I reported on welfare reform, I met a teenage mother who supplemented her welfare income with SSI for her son, who’d been born three months early, before the mother’s 15th birthday. When he was two, the pediatrician decided he wasn’t disabled after all. Though happy her son was developing normally, she was distraught at losing the extra money. Still, she got a half-time job at the community college, where she was learning office technology.  She discovered that she loved working.  I don’t know if she worked her way out of poverty. She came from a very messed-up family and her boyfriend had abandoned her. But she had a shot.

Mother-child language researcher dies

Betty Hart, whose research showed the importance of mother-child communication in the early years, has died at 85 in Tucson, reports the New York Times.

“Rather than concede to the unmalleable forces of heredity, we decided that we would undertake research that would allow us to understand the disparate developmental trajectories we saw,” she and her former graduate supervisor, Todd R. Risley, wrote in 1995 in “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children,” a book about their findings, which were reported in 1992.

. . . “Simply in words heard, the average child on welfare was having half as much experience per hour (616 words per hour) as the average working-class child (1,251 words per hour) and less than one-third that of the average child in a professional family (2,153 words per hour),” Drs. Hart and Risley wrote.

“By age 4, the average child in a welfare family might have 13 million fewer words of cumulative experience than the average child in a working-class family,” they added.

Educated mothers were much more likely to use an encouraging, warm tone with young children,  while welfare mothers were more likely to reprimand their children.

The Hart-Risley research has been very influential, yet I think we could do more to help poorly educated mothers improve their parenting styles. Early childhood education funding should be focused on very disadvantaged children who need social and emotional support and exposure to language.

Teaching Tiny Tim

Class Matters in education, wrote Helen Ladd and Edward Fiske in a New York Times op-ed that claimed “No Child Left Behind required all schools to bring all students to high levels of achievement but took no note of the challenges that disadvantaged students face.”

Large bodies of research have shown how poor health and nutrition inhibit child development and learning and, conversely, how high-quality early childhood and preschool education programs can enhance them. We understand the importance of early exposure to rich language on future cognitive development. We know that low-income students experience greater learning loss during the summer when their more privileged peers are enjoying travel and other enriching activities.

The op-ed called for more funding for Promise Neighborhoods, which provides social and health services to low-income families.

Diane Ravitch praised Ladd’s research on education and poverty.

Even Scrooge might agree that our current efforts at school reform are ignoring the needs of the neediest children. Even Scrooge might wake up and realize that schools alone cannot equalize vast income gaps and cannot reinvent our social order.

When George W. Bush decried “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” he was asking too much of schools with low-income students, write Ladd, Fiske and Ravitch.

Nobody denies that class, poverty and parents matter, responds Peter Meyer in A Christmas Carol For Our Schools on Education Next.  No Child Left Behind “forced schools to pay attention to their poor and minority students by demanding disaggregated data.”  Schools were pressured to pay much more attention to struggling students.

As for special help for low-income children, Meyer asks:

What happened to Title I?  What happened to free-and-reduced lunch? What about the dozens of adequacy and equity lawsuits that have redistributed billions of tax dollars to low-wealth schools? . . . Outside of schools we have Medicaid, Section 8 housing, WIC (Women, Infants and Children food program), food stamps and a plethora of anti-poverty programs that should prove, if nothing else, how misguided the cure-poverty first folks are.

An “increasing number of reformers” and Catholic educators “have proven over and over again that poverty is an educational challenge for schools, not a death sentence for their students,” Meyer concludes.

“Saying we need to fix poverty before we can fix schools is like a doctor saying that he’s going to wait until you get better before he treats you,” writes Kathleen Porter-Magee in  The Poverty Matters Trap.

 

 

Kids on welfare: The disability dilemma

Disability checks for children have become The Other Welfare, reports the Boston Globe. Low-income parents can boost their income by getting children on Supplemental Security Income (SSI), often for learning and behavioral problems such as hyperactivity. That encourages parents to get their children on drugs such as Ritalin.

Qualifying is not always easy — many applicants believe it is essential that a child needs to be on psychotropic drugs to qualify. But once enrolled, there is little incentive to get off. And officials rarely check to see if the children are getting better.

Preschoolers with delayed speech make up the fastest growing category of new SSI claims, reports the Globe. Once on SSI, they’re unlikely to leave, even if they outgrow their speech problems. Their disability status may lower expectations for their school performance.

Teens on SSI avoid taking jobs for fear of losing the payments. (Under federal law, someone who earns above a minimum amount is considered no longer disabled — even if the worker really is disabled.)

SSI for children was designed for parents raising kids with serious physical disabilities that create extra costs. But it was expanded in the ’80s. Now the majority of children on SSI are not physically disabled, reports the Globe.

The series won the 2011 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

With two Mercury News colleagues, I won the Casey Medal back in the day for our welfare series. Our teen mother supplemented welfare with an SSI check for her older son, who’d been born very early and was expected to be disabled. When he was four, the pediatrician praised the mother for her excellent care, told her the boy was developing normally and reported his healthy status to SSI. Without the extra money, the mother decided to get a full-time job instead of trying to complete a community college degree. The economy was booming and she’d done well in a work-study job, so she probably succeeded. I hope. All her phone numbers went bad and I wasn’t able to reach her again. She was 19.