Breaking Out of Poverty

Virtually nobody actually believes that everyone should simply be given a handsome living, least of all the poor. Only the rich come even close to that, and most of them aren’t simply given their comfortable lives without effort.

Unfortunately, it is a central Republican belief that the poor are poor solely for lack of trying, and expect someone else to simply hand them a life of luxury, which even a cursory study of the facts would strongly refute. This is a particularly toxic blind spot, one that prevents many changes that would help us in achieving greater equality. And equality has been shown to improve dozens of social concerns, from crime to obesity, that affect us all. Equality makes everything better, but it does not arrive without effort, and it doesn’t arrive by trying to make it worse, as Republicans are doing.

It is a toxic blind spot of Republicans to believe
that the poor are poor solely for lack of trying.

It is sometimes said of the rich that they were born on third base and think they hit a triple. The poor begin life in the opposite situation. Often, they must be shown where the ball field is, and have the rules of the game explained to them.

A person born into a poor family can only rise from poverty by doing things of which he or she often cannot even be aware until they are at least in their teen years, by which time it may be much too late. To prepare oneself for a different life, you have to know such a life is possible, and you must learn how to get it. A poor child will probably attend a sub-standard school, may live in a dangerous neighborhood, have an unstable family that doesn’t value education, and will be unlikely to grow up believing that opportunity for a better life is available, because it is not readily visible in his world.

Equal opportunity for education is the most important way that people can break out of poverty. Good jobs don’t go to people without an absolute minimum of high school education, and preferably more. And even a college degree is inadequate if a person has somehow managed to avoid genuine literacy, which some college grads manage to do. (Many employers say that job applicants can’t even compose a coherent sentence.)

It is not the duty of society to hand a child a living. It is society’s duty to provide equal opportunity and show it to her. This can mean many things, but the most important among them is making all schools and all teachers good ones. For young women in particular, early sex education is particularly important to prevent them from falling into the trap of an early pregnancy that will most likely limit the possibilities for their lives before they even realize it. Dangers arrive early for the poor.

Sex education is particularly important
to prevent young women from falling into
the trap of early pregnancy.

No one expects tax money to fully support the lives of poor people. What should be provided is basic support when needed. No child should go to school hungry, and school meal programs have had great success at improving academic performance. In fact, most programs that improve equal opportunity have been successful.

Everyone seems to understand that our school systems are in dire straits. Amazingly, many fail to understand that the primary reason is the longstanding lack of money. Competent teachers can’t be hired because pay is so poor, respect is so lacking, and the requirements of the job are so odious. There will be plenty of competent teachers when good pay and good teaching conditions are the norm, and only then will all students have equal opportunity. It all depends on money, and we are currently failing our youth because of that, and slipping lower and lower in world measures of education.

But it is not adequate to simply open the door to higher education for the poor. Mexican and Latino students who are the children of field laborers, for example, have parents with minimal formal education and no understanding of what college requires and what it can mean. They cannot help their children. Many other groups of students from poor backgrounds have similar problems unique to their situation. The performance of such students has been markedly improved with programs that recognize their specific needs, that show them specifically what is required. Placing them with others who have similar needs helps bring them up to speed without experiencing embarrassment, or even racism, among students whose upbringing has prepared them for college all their lives. This is essential if a student is to rise from his parents’ minimal education to a college degree in a single generation.

It is not adequate to simply
open the door to higher education.

It is not news that education is the key to escape from poverty. Education alone doesn’t guarantee escape, but it is one element where the would-be escapee has the most control. But first, she must believe that her efforts will pay off, that a better life is in reach, and that’s not always certain, particularly right now.

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