I think often of the stark comparisons among communities that can be drawn from the disparities of wealth and poverty that exist in health care, education and public services. More than once I’ve used my grandchildren to draw those comparisons.
If one of my five grandsons gets sick, they are fortunate to have immediate access to quality health care — and usually not a day of school is lost. Not so in low wealth districts similar to where I taught for 34 years. In those communities, poverty forces a parent to send a sick child to school until the emergency room is the only resort for care — often in the middle of the night. Lost school days follow and lost educational opportunities, as well.
Students who live in impoverished communities come to school sick, tired, hungry and sometimes abused (of course, this is not limited to poor households). Yet, the education establishment expects these children to learn and progress at a standardized rate. The poverty that surrounds them overwhelms them. The lack of resources needed to support our poorest communities is appalling. We all know that these children consistently succeed when the proper support is provided.
Inequality in health care and education go hand in hand with the need to seek public services and support from nonprofits. Overcoming that inequality remains the most fundamental issue facing New York and society in general. Decades of research confirm that poverty is the single biggest factor affecting students’ chances of academic success.
A report issued by Columbia University in December joined others in concluding that, despite a court ruling (Campaign for Fiscal Equity) from six years ago, resources needed to provide an equal educational opportunity for every child are lacking in our state’s poorest districts. Reductions in state financial support for education and a draconian property tax cap exacerbate the inequity.
As we enter the month of January, opportunities to address the impact of poverty on the social fabric of our great state abound. The first opportunity resides with Governor Cuomo in his State of the State address.
That is likely to immediately follow or precede the release of the interim report of the Governor’s Commission on Education Reform. But, the strength of any progressive approach to education, as we all know, will be the revenue support proposed in the Executive Budget due out in mid-January.
The next signpost on the road to a progressive approach to narrowing the state’s extreme wealth gap is the will of the Legislature to exercise its voice on behalf of a fair and equitable distribution of necessary revenue.
There will be several new voices in New York’s Legislature, many of whom ran with high ideals and a progressive agenda. Health care workers, public services providers, educators and those providing services through various agencies and nonprofits will be listening for their voices. So, too, will middle class workers and those striving to enter the middle class. They will all be listening for the voices of state lawmakers speaking on their behalf. Hopefully, the silence won’t prove to be deafening.
On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I joined leaders from 15 international unions, New York labor leaders, Lieutenant Governor Robert Duffy and many from New York’s congressional delegation (Senator Schumer and 13 House members) to fight for desperately needed disaster relief aid for those suffering from Superstorm Sandy. There was a renewed sense of vigor and determination in the room. They were of one mind: to accomplish the task at hand.
The sense of determination and political will that day was exhilarating.
That same determination and political will is needed in Albany if we are to address the needs of New Yorkers in a more progressive and equitable way.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we commemorate this month, reminds us that, “The time is always right to do the right thing.”
Well, that time is now.