November 2013
October 28, 2013

Living in poverty's grip

Author: By Matt Smith
Source: NYSUT United
More than 80 percent of students in the Schenectady City School District are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a key poverty indicator. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.
Caption: More than 80 percent of students in the Schenectady City School District are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a key poverty indicator. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

The effects on children and families in New York state are compounded by underfunded schools and support programs. It's time for lawmakers to take action.

Nearly 55 percent of Syracuse children live in poverty. In Poughkeepsie, 86 percent of public school students qualify for a free or reduced-price school lunch. In rural Montgomery County, 30 percent of the children under age 18 live in poverty. Statewide, personal income for those living in rural upstate New York in 2012 was 57 percent lower than the personal income of the state's urban residents.

Almost 50 years after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty "to help replace despair with opportunity," too many Americans — especially too many children — continue to live on what Johnson called "the outskirts of hope." Little opportunity is in sight.

New U.S. Census Bureau figures released in September show 15 percent of Americans in 2012 lived at, or below, the poverty level — which for a family of four was an annual income of $23,283. While that percentage is unchanged from 2011, it remains notably higher than the nation's 1973 historical low of 11 percent.

"While politicians have consistently recognized the facts about poverty, they continue to ignore the everyday realities, choosing to speak about poverty instead of addressing the real impact," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. "This must stop."

The scene is particularly bleak in the Empire State. While New York has the 25th highest rate of poverty in the United States, it ranks fourth nationwide in the actual number of people living at or below the poverty line — including 960,956 children age 17 or younger. Ten percent of those children are living in "extreme" poverty, which is defined as having an annual family income below $11,641 — less than half the amount of the federal poverty level.

At the same time, the wealth gap is widening across the state and the country to unprecedented levels. New York City has the largest gap of income inequality in the U.S., according to the most recent American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.

"New York state is the poster child for income inequality," Iannuzzi said. "The resulting impact on education, health care and public services is devastating. It is long past time for New York's Legislature and governor to address tax equity in a meaningful way."

Iannuzzi, who has led NYSUT in spearheading the battle to close the achievement gap between students in low-wealth and high-wealth school districts, noted that students who live in impoverished communities often come to school sick, tired and hungry and are more likely to have special needs — all of which puts them at a learning disadvantage at a time when they are expected to learn and progress at a standardized rate.

"The poverty that surrounds children in some of New York's poorest school districts simply overwhelms them," said Iannuzzi. "The lack of resources needed to support our poorest communities is appalling. We all know that children consistently succeed when the proper support is provided."

Despite a $950 million increase in education funding under the current state budget, spending on New York's public education system — which now totals $21 billion in state aid — remains $100 million lower than what the Legislature invested in the state's nearly 700 school districts in 2008-09. And based on the latest figures available from the State Education Department, state aid made up an estimated 34 percent of total public school expenditures in 2011-12 — the lowest percentage since 1948-49.

A recent study released by the Alliance for Quality Education shows a direct correlation between student test scores and funding.

Titled "Confronting the Opportunity Gap," the February AQE report found an $8,601 per-pupil spending gap between New York's wealthiest and poorest school districts. The funding disparity was reflected in student performance, as wealthier districts in 2011 had a graduation rate that averaged 92 percent, compared to the 65 percent rate in low-income school districts.

Students in underfunded, high-needs districts also performed at lower levels on the most recent state assessments involving the new Common Core standards. While schools in the wealthier districts saw an expected 33 percent drop in student English language arts scores, schools in the highest-need districts saw an even larger drop — between 44 percent and 63 percent.

"The plunge in student test scores reveals, yet again, the growing opportunity gap in this state between the haves and have-nots," said AQE Executive Director Billy Easton. "The moral compass of this state has been clouded not only by the test obsession, but also by the complete neglect of some students in this state. Albany needs to stop spinning the tired mantra that money does not matter."

Rolling a boulder uphill

Frances Fox Piven, a professor of political science and sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a nationally renowned expert on poverty, said because children absorb what's around them on a daily basis, they learn not only while in the classroom but also from what's happening in their environment outside school — in their households, their neighborhoods and the streets.

And for children living in poverty, many are absorbing daily lessons in rejection and defeat.

That, Piven said, poses a significant challenge for teachers in schools with high rates of poverty.

"Teachers are being charged with rolling a very heavy boulder uphill," she said. Many poor children are learning in the streets, where respect is often earned in negative ways. "It's difficult to offset these other forms of learning that tell kids school isn't the way to succeed," she said.

Teachers, like students, are also negatively impacted when education funding is lacking, said Xu Zhang, assistant professor of economics at the State University of New York at Farmingdale on Long Island. "Without adequate resources, even good teachers cannot deliver an efficient teaching and learning experience," she said.

While America's poverty rate and growing income disparity continue to spur discussions, it seems little is being done to combat the problem that affects generations of people.

Over the past decade, trillions have been spent on two wars and tax breaks continue to be granted to wealthy corporations while assistance programs to the poor are slashed. Just recently, for instance, the Republican-led House of Representatives voted to cut $40 billion from the nation's food stamp program. And two weeks after that vote, Congressional Republicans — in an attempt to defund and delay President Obama's Affordable Care Act, which would provide health coverage to some 40 million uninsured — forced the federal government to shut down.

"What are we doing as a society?" Piven asked. "This is so crazy and so irrational."

Just as irrational, she said, is the model used to determine who in America is poor. The official poverty line, Piven said, is calculated as three times the minimal annual food budget that was first introduced in 1959 — adjusted for inflation. In other words, the American poverty threshold takes no account of the cost of housing, fuel, transportation, child care or health care — all of which are rising more rapidly than the cost of basic foods.

"It's a medieval measure. We cling to this idea that if you have the cabbage, potatoes and pork liver, then you are not poor," Piven said, referring to some of the foods that were part of subsistence distribution decades ago.

Piven said while increasing state aid to schools and celebrating and rewarding teachers for their efforts is vital to curbing poverty's effect on education, so, too, are measures such as significantly increasing the minimum wage and restoring income supports that have been "stripped away," such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

Zhang, meanwhile, said there should be a policy focus on helping single mothers — a segment of the population in which a high percentage falls into poverty.

NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira said the link between poverty and the achievement gap is undeniable. When a family living in poverty is most concerned with trying to ensure its basic needs are met — and when parents, especially single parents, are forced to work several jobs or odd hours just to make ends meet — it becomes increasingly difficult to find the time to support their children academically.

As NYSUT continues its fight to close the achievement gap, the union is focusing on support programs to level the playing field for students in high-needs districts.

That work includes advocating for an expansion of pre-kindergarten and early childhood education programs statewide, as well as pushing for more community schools that offer students a full range of social services — such as school-based health centers and counseling programs.

The Center for Children's Initiatives reports that pre-K programs served only half of New York's 4-year-olds in 2012. Among those not being served, according to the CCI, were 30,000 4-year-olds who were classified as "high-needs."

"Children in poverty deserve at least the same commitment to resources made for children in affluent communities," Neira said. "Because of the variety of social problems at-risk children face, their schools must be equipped to provide extra support in ending the achievement gap. Research shows children have a better chance of academic success if they have access to early childhood education. Although New York has been increasing the number of children receiving pre-K and early intervention services, there are still far too many children being excluded who could truly benefit from these programs."

NYSUT's focus on expanding support programs is exactly what's needed nationwide in this era of relentless testing, according to the Schott Foundation for Public Education in Cambridge, Mass.

In a recent op-ed piece published by Education Week, Schott Foundation president John H. Jackson wrote:

"The root cause of every achievement gap is an opportunity gap in access to high quality educational resources. Addressing the opportunity gap has to become a federal domestic priority."

Like NYSUT, the Schott Foundation is calling for guaranteed access to early education programs, and access to student-centered learning and personalized academic, social and health plans.

Jackson said that while standards-based reform creates an inherent system of "winners and losers" by raising the bar and assessing who makes the cut, "support-based reforms provide and strategically align the needed resources so each student has the opportunity to reach the bar, and surpass it."

As the nation's poverty level continues to hold steady and income disparity reaches its widest gap in a generation, Iannuzzi said NYSUT would step up its fight to ensure opportunity is within reach for all New Yorkers — no matter their socio-economic status.

"As a union of education and health care professionals, we cannot — and will not — sit idly by as New York's most vulnerable struggle to obtain the most basic of needs," he said. "Inequality must end, not only in our public schools, but in the access to affordable higher education and health care. Our children have a right to a quality education and our working families have a right to dignity; NYSUT will not relent in its efforts to ensure equality exists for all New Yorkers."

Ending the Gap:  A call for action 

In our ongoing efforts to end the achievement gap, NYSUT continues to advocate for:

  • Expansion of early childhood education programs
  • Expansion of community schools with a full range of health and social services
  • Full and fair funding for schools
  • Keeping higher education accessible and affordable
  • Fighting back against the devastating and undemocratic tax cap law

 About New York state's children

  • Poverty disproportionately impacts people of color in New York state: 25.8 percent of Latinos and 23 percent of African-Americans live in poverty compared to 11 percent of white residents.
  • While New York has the 25th highest poverty rate in the United States, it ranks fourth nationwide in the actual number of people living in poverty.
  • 1.4 million children in New York state are eligible for the free or reduced-price school lunch program. Several upstate cities have more than 75 percent of children who are eligible. They include: Poughkeepsie (86.5 percent); Rochester (86.3); Buffalo (83.2); Syracuse (82.9); Schenectady (80.1) and Utica (76.6).
  • There are 507,861 children below the age of 18 who live in poverty in New York City, with at least 75 percent of the children qualifying for a free or reduced-price lunch in Kings County (85.8 percent); Bronx County (82.4) and New York County (75.8).
  • Approximately half of the children are living below the poverty line in Rochester (25,505 or 50%), Syracuse (15,908 or 49%) and Buffalo (27,955 or 47%).

— Source: New York State Poverty Report March 2013, the New York State Community Action Association