Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Knowing poverty

Over the past 16 years, I've been involved in hundreds of conver-sations with people who don't enjoy the benefit of many material resources.  In other words, my friends don't have much money, have never had much money and most likely most will not have much money throughout their lives.

Pretty obvious, huh? 

"Poor" people don't have money. 

Money aside, poor folks share many things in common with people who do enjoy the benefits, privilege and power that money supplies. 

Poor people like books, movies, art, music, performance and various expressions of culture.

Poor people aspire to decent housing that also provides the reasonable benefit of being affordable, as in using up only a fair proportion of their available finances.  Poor folks appreciate nice things and this is especially true when it comes to housing stock.  Many with whom I've talked across the years also appreciate perservation.  They dream of and are excited when restoration of their properties takes place. 

Poor people care about the education of their children.  Like parents with material resources, most all of my lower income friends want to see their chiildren experience more and better than they have when it comes to formal education. 

Poor people wonder and worry about their health and their health care options.  They express real concerns for the health and well-being of their children. 

Poor people desire good food and good food choices, even though most of the time they don't enjoy the option to choose the most beneficial dietary selections either due to proximity or economic factors. 

Poor people face challenges when it comes to transportation.  Just like the rest of us, they need to move from point A to point B on a regular basis.  They appreciate reliable options.  At times, most of the time, they don't enjoy such options.  Public transportation in Dallas is a real resource, but it remains underdeveloped in many parts of the city.  And, the stories I could tell you about poor folks and old, worn out, broke down cars!

Poor people appreciate nice clothes and various expressions of fashion.  Again, they just can't afford to make the same choices as those of us with money. 

Poor people would love to land better jobs, but many cannot due to a lack prerequisite training and education.  Deficiencies like this can be traced back to the limitations imposed by the realities of poverty, not to mention the systemic injustices at work in our educational institutions and funding mechanisms supporting both the education process and potential students. 

In short, I've learned that if poor folks are different from me, most of the differences relate to differences in opportunity and choice, usually connected to some sort of built in advantage or privilege. 

Sure, I've made fairly good use of all of my advantages and privileges.  But I forget the real benefits of my privilege to my own peril when it comes to understanding my friends and their families who must deal with poverty as a central part of their lives.


Jerry said...

A very interesting and touching article. Having spent my adult life in education, I am aware of many of the issues you mentioned regarding education. Question: What would you suggest as a remedy to the "systemic injustices at work in our educational institutions and funding mechanisms supporting both the education process and potential students" that you mentioned? I have struggled with solutions for years, so I am interested in your ideas.

Larry James said...

Thanks for the post, Jerry. I'm not an expert on education reform, others have their ideas, but I will offer a couple of conceptual notions that I feel must be addressed. 1) Funding issues must be addressed both for public school students and for university students. In Texas, the amount spent on educating the children of the poor is far behind that spent on the more well-to-do. Just a fact. Class size may not be as important as we often think, but textbooks, facilities, AP class options, equipment, etc. just must keep pace. 2) School districts need to make schools community centers open to parents as well as children. Educational options for parents need to be brought nearer home, but even more, schools need to become hubs for community organizing and empowerment. 3) Policy about school hours needs to be examined. We need to lengthen the school day and year. 4) Teachers need more pay. 5) Being creative about who qualifies to teach so that professionals who exhibit basic skills in communication and student engagement can be drawn into the profession.

Anonymous said...

"Differences in opportunity and choice"

Victims, opressions, social justice.
Misleading to spend more. Motivation and education are issues that should begin in the home. Morality will go along way toward solving the education issues. A strong work ethic and personal responsibility should be the rule

Daniel said...

I continue to struggle with the issue of how to help those in poverty attain the economic opportunity that the rest of us have. Access always seems to be blocked through a variety of issues, and I'm starting to believe that we should be discovering new opportunities rather than settling for breadcrumbs from the current economic system.

I'm becoming more disillusioned with our current labor system, and the problem of how we are cut off from the products of our labor. I believe we need new entrepreneurship in the inner cities that focuses on job creation where people are finally reconnected with the fruit of their labor. We need to develop businesses that are organic to the inner city, rather than relying on the outside corporate world.

The city of St. Louis has thousands of vacant lots, and our Alderman told us we could rent them for $1 a year, so our house plans to farm a few lots. I'd love to see the rebirth of organic agriculture in the urban centers. (We have a few organizations promoting urban greening, but I don't think they are actively targeting the poor.) Being in touch with the land and the fruit of your labor are much healthier than minimum wage service sector jobs working on the front line of a large corporation.

(Perhaps I've been reading Wendell Berry too much.)

Randy said...

Getting better at education is tough.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote that it is better to have a great teacher in a lower income school than a medium teacher in a higher income school.

Here is an excellent, provocative article in a recent Atlantic: What Makes a Great Teacher? by Amanda Ripley -- http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/201001/good-teaching

Anonymous said...

Daniel - I am not sure I understand your point with respect to taking a few lots and farming the land. What is the point?

Anonymous said...

To give another answer to Jerry's question --

I believe that the current system of funding public schools through property taxes must be changed. Not in the libertarian/Medina way, but, rather, insofar that property taxes collected for funding schools would not be distributed by local town fiat, but on the county level instead.

We know that redlining practices prohibited blacks and other non-whites from building and/or buying homes in the suburbs in the post-WWII period. Hence, all-white communities were created which allowed residents to build equity in their homes and wealth in their school systems. Blacks and other non-whites, on the other hand, who literally had to stay in the cities, were shut out from owning and creating wealth through property investment. The current property tax system continues this system of white franchisement intact and alive, by keeping generations of white money within local white communities. The result is thousands of more dollars-per-student spent in those suburban (and white) communities than in the inner-city communities.

The only way to truly solve this, it seems to me, is to move the locus of control over those property taxes from the municipal level to the county. Thus, here in North Texas, the Dallas Independent School District, the Lancaster ISD, the DeSoto ISD, and the Highland Park ISD, among others, would all receive the same ratio of money-per-student, from a pool of property tax money collected on and distributed at the Dallas County level.

The next question then becomes, how would this change be instituted? I am wondering, based on the redlining practices spelled out above, whether a class action lawsuit couldn't be brought against a particular white-majority municipality (say, Highland Park) that would challenge the Constitutionality of its existence through its ongoing use of the exclusive property tax system... [Note: Highland Park is completely surrounded by both the City of Dallas and the DISD. Dallas provides services to Highland Park, such as public transportation, road infrastructure, and etc.]

c hand said...

George will wrote 2/14/10:
Only two things are infinite — the expanding universe and Democrats' hostility to the District of Columbia's school choice program. Killing this small program, which benefits 1,300 mostly poor and minority children, is odious and indicative. It is a small piece of something large — the Democrats' dependency agenda, which aims to multiply the ways Americans are dependent on government.

Democrats, in their canine devotion to teachers unions, oppose empowering poor children to escape dependency on even terrible government schools. Unions and their poodles say school choice siphons money from public schools. But federal money funds the D.C. program, so killing it DENIES education money TO the District while increasing the number of pupils the District must support.

Allow a small number of kids in failing school to escape to something new? NEVER

Daniel said...

Yeah, why farm when you can gorge yourself on high fructose corn syrup?

I can think of multiple reasons to farm -- food, better nutrition, spirituality, economic livelihood, mental health, education.

In the olden days, before corn and soy subsidization, many Americans subsisted off of the land by personally growing/raising their own food.

Jerry said...

Having spent my career in education and having taught Graduate Educational Finance courses, I think I can spent with some degree of expertise on the financing situation. You are correct, Larry, we do spend less on the poor. Solutions? The only viable one in Texas may be to create a state-wide funding system that equalizes the funding. We have already tried the county approach in the early 90's, and that did not work. A statewide property tax that is then distributed back to schools based upon the "weighted average daily attendance"--that is education code for taking into consideration poverty, special populations, etc.--is the only solution that I have ever heard that makes sense. Otherwise, the richer districts will always be able to spend more per student. Anyone who has ever spent a day in an urban setting can tell you they need more, not less funding. Class size? I tend to disagree with you, Larry. Having spent the last 5 years observing in Dallas ISD and Oklahoma City Public Schools, I believe class size reduction is a key ingredient. As a teacher, I can teach 35 students in HP, Coppell, Southlake, etc., more effectively than I can 15 in Dallas ISD inner city schools. More later...gotta go.

Jerry said...

back again... One key is expanding the revenues available for education. A State-wide property tax (will take a Constitutional Amendment) is the only equitable way to use property taxes. The county-wide approach was tried in the 90's to no avail. Right now, HP, Coppell, Southlake, etc., have so many more resources available per student, yet have less needy students than the more property poor districts. For example, HP gets approximately $7,500 per student (after they send their "excess" to the State) while Duncanville ISD gets about $6,300 per student. Duncanville ISD has over 80% minority, over 70% Free Reduced Lunch, and over 40% ESL; so how is it equitable that they get so much less than HP--we all know the "needy" students at HP, right? So, there must be, in addition to more revenue, and adjustment in the distribution formulas to take into consideration the needs of the students. However, the only funding source that can provide enough funds is a State-wide system. However, we cannot rely only on property taxes. I suggest expanding the sales tax to include areas that you would be surprised do not pay sales taxes--for example, jet fuel for American and Southwest Airlines, architectural fees, CPA fees, etc. There are other revenues that should also be considered, but this is all I will mention now.
Then, part of the distribution system must take into consideration class size for education of needy students. Larry, I have spent my career in this stuff, and the last five years observing schools in Dallas ISD and OK City Public Schools, and I can tell you it is easier to be effective with 35 students in Coppell, Southlake, etc, than 15 in the inner city schools of Dallas ISD. Finally, equity in technology, facilities, and teacher quality must be addressed. But, it all starts and ends with 1) adequate funding sources, and 2) equitable distribution. Now, equitable does NOT mean equal--nothing is as unequal as the equal treatment of unequals! At the present, we are giving more to those who need it less, and less to those who need it more; we need to turn that on its head. Best wishes.

Anonymous said...

Jerry -

Anonymous 11:33 here. Where can I find more info on the attempt at county-level property tax funding and etc.?

'Like your idea on taxing items previously not taxed, BTW.

What would it take to make such a Constitutional amendment?

Best regards.

Jerry said...

To find out about the county plan, I suggest Googling Texas County Education Districts or Texas County Education Tax Districts. These districts were commonly called "CED's" and were in effect in the early 90's, and were a disaster. The theory is good, but there is just not enough money within counties to truly equalize. Also, the CED's set the tax rates, and the ricer districts always kept them lower than was needed.

Jerry said...

Read the article in the NYT at this location:

Great ideas for improving education and cutting costs.