Saturday, September 3, 2016

Is Poverty No Longer a Thing?

Mike Petrilli was over at Campbell Brown's place this week where A) he was oddly billed as a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a book author, but not as the head honcho of the Fordham Institute and B) suggesting that we might need to reconsider our stances on poverty, now that it's not so much of a thing.

I'm not an economist and I don't play one on tv (though economists pretend to be education experts all the time, so maybe I should just throw caution to the wind), so I'm leery of wrestling with Petrilli's contention that the poverty rate has dropped to 7.8%. But I can say this with confidence-- there's a huge amount of disagreement about what the poverty rate actually is.

The census folks said that in 2014, the poverty rate was 14.8%. But median income rate stayed flat. The poverty rate dropped from 19% in 1967 to around 15% today. Maybe those numbers are all really low because the poverty cut score is set too low, and the true number is much higher. Or maybe the true poverty rate is actually 4.5%. One sometimes suspects that economists do not know what the hell they are talking about.

Petrilli is leaning on a study by Scott Winship. Winship is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and at Brookings (maybe-- they really should annotate their website more carefully). So, not exactly a lefty here. Winship's idea is that when you count people's earnings, you should count all their government benefits as well, as in "Well, you're not really poor because you've got food stamps and tax credits and other non-cash benefits." He also thinks the Census Bureau's inflation calculator overstates things. Let's say that not everyone agrees with Winship's method of computing.

Petrilli is willing to note that Winship's method of figuring clearly implies that there would be waaaayyyyy more people in poverty if welfare-slashers in DC had their way. And he also acknowledges that just even if you're a bit over the poverty line, you're probably still having a Very Rough Time. Yet he also dismisses Free and Reduced Lunch numbers as a good measure of poverty.

But he's going to go on talking as if the 7.8% number is accurate so that we can consider the implications.

Part of his considering is baloney stapled to a straw man.

For the teachers unions and other traditional education groups, it raises hard questions about their familiar contention that America’s lackluster student achievement is due to poverty—that we must “fix poverty first” before our schools will improve.

The contention may be familiar, but only because reformsters keep repeating it and attributing it to their opponents. I don't know any serious voice on the non-reformy side of the debate who says, "We must fix poverty before students can learn." The fact that folks in the public education sphere see poverty as a factor does not mean that they see it as an excuse. If I have a student who wants to race, but she's in a wheelchair, I'm not contending that she must be cured and on her legs before she can race. But the preparations and  training for that student will be different from those of a wheelchair-unbound student. If I think the solution for the athlete in the wheelchair is simply push her through the same training program I'd use with a non-wheelchair athlete, I'm a dope. She needs preparation that fits her situation.

Petrilli knows all this, and acknowledges in the piece that "a strong link remains between students’ socioeconomic status and achievement." (As always, we don't really mean "achievement"-- we mean "score on a narrow standardized test.")

But, Petrilli says, if poverty is lessened, then it can't be causing our "educational underachievement"-- which means at this point he is discussing the correlation between two data points (student achievement failure, lessening of poverty) neither of which has actually been established as a true thing.

We are doing better by our poorest citizens, including our poorest children, than we were 20 years ago. And we should expect them to be doing better in school as a result.  

But we don't really know if we're doing better by our poorest citizens or not, and we have no real indication that they aren't doing better in school for any number of reasons, including but not limited to A) policy wonks don't have a decent measure of student achievement and B) we have no way to measure the differences between what schools asked of students twenty years ago and what they asked today. 

One implication that Petrilli doesn't address-- one reformster school (the one favored by the current administration) is that better education will cure poverty. So if poverty has been reduced, I suppose they could declare victory. Of course that would also mean they could stop pushing new reformy ideas. But the linchpin of their entire theory is still unproven-- that a child who gets a good score on the Big Standardized Test will end up with a better-paying job, as if employers are sitting out there thinking, "Well, I would pay more for this minimum wage job, but I'm waiting to hire someone who got a really high PARCC score."

The other factor that Petrilli is leaving out is the importance of support from government and policy makers. He notes that society is more stratified, with a greater gap between the wealthy and the not-wealthy; it's worth asking how much that stratification leads to the systemic under-support of schools in poor communities. We could also take a look at reports that show schools are handling 1 million more students with 200K fewer teachers under the headline that the recovery has not reached schools, raising the question: what happens if student poverty gets better, but school under-funding gets worse? He says that we should expect poor students to be doing better in school; I'd say we should expect federal, state and local government to do a better job of supporting those schools that the poor are students in.


  1. For just a minute, let's pretend that higher scores on the BS tests will lift children out of poverty. Let's start with a third grader. She has 9 more years of K-12 adventures, then 4 years of college (of course it might take 6-7 years to complete a degree because college costs big $$$ and she may have to work 25-30 hours a week to support herself during that time, but we'll go with 4). So 13 years must pass before she has a college degree that is the meal ticket she needs. But wait - lawyering or doctoring pays better, so maybe more schooling would be better - make that 16 years minimum.

    We should wait 16 years for the effects of high scores on BS tests to allieviate poverty in the wealthiest nation in the world? And only for the deserving high test scorers? I ain't buying it.

    Christine Langhoff

    1. Ms. Christine (we often do this in the south, the 'Ms.' in front of the first name)this is one of the most relevant concise & cogent replies that has appeared since I've been reading Mr. Green's blog. We said!

    2. I found something interesting from mayor slay's desk, after the state board disenfranchised the st.louis voters so he could run the schools as he saw 2007 it was a status symbol for charters to have poor black kids... "For the 2006­-07 school year, 5,405 students attended two high schools, one middle school and seven elementary charter schools. Charter schools students were 87% African­-American and 81.7% eligible for free­ or­ reduced lunch." funny thing...slps still run by an appointed board...10500 charter students...but only 70 percent are black,they no longer brag about how many are poor....there are a lot of homeless among the 16,500 non charter.....88 percent black....process of re segregation?

  2. So according to Mike Petrilli, poverty has been eradicated --- or mostly eradicated, or almost eradicated to the point where it's "not a big thing" anymore?

    The mainstream media has really been sleeipin' on the job to miss such a story.

    Here's a counter-narrative graphic posted by Jennifer "Edushyster" Berkshire:

  3. Most measures of poverty rank the U.S. worst among developed nations. Petrilli would argue that the poor’s many sources of income in the U.S. render their plight less onerous. He’s 180 degrees wrong. Even if our poor do ok in overall cash income, the U.S. is less generous in providing its poor everything from health care to rent control to transportation to school supplies (and on and on) than every other wealthy nation. It also bears mentioning that the U.S. ranks worst in the advanced world in life expectancy, obesity, and incarceration rates. It’s not even close in these categories, which Petrilli doesn’t care about. Our parents of schoolchildren also work longer hours with fewer benefits, less vacation, maternal leave, dignity, and job security. Again, not even close. Indeed, the only categories that we sometimes beat first world countries in is standardized test scores. Look at any PISA reading test and you’ll find the U.S. beating countries that it has no business beating (given our problems); countries like Sweden, Austria, and France, which crush us in every other standard of living category. People like Petrilli either think – or think that we’re stupid enough to think – that because the U.S. has the best military and the highest Olympic medal count, we should beat everybody in everything. But the poorest, most incarcerated, most overworked, insecure and unhealthiest advanced country SHOULD be dead-last in education. The fact that we are not is a credit to our educators. But Palin-esque types like Petrilli, who apparently have never left the U.S. to see what it’s like elsewhere (how else could you even dare to compare our poor to Western Europe’s) fail to comprehend the ravages of our state, and the relative successes of our educators.

    Ultimately, it’s a common-sense understanding that the American poor are worse off than the poor in the rest of the first world. An endless wealth of data shows this. But Petrilli looks at a single, and very dubious piece of data that a couple of corporate think tanks produce, and he sees this one cherry-pick as defying the notion that we have sub-first-world conditions. Congratulations, Mr. Petrilli, you’ve destroyed the notion that reformers even pretend to care about poverty.

    1. Exactly, Eric.
      As schools open across the nation our educators do incredible work to mitigate the effects of poverty- and teach, too. "Doing more with less every day" is the the teachers' creed.

    2. Thank you for writing this. I was thinking about the incarceration rates and the amount of violence in many of our poor communities. Drug abuse, including that of pain-killers, is another huge problem for many of our communities. The lack of sick leave for hourly workers also makes it incredibly difficult for parents in those jobs to properly take care of themselves and their children in the case of illness. Basically, there are plenty of problems related to poverty and our punish-the-poor labor laws, and these problems impact our children and their education.

  4. My neighborhood elementary school - not 10 miles from Petrilli's "public-private school" for his own offspring - has its own food pantry.

    He lives and works in his own little bubble of Wealthy White Male Privilege (have you SEEN his corner of Bethesda, MD?!?), and God forbid he look outside and take a chance on seeing something that might clash with his Ivory Tower worldview. *snort* If he doesn't see it, it must not be happening.

  5. Boy, does he have a warped view of the world, but then again, he lives in Montgomery Co, MD, which is the richest suburb outside of DC. You don't see any signs of poverty until you get a little closer to PG County, and then, that kind of poverty is OK, because it doesn't have any slums or anything really ugly. Boy, does this man need to fall out of his Ivory Tower!

    1. Actually, there are some corners of Rockville and Gaithersburg and even out in Germantown and even Poolesville with pockets of poverty. (I've taught in all of them at one time or another). But yes, the area down near PG county (I've also taught there!) is another story altogether. Stark contrast to the leafy green McMansions of Bethesda (where, yes, I have also taught - I got around the county back in the day!), and easy to forget that the entire county doesn't look like Bethesda or Potomac (taught there too); it's those wealthier areas that bring up the SES average for the entire county even WITH the extreme poverty going on elsewhere here, which should say something about the economic gap here. :-(

    2. And actually, some of the sad sorry excuses for apartment complexes down near PG County in Silver Spring/Takoma Park look OK at first drive-by glance but on foot it's another story altogether, and inside many of those apartments are people living hand-to-mouth 10-in-a-2bedroom; "slum" isn't too far off depending on where in Langley Park (or elsewhere in eastern MoCo inside the Beltway) you go. There're not nearly enough Head Start/pre-K slots to meet the demand, either. :-(

    3. My "looks" OK in MoCo even though it's sometimes not OK. If it looks good on the outside, then it must be swell (according to Petrilli)! I'm in HoCo and it's the same thing with these small areas of poverty stuffed into the wealth of the county.

  6. What is it about poverty that debilitates? This is not a stupid question. A child is born into poverty. Most likely the child is in a single parent home. The parent may or may not be working. Every aspect of life has a crisis level stress associated with it. The child is tuned into the stressed parent. In school, the little boy or girl cannot switch into "let's get to work" mode. So everyone is in coping mode. Why not address the stress level in children? Bring in adults...retirees, students, volunteers, etc. and create a nurturing environment. Create stability, create a sense of well being. Incorporate the three R's but don't test until the children are older. They can get feedback, but no scores, no evaluation, no testing.

    Until, until the children's needs are even somewhat acknowledged and addressed, all of Bill Gates' software ideas are going to inflict more pain and suffering. Poverty is complex and people are born tender beings. They need to be treated tenderly.

    The children in poverty need to be spending their days in an environment which helps them cope with their reality so that they can aspire to transcend it. Until then, everything that school has become for them only doubles their suffering. Give them support in the form of human compassion. They need to be genuinely important to grown up people, not competing in a large group for the attention of one or two well-intended teachers. The physics of teaching (of course there is such a thing) will not allow even the most compassionate genius of a teacher to do justice to a group of 25 children who live in the sorrow and stress of poverty. Why is this so difficult?

    Money. And I am sorry to say that too many people who complain about inequity are also money grubbers in the end. Courage and vision...courage and vision...courage and vision!

    1. "The children in poverty need to be spending their days in an environment which helps them cope with their reality so that they can aspire to transcend it."

      That right there ^^^ should be at the top of every school's mission plan. A shame that all those staff meetings have already happened so it's too late for this year.

  7. So very well said, Kobis! Thank you!

  8. "I don't no any serious voice on the non-reformy side of the debate who says, "We must fix poverty before students can learn." I'd like to point out that the word is "know" not "no". But then again, I'm not an education expert, so I suppose I am not permitted to point that out.

    The analogy between training a wheelchair-bound person for a race and effectively teaching poor children is a poor one. Regardless of what you do, the wheelchair-bound child is likely to be afflicted. But I can see the mistake because liberals think that poverty is likewise a permanent affliction. They do not recognize that poor children can get an education and thereby end the cycle of poverty. See link.

    And no. It's not ""Well, I would pay more for this minimum wage job, but I'm waiting to hire someone who got a really high PARCC score." Your attempts at humor do not hide your attempts to deflect. It's not about someone paying more for a higher PARCC score. It's about a higher standardized test score being an objective prediction of additional educational attainment. And educational attainment is a highly related to income and unemployment rate. See link.

    29% of poor children drop out of high school. 1700 high schools in this country fail to graduate at least 60% of their students. If we can improve those numbers (and tests like PARCC give us an early warning of this risk), then we can help improve these students lives.

  9. Here's a rather mild takedown of Winship's paper:

    The most pertinent point to me is that even if you are getting enough non-cash benefits to keep you fed and housed, if you have almost no cash, you're still living in poverty.