51% of U.S. Kids Live in Poverty. Here’s One Real Solution
The U.S. economy is improving, but more public school children than ever are living in poverty. How can we help all of our children succeed? In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Michael A. Rebell of the Campaign for Educational Equity explained that while “people at the top are doing much better…people at the bottom are not doing better at all. Those are the people who have the most children and send their children to public school.” Not all low-income kids live in unstable homes, but unfortunately many do. These kids come to school hungry, and they go home to situations that aren’t supportive of learning. With more support, these kids could be just as successful as their peers.
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The Southern Education Foundation looked at the percentage of kids on the free and reduced lunch program to get a feel for how many U.S. kids live in poverty. Not all kids on this program are living below the poverty line, but it’s a pretty good marker. Their report found that 51 percent of kids in the U.S. live in poverty. As you can see from the map above, there are more low-income kids living in the South and West United States. In those areas, low-income kids make up as much as 71 percent of the classroom. This shift changes what many public school teachers focus on in the classroom. One Alberquerque teacher described how she begins the morning with her class, where 14 of her 18 kids are low income. She gives them wet wipes and toothbrushes and even stocks a drawer with clean underwear, socks, and clothing for them. So, what does this mean? According to the Southern Education Foundation report, “No longer can we consider the problems and needs of low income students simply a matter of fairness … Their success or failure in the public schools will determine the entire body of human capital and educational potential that the nation will possess in the future.”
If we let these kids fail, we all fail. Schools need to do more to help kids living in poverty succeed. The Washington Post article describes the way one teacher is taking responsibility. The same teacher who helps her class clean up before starting the school day also fosters two girls who go to her school. But we can’t rely on teachers acting independently to address this systemic problem. It’s just not enough. Experts say that we need to be helping impoverished kids before they get to elementary school. One state superintendent suggested to the Washington Post that access to preschool programs could make a big difference. There’s some good data to back that up. Programs like Head Start really can help low-income children keep up with more affluent peers. The Obama administration is even throwing support behind public preschool and asking Congress to approve a federal budget increase to pay for universal preschool. As more kids grow up in poverty, these sorts of programs are going to need more funding. Universal preschool is a good step toward helping all of our children succeed.