Invest in Education to Wage a New War on Poverty
The data just released on poverty in California is stark and maddening. Nearly a quarter of our state’s children now live below the poverty line. There was a point in time when our nation engaged in a war on poverty. Now, we have a war on just about everything else. When I was a Volunteer in Service to America (VISTA) in Appalachia in my early twenties, I handled the finances as a representative payee of more than a dozen men and women. Their lives were a daily struggle of small but powerful choices over dollars and I would get their calls at all times of the day or night asking for a few dollars for some expense or another. I remember haggling with landlords who wanted to kick them out and calculating the impact of a leaky faucet on monthly cash flow. I remember thinking about the paths they had taken to that point. So many of them had never been given a chance. So many couldn’t read or write. So many had been dependent on others their entire lives. The culture of dependency was as dehumanizing as the experience of poverty itself.
We should give people a helping hand when they need it. But giving people a helping hand is not enough; we also have to give them the means to climb out of poverty. There is no greater equalizer than a quality education. Yet, just at a time when we could be using our education system as that great equalizer, we are systematically defunding it. And in doing so, we are taking away the additional education supports and opportunities that are most likely to lift our children in poverty to greater levels of achievement and financial independence for their families. People love to argue we can’t close achievement gaps because they are rooted in poverty. But the fact is that each child has such enormous potential. If our education system doesn’t give them every opportunity to fulfill that, it just drains away. Other nations have made the decision to invest in their education systems and expand opportunities for their children. Is it any wonder that their economies are booming while ours appears to be in steady decline.
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