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Fighting the dual poverty of income and of ignorance

Whatever the dictionary says, poverty has an official government definition, dating back to the mid-1960s when President Lyndon B. Johnson wanted data for Medicaid and other domestic initiatives. The current official poverty line is $16,020 for a household of two, $24,300 for a family of four.

A few days ago, a team of scholars at The Brookings Institution, a venerable think-tank in Washington, issued an insightful paper arguing for a broader concept of poverty than the single dimension of income. “Of course poverty is about a lack of money,” they write. “But it is not only about that.”

The Brookings team – Richard Reeves, Edward Rodrigue, and Elizabeth Kneebone – draw on the influential 1942 report by the British thinker William Beveridge, who looked beyond the raging world war and defined “five giant evils’’ that governments would have to address: “squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease.” The antidotes: housing, education, a financial safety net, employment, and health care.

In his 1944 State of the Union address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for a post-war “second Bill of Rights’’ that largely aligned with Beveridge’s analysis. FDR’s list included: “The right of every family to a decent home; the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; the right to a good education.”

Using Census data from the 2014 American Community Survey, the Brookings scholars focus on five dimensions: low-income, no health insurance, living in a poor neighborhood, joblessness, and lack of education. They look at clusters of disadvantage and at gaps among whites, blacks, and Hispanics. You can read the 17-page analysis here.

For and its readers, the significance of the Brookings paper is that it reinforces the message that schools fight poverty – they fight the lack-of-money poverty by endowing people with knowledge and skills to enhance earnings in the modern economy, and they fight the debilitating poverty of ignorance that saps the human spirit. Mebane Rash, EdNC’s CEO and Editor-in-Chief, will be traveling to Singapore this summer with 12 teachers to study how that country uses its education system to push its economy forward, preparing its students for the jobs of the future.

The Brookings scholars calculate that 15 percent of Americans in the prime working years between age 25 and 61 could be classified as below the education-poverty line, defined as having no high school diploma. In North Carolina, nearly 18 percent of adults older than 25, including people older than 61, lack a high school diploma. (Thanks to Alyson Zandt at MDC for digging out the available Census data.)

While they chart the trends and persistent gaps in high school attainment since 1993, the Brookings scholars deliver some good news: “On one of the non-income dimensions of disadvantage that Hispanics are most likely to experience – low high school graduation rates – the trend is in the right direction. The proportion of young Hispanics without a high school diploma (and not currently enrolled in either high school or college) has dropped sharply in recent years.

“There is still some way to go to close race gaps in high school graduation, of course. There are also growing concerns about the value of a diploma. But it seems certain that the risks of being both low-income and without a high school diploma are declining in general, and for the Hispanic population in particular.”

Still, as other research has indicated, the modern economy makes some education beyond high school an increasing imperative for attaining a middle-class standard of living. Principals, faculty, and staff of middle schools and high schools, especially, face the challenge of motivating and counseling adolescents so as to close racial and ethnic achievement gaps, sustain high graduation rates and propel students into post-secondary education or training.

Coincidental to the release of the Brookings paper, Maureen Berner, a professor of public administration at the UNC School of Government, along with two graduate students, came out with the 2016 version of “Documenting Poverty in North Carolina.” This data-heavy report provides an understanding of the extent of poverty beyond the official federal line.

While not specifically about education, School of Government report also has implications for the state’s schools. Teachers daily deal with the consequences that arise from these sentences: “Several economic measures show that financial hardship in North Carolina has been increasing since before the great recession that began in 2007. This hardship has a greater impact on children than on adults and on families than on single individuals.”

The report has a county-by-county chart on the share of students enrolled in the free and reduced-price lunch program. Students qualify if their families have an income up to 185 percent of the federal poverty line. In 23 counties, 75 percent of students, or more, get free or reduced-price lunch.

“Given that approximately 56 percent of all public school children are enrolled in the program – a record high – a majority of N.C. children can be documented as living in poor households,” says the report.

Living in a household poor in income need not, and should not, deny young North Carolinians the sound education that is their right, and that lifts them away from the “giant evil’’ of ignorance.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.