How Poverty Is Crushing the Future of American Kids

Their Parents Can’t Earn a Living Wage, Their Schools Are Underperforming, and The Rest of Us Are Looking the Other Way

As the presidential election season kicks off, we can expect to be inundated with partisan debates about our nation’s biggest problems and how to address them. But there is one matter on which every candidate agrees: the growing gap between rich and poor needs to be addressed.

In 2013, the average income for the wealthiest 10 percent of U.S. families rose 10 percent from 2010—while the income of the bottom 40 percent declined. Where does the Horatio Alger story of bootstrapping fit into this picture? Is America still defined as the land of opportunity—the long-cherished idea that, with hard work and perseverance, anyone can succeed here?

Robert D. Putnam, author of Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, made this stark assessment: “Poor kids, through no fault of their own, are less prepared by their families, their schools, and their communities to develop their God-given talents as fully as rich kids.” In advance of the Zócalo event “Can Poor Children Still Achieve the American Dream?”, we asked a panel of experts: How is the erosion of community making it harder for poor children to achieve the American dream? How can we help put it within reach for them?

Renée Wilson-Simmons

Adopt policies to support entire families

It goes without saying that poverty, in and of itself, does not determine the course of an individual’s life. Still, what prospects do poor kids have when they live in disinvested neighborhoods with low-quality schools, poor housing, scarce social services, and low levels of perceived safety? How can they achieve the American dream when they have limited access to well-stocked libraries, parks and recreational resources, or fresh produce and other healthy foods at reasonable prices?

When the questions are phrased this way, the likely answer is that the prospects for poor children are as dismal as their surroundings, and their chances to succeed in school, have good mental and physical health, and realize their full potential as adults are greatly compromised. It seems clear that, because they start out early on a path that puts them far behind more advantaged children, many will never catch up.

Such a response would be supported by data on the radical growth of income inequality in the U.S., and the fact that poverty is one of the most consistent and influential risk factors for poor health and development across an individual’s life span.

Still, despite the many obstacles poor children face, many have not just survived, but thrived and excelled. The reasons for their success are many, but at the heart of most is the family, because children do better when families do better.

To ensure that more poor children achieve the American dream of upward mobility, we should promote two-generation policies and programs that address the needs of both parents and their children. By combining education and training for parents, to enable them to move into jobs that offer a path out of poverty, with high-quality early care and education for children, such programs improve opportunities for entire families.

Renée Wilson-Simmons, who has a doctorate in public health, is director of the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Lisa Dodson

Ensure working parents can earn a living wage

The American dream is a cherished tale about family, hard work, and social mobility. Over time, as the story goes, families are able to move up the socioeconomic ladder so their children can pursue their individual dreams—and become the next wave of hard-working Americans.

Though previous generations struggled, particularly those at the bottom quintile of the economy, advancement was a common experience for families through the 1980s and helped to build an expanded American middle class.

The dream is no longer possible because—no matter how committed parents are to their families and jobs—employers have no obligation to pay them a decent living. The American values of personal responsibility and self-sufficiency require parents to work hard at whatever jobs are available and care for their families—with little or no public aid.

A relentless tide of evidence reveals that millions of low-wage parents work long hours, and maybe even two jobs, and still never achieve social mobility. They can’t even ensure their children are safe while they work in those no-future jobs because safe and decent childcare is a market commodity in the U.S.—not a child’s right.

The American dream for children has always depended on their parents’ commitment to work and family. But it has also always depended on working parents’ being able to earn a living wage. Without that basic societal commitment, the dreams of children are stifled—and so is the future of our nation.

Lisa Dodson is senior scientist at the Heller School of Brandeis University and a research professor in sociology at Boston College. She is the author of The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy.

Pedro Noguera

Stop expecting schools to fix the problem—and refocus our priorities

The American dream has always been a largely unfulfilled promise. While there have been periods when children born into working class families could use education to climb the ladder into the middle class (1945 to 1980 especially), for most of America’s history this has not been the case. Children born poor stayed poor.

We like to celebrate those who make it—Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Carnegie, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, and many others who used hard work, talent, and intelligence to rise to positions of prominence. Their stories may be true, but they are nonetheless exceptions.

My immigrant parents, neither of whom graduated from high school, managed to send all six of their children to college. Some would say that we are proof that the dream is real. However, the evidence shows we are the exceptions. Most poor people work hard all their lives and their children still end up poor.

It should not be this way. In fact, it is not this way in Canada and most of Western Europe.

In the U.S., we expect schools to solve the problems of poverty on their own. The record shows that this will never work. Schools that serve poor children are frequently overwhelmed by their needs, and no amount of pressure will make them improve.

We need a strategy that includes efforts to raise wages and benefits, to make housing and transportation affordable, to provide access to high-quality preventative healthcare, and to keep higher education accessible and affordable. These are policy issues that require different priorities than the ones we have pursued in the past few years.

If we are to secure America’s future and make the dream of opportunity real, we will have to do more than espouse slogans. We need concrete actions to keep democracy and hope alive.

Pedro Noguera, who has a doctorate in sociology, is a professor of education and executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at New York University.

Ryan J. Smith

Invest in closing the opportunity gap

Years ago, I met a young man nicknamed Dee from the heart of Watts, a neighborhood in Los Angeles and one of America’s poorest communities. He asked me if he could apply for a leadership program I developed for promising students in low-performing schools. I told him sure—but he’d have to interview like all the other participants.

Dee, a 6th grader known more for trouble than success, came before the panel of judges on interview day and took out one solitary penny. He stoically held the coin up and stated: “This is a penny and I collect them. This penny is just like me. When you see a penny, you don’t see much. But pennies become dimes, dimes become quarters, quarters become dollars, dollars become thousands, and thousands become millions. I am somebody. Believe in me.”

Dee thoughtfully expressed the real issue with today’s American dream: His valiant efforts to collect pennies could never amount to the resources needed to overcome his reality.

Yes, the erosion of community is a factor for poor children and children of color. However, erosion implies factors outside of our control. Currently poor children in American schools often receive fewer resources, less effective teachers, and fewer college preparatory classes than their higher income counterparts—factors well inside of our control.

As a famous letter written in 1885 from former slave Jourdan Anderson to his former slave master stated: “(Racism is) not their country being impolite to (black people), it’s their country extracting resources from them.”

Some have benefited from America’s current state of inequity. However, if we want to turn the curve, we must increase resources to close opportunity and achievement gaps for children like Dee. We may need to reach into our own piggy banks and start counting our own coins.

Ryan J. Smith is the executive director of The Education Trust—West, a research and advocacy organization focused on educational justice and the high academic achievement of all California students, particularly those of color and living in poverty. He is also an Annie E. Casey children and family fellow.