Photograph: The Quanah Parker Dam was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late 1930’s in the heart of the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma.
“Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages,
are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor;
a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong,
gives it a superficial appearance of being right,
and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.”
~ Thomas Paine
The concentration of wealth in the small-scale elite sectors of the economy and the continual decrease in the middle class population in the United States has become more apparent in the past decade. The Occupy Wall Street protests shed light on this trend in the mainstream media, as hundreds of thousands of protesters hit the street to raise awareness over the government corruption and corporate greed that has led to an overwhelming concentration of wealth for the country’s wealthiest 1% of citizens. The effect of this economic inequality has also become a major factor in the 2016 presidential primaries, with the rise in popularity of Gov. Bernie Sanders, a major left-wing supporter of social programs, financial market regulation, and political finance reform, and Mr. Donald Trump, a billionaire demagogue who has appealed to the right-wing by having a tough stance on low-wage immigrant labor and free trade. It is becoming increasingly important to raise awareness about the causes of this financial instability, and find solutions that help to alleviate inequality. The purpose of this article is to raise this awareness through the examination of socio-economic class and poverty in the United States. It then looks at the effects of poverty on the physical and cognitive development, and academic achievement of children. Next, it examines various methods that educators can consider implementing in their classroom to help alleviate the negative consequences of poverty on financially disadvantaged students. It also offers information about an assortment of amendments in social and institutional policy that may be beneficial for improving the financial stability of families suffering from poverty.
Social Class in the United States
The Precariat and the Plutocracy
According to Jon Greenberg, 47% of Americans surveyed by Federal Reserve stated that they would be unable to pay an unexpected $400 bill in an emergency without borrowing money or selling personal property (2015). George Washington University researcher Lusardi also found that 50% of the American surveyed would not be able to pay $2000 within a 30-day period (Greenberg, 2015). Moreover, Lusardi found that the United States ranked sixth out of eight developed countries where the surveyed population identified as being financially stable enough to pay an unexpected $2000 bill (Greenberg, 2015). These statistics are not only a shocking realization about the economic difficulties that have affected Americans over the past decade, but are also a sign of major change in the distribution of wealth and a decline in socio-economic makeup of the U.S. population. Guy Standing was the first researcher to identify this rise in economic instability, labeling the new socio-economic class as the precarious proletariat, or precariat, which can be defined as a low-wage working class that engages in flexible labor that lacks security, is financially unstable, and does not provide benefits such as healthcare, pensions, or paid holiday leave (2014). The precariat class can be further divided into three separate sub-groups based primarily on background characteristics that influenced their decline to the precariat class. The first type consists of families that worked blue-collar jobs (exp. manufacturing) that were offered pensions and other benefits in the past, but slowly fell into the “flexible” labor market (Standing, 2014). This group is also very likely to be Atavists, or people who are vulnerable to misinformation, and tend to blame economic difficulties on minorities and immigrants (Standing, 2014). The second sub-group consists of immigrants and minorities that accept the insecurity and work hard to survive, but may be likely to rebel when faced with policy changes that increase oppression (Standing, 2014). The third sub-group consists of mostly young, well-educated portions of the population that have fallen to the precariat class through inopportunity and misfortune, but yearn for a society that is based on equality and freedom, much like the protestors for the Occupy Wall Street protests (Standing, 2014). Standing states that in order for the three sub-groups of the precariat class to unify and demand change, there must be recognition of the social class, representation of the class in institutions, and a redistribution of assets such as “economic security, control over time, quality space… real liberating education, financial knowledge, and financial and other capital” (2014).
Noam Chomsky expanded upon Guy Standing’s social research in the 2015 documentary Requiem for the American Dream, in which he describes the ten principles of concentrated wealth and power. Chomsky first explains that in the United States, the population with extreme wealth influences legislation (often written by organizational lawyers and advocated by lobbyists), which in turn increases their concentration of wealth and power in society (2015). This reality has become more mainstream during the 2016 presidential primaries with Bernie Sanders proposing political finance reform, specifically through the abolishment of regulations of campaign spending associated with the Citizens United ruling, which identifies money as a form of speech. The ten principles of concentrated wealth and power are controlled by the economically elite who Adam Smith refers to as the masters of mankind, or the plutocracy, which can now be described as business leaders and financial institutions that shape state policy for financial gain (Chomsky, 2015).
Principle 1 – Reduce Democracy – When the founding fathers wrote the constitution, there were debates over the very foundation of democracy. James Madison argued that if the United States were to be a pure democracy, the lower class would vote to redistribute the wealth of the plutocracy (Chomsky, 2015). In order to protect the plutocracy, the founding fathers decided to reduce democracy by creating the U.S. Senate, which in turn decreased the power of the lower-class population. Aristotle also recognized this problem with the democracy system and wrote that this could be remedied through the reduction of inequality (Chomsky, 2015). This reduction in inequality evident during the post-World War 2 economic expansion, but began to gradually decline after the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960’s (Chomsky, 2015).
Principle 2 – Shape Ideology – As a backlash to the Civil Rights Movement, Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer and later Supreme Court Justice, wrote the Powell Memo, which expressed concern over the “dangerous excess of democracy” that was associated with the civic participation of the populations youth (Chomsky, 2015). This blueprint led to calculated changes in the economy that decreased manufacturing, increased the role of financial institutions and negatively affected workers’ rights.
Principle 3 – Redesign the Economy – During the Golden Age of Capitalism, the United States economy provided the population with stable manufacturing jobs that helped to create a middle class where people could achieve the American Dream (Chomsky, 2015). After the Civil Rights Movement, the economy was redesigned to reduce manufacturing and increase service based labor. The role of financial institutions was also expanded upon and gradually deregulated to a point where up to 40% of all corporate earnings were the result of ethically questionable economic manipulations (Chomsky, 2015). The financial institutions were responsible for many of the economic crashes that occurred between the 1970’s and the 2015, and grew so powerful that they were considered “too big to fail”, and after the financial crisis of 2007, they were subsequently handed billions of dollars by the U.S. Government.
Principle 4 – Shift the Burden – During the 1950’s and 1960’s, people were able to enter the middle class because there was stability and equality in wages and benefits to all workers. During this time, worker’s unions were strong, financial institutions were regulated, and corporate wealth was taxed at a much higher rate (Chomsky, 2015). As the economy was redesigned, corporations and financial institutions grew more powerful and expanded deregulation, unions were weakened through legislation, and workers were forced to take “flexible” jobs, which signified the beginning of the new precariat class (Chomsky, 2015). Meanwhile, the plutocracy continued to accrue mass sums of wealth and power through the oppression of the precariat class.
Principle 5 – Attack Solidarity – In order to attack solidarity within the population, it is necessary to defund social programs, such as social security or public education, and build an underlying belief in the vile maxim, “all for ourselves, and nothing for others”. In fact, during the Golden Age of the 1950’s and 60’s, there were much more social support systems in place, and large portions of the population were provided with basically free college education through the G.I. Bill (Chomsky, 2015). Currently, Chomsky explains, the United States is much more wealthy country, yet it is unable to find ways to finance social programs that help the disadvantaged that also benefit the majority of the public (2015).
Principle 6 – Run the Regulators – The plutocracy controls the majority of the country’s wealth, and with this wealth, they are able to influence legislation regarding corporate and financial regulation. As corporate and financial institutions become deregulated, they are able to accrue more wealth, and subsequently gain more power, which is used to further influence regulation (Chomsky, 2015). Therefore, the plutocracy runs the government regulators.
Principle 7 – Engineer Elections – The Citizens United ruling in 2010 gave private organizations the right to financially support political campaigns, stating that money was a form of free speech (Chomsky, 2015). This has led the United States political system into being heavily influenced by the plutocracy, essentially decreasing the political power of 99% of the population.
Principle 8 – Keep the Rabble in Line – Unions were powerful after World War 2, making up 25% of the entire work force. In order for the plutocracy to regain power over the work force, they created the Taft-Harley Act, which regulated labor movements, reducing the labor forces ability to conduct strikes and maintain stable leadership (Chomsky, 2015).
Principle 9 – Manufacture Consent – Rational decisions are the natural enemy of advertisement companies. Their main goal is to create consumers that make irrational decisions based on emotions rather than logic. This has helped to advocate an ideology related to the vile maxim, which has been gradually accepted by large portions of the population through the process of consumerism and the influence of deceptive advertisements (Chomsky, 2015).
Principle 10 – Marginalize the Population – The goals and actions of the government do not correlate to the needs and desires of the population. In order to marginalize the population, the government uses tactics that aim to discredit and disenfranchise groups with oppositional viewpoints (think voting registration laws). However, Chomsky reminds us that we still live in a society that guarantees the freedom of association (2015). It is still possible to demand change in policy by building awareness of the sources of inequality in our society, and by advocating for a society that emphasizes the importance of the redistribution of assets that increase equality and worker’s rights.
Poverty in the United States
According to the United States Census Bureau, in 2013, 45.3 million people (14.8%) were identified as living in poverty (2013). Poverty is defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as a family of two adults and two children that earn less than $24,036 dollars per year (2013). The majority of the population that fell below the poverty line do not participate in the workforce, however, around 10.5 million people were considered as working poor (U.S. Census, 2013). The primary cause of the poverty rates of the working poor related primarily to low-wages (66%), while other causes are associated with sporadic unemployment, and involuntary part-time employment (U.S. Census, 2013). Moreover, Matthews found that in 2011, 1.65 million American households, including 3.55 million children (18%), fell within the extreme poverty threshold, living on less than $2 per day (2013). However, when considering social programs such as food stamps, housing subsidies, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Child Tax Credit, the actual rate of extreme poverty in the United States drops by 62.8%, to around 613,000 households (Matthews, 2013). The success of social programs in alleviating extreme poverty signifies the importance of social support programs in the United States. Nevertheless, the negative effects of poverty still effect 1 out of 8 families in the United States, and puts millions of children at an economic and educational disadvantage in life. Furthermore, considering the emergence of the precariat class, (47% of population cannot afford to pay a $400 bill in an emergency) it is becoming increasingly important to consider increased funding for additional social programs, and changing public policy in ways that prevent social disparity.
The Effect of Poverty on Children
According to McDevitt and Ormrod, families that are living in poverty are often unable properly nurture their children due to limitation in financial resources, which is worrying since 18% of children fall into this category (2013). These children are often faced with many difficult challenges such as poor health care, inadequate housing and material goods, toxic environments, gaps in background knowledge, increased possibility of disabling conditions, emotional stress, lower quality of schools, and public misconceptions (McDecitt & Ormrod, 2013). Futhermore, children and adolescents who come from impoverished families are more likely to “drop out of school, abuse drugs and alcohol, and participate in criminal activity” (McDecitt & Ormrod, 2013). Nevertheless, children from impoverished backgrounds have been shown to show resilience, since nearly 50% of low-SES graduates enroll in college (McDecitt & Ormrod, 2013). Therefore, it is very important for educators to fully understand the problems that low-SES students face, while implement methodologies that cater to each student’s individual needs.
Developmental Effects of Poverty
Children and adolescents who come from a low-SES background have been shown to have an increased probability of developing disabling conditions that could affect social behavior and academic progress. For example, Luby et al. conducted a longitudinal study in St. Louis that examined the emotional development of children from low-SES backgrounds annually, using developmental evaluations and MRI imaging (2013). The participants of the study included preschoolers between 3-6 years of age that were assessed annually for 5-10 years (Luby et al., 2013). The researchers found that impoverished children were more likely to have “smaller white and cortical matter, and hippocampal and amygdala volumes” (Luby et al., 2013). This signifies that children suffering from poverty may be at risk for disorders that relate to emotions, mood, and various cognitive functions. Luby et al. stresses that prevention and early intervention should be a public health target since the adverse effects of poverty can be prevented through caregiving and reducing stressful life events (2013). Furthermore, Ariel et al. recommend the implementation of poverty reduction strategies such as tax-policy-based earning supplements as well as long-term income-supplement programs and early childhood intervention (2016).
Addressing Inequality in Education
Examining the Wake School System
Racial and class segregation has been shown to have a highly detrimental effect on the education outcomes of students, and on the overall quality of education in low income school districts. According to the Pew Research Center, residential segregation in poverty stricken areas have increased from 23% to 28% between 1980 and 2010 (Fry & Taylor, 2012). This increase in segregation and unequal distribution of property tax has caused many schools to be both underfinanced, and underprepared to serve the students in low income school districts. Moreover, the effect of segregation has direct detrimental effects on the health and educational outcomes of students due to “low parental education, weak academic preparation, a lack of socialization for college life, and an increased exposure to misconduct and violence” (Torres & Massey, 2012). It has been documented that access to health care, parental education levels, housing conditions, access to after school activities, and lack of family resources directly impact academic achievement in school (Rothstein, 2014). A deficit in any of the above factors has a devastating effect on the ability for teachers to conduct class well, due to constant remediation of mobile students, language deficits, lack of student motivation, and negative environmental circumstances (Rothstein, 2014). This issue of segregation is highly problematic for the Wake School System, since more than a quarter of their schools have high rates of poverty (Hui, 2015). Additionally, the high-poverty schools at Wake currently lack the political motivation necessary to increase the diversity in their schools. Instead, more resources have been put into maintaining 24 non-diverse low income schools, rather than on increasing inclusion by busing students to schools that are better off financially and academically. In fact, Wake has relocated thousands of low-income students back to high poverty schools, refused to offer busing to other districts due to pressure from affluent community members, and has actively refused to make school assignment changes for low-income students (Hui, 2015).
The segregation in the Wake School System can be seen as both disastrous and short sighted, since we know that diversity in schools has a positive effect on students if implemented correctly. In order to correct this issue within the school, officials could allow parents to relocate to higher quality schools. The school could promote diversity through programs that increase interaction between high poverty and affluent students. The school could actively recruit high quality teachers, and increased the amount of training programs to improve their understanding of their student’s background, while increasing the rate of intervention for high risk students. The school could finance after school programs, summer programs, and after school tutoring for low-income schools to counteract the environmental issues associated with low-income students. The school could provide classes that help to reintegrate mobile students into the education system, in order to decrease behavioral issues in class. This should help the students to be more engaged in the lesson since teachers will not have as much disruption within the classroom. Last, they could build a student exchange system between high and low income schools that help expose students to diversity, and increase positive interaction between race and social class. This could help to influence the communities view on the integration of schools in the future, which has the potential to initiate social change.
Supportive Learning Environments and Recommendations for Educators
In order to address inequality in educational settings it is important for educators to understand how to create a supportive learning environment and implement strategies that cater to the specific needs of low-SES students. McDevitt and Ormrod recommend that educators build supportive learning environments by reflecting on personal cultural experiences, avoiding perpetuating inequity and cultural differences, being aware of diversity within social groups, supporting and accommodating multicultural backgrounds, and implementing culturally responsive teaching by including numerous cultural perspectives into the curriculum (2013). Moreover, teachers can also identify and address individual gaps in learning between students, display cultural practices in a positive light, encourage interaction between children from different backgrounds, resolve cultural conflicts constructively, and confront and eliminate inequities within the classroom (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2013). When working with low-SES students it is important to focus on the strengths of individual students, build a sense of community in the classroom through cooperative learning, help connect students to institutions in their community, and be consistent when addressing behavioral expectations (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2013). Furthermore, teachers can improve instruction by showing how academic skills can be applied outside of the classroom, encourage involvement in extracurricular activities, maintain high expectations for students based on individual backgrounds, provide supplies to students in extreme poverty, assist students through mentorship, and advocate for school improvements that assist the disadvantaged population (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2013).
Economic Policies that Fights Oppression
The war on poverty that began in the 1960’s and early 1970’s has had a lasting effect on supporting the economically disadvantaged and providing a safety net for low-SES population. However, the programs that were enacted have only hit the surface of the elimination of poverty in the United States. Haveman et al. points out that the current approach to addressing poverty is limited by “increasing inequality of earnings and family income, and reductions in real market income of individuals and families at the bottom of the distribution” (2015). Haveman et al. recommend the enactment of policies that target labor market support, human capital accumulation, career-oriented programs, special assistance programs (child care, housing, transportation, etc.), minimum wage increases, and low-income tax credits (2015). In addition, there are many other policies that should be considered to combat poverty such as universal health care, universal living wages, increased funding for public education, tuition free university education, and public works programs. In the future, it is important for communities to raise awareness about poverty in the United States and advocate for support programs that help to decrease poverty rates and strengthen the middle class. Furthermore, additional research studies need to be conducted in order to quantify the effects of various social programs on poverty. In addition, an examination of various international states that have already enacted successful social programs aimed at decreasing poverty should be considered when addressing U.S. policy debates.
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