In the file “American Winter,” a young boy says to his brother: “I don’t want to have a mansion or stacks of money or anything. I just want to have normal house, maybe a dog.”
“That’s the American Dream, right?” says his brother, “to not have to worry about money. If every kid could say that, that would be awesome.”
Fifty years after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty, the rate of Americans in poverty has fallen from 26 percent to 16 percent when accounting for the safety net of programs that lift people above the poverty line. That is an enormous gain. However, at many urban schools, more than half of the students are eligible for free lunch programs (an indicator of poverty). How do we tolerate that?
Many lament American students’ lower than average rankings on standardized PISA scores, which compare math, reading, and science skills between developed countries. In fact, when adjusted for poverty, American kids shine. In other words, if you are poor, you will not get a good education, and without a good education, you will remain poor.
Most discouraging, if students cannot read by the third grade, they probably will never learn. Each year, they fall further behind. Their fate is sealed. Malnourished children struggle to maintain attention, retain information or rebound from disappointments. Poverty cripples their opportunities.
The problem is not isolated. Troubled schools in poverty-stricken districts are business-as-usual in every major city, perpetuated by misunderstandings and ideological battles, spreading social problems, robbing people of opportunity and undermining economic prosperity. Poor education and poverty destroy both our credibility as a great nation and far too many people’s lives.
Yet children own the future. Don’t we have a responsibility?
From a jail cell in Birmingham, Ala., the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. condemned, “the appalling silence of the good people” and the moderates’ do-nothingness. He urged people in the black community to channel their loss of faith in America into “the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.”
Imagine that: “Creative Direct Action.” Rather than a war on poverty, we need a citywide pledge to create an inclusive learning community. We all have a stake. Crime, illiteracy and unemployment affect everyone.
Let’s stop talking about conflicts, us-against-them and winner-takes-all solutions. Instead cooperation draws from our collective resources through shared vision to tackle our most obdurate problems.
Beyond the classroom mandates of better teachers, programs, facilities and early education, people also need hope. That means sparking the job market, offering jobs with benefits, investing in lifelong education and employing adaptive, experiential learning approaches.
In other words, we need whole solutions, both top-down and bottom-up, that overcome barriers and unlock potential for other generations. Each of us has a role, from organizations to individuals.
With communication technologies, students can learn anywhere with anyone from Jackson County to Lawrence to Shanghai. Let’s open those opportunities.
Equally critical to brainpower, students need gumption and persistence, the grit to succeed no matter what life dishes up. In “How Children Succeed,” Paul Tough tells the story of Kewauna Lerma, a Chicago teenager.
She says, “I always wanted to be one of those business ladies walking downtown with my briefcase, everybody saying, ‘Hi, Miss Lerma.’”
By learning to overcome challenges, we build character, the will to succeed. Kewauna Lerma’s dream shapes her actions today.
To live up to our potential as a scrappy, high-achieving Kansas City, every person matters. We need to take creative direct action, educate children and eliminate poverty now.