So, What About the Children?

child poverty rate

Should the Nevada Legislature care to address some issues other than those espoused by the gun-happy among us, there is one which should attract more attention than it’s getting.  23% of the children in this state are living in households at 100% of the official poverty line. [datacenter]  That’s an increase from the 2009 rate of 18%. In fact, the rate has been increasing – from 18% in 2009, steady at 22% in 2010 and 2011, up to 24% in 2012, and leveling at 23% as of 2013. [datacenter] The percentage in 2013 in Congressional District 1 was 36%, in Congressional District 2 – 18%, Congressional District 3 – 13%, and Congressional District 4 – 24%. [datacenter]  The numbers didn’t get any better in 2014.  Nevada’s 23.4% of children living in poverty was higher than the national average 22.6%. [LVRJ]

This has some significant implications for those ‘education reformers’ who are touting accountability in the public schools because the income/achievement gap was grown significantly in the last three decades.  And, this matters because, “By the early part of the 21st century, racial inequality was much lower (although far from eliminated) in terms of wages, health disparities, and residential segregation. Meanwhile, economic inequality reached historic highs (Saez, 2012). Although both remain high, economic inequality now exceeds racial inequality in education outcomes.” [ASCD] (emphasis added)

Wait, there’s more:

“The fact that the income achievement gap is large when children enter kindergarten—and does not grow substantially during the school years—suggests that the primary cause of the gap is not unequal school quality. In fact, the data in Figure 2 show that schools may actually narrow academic achievement gaps, rather than widen them. The data show the gap narrowing between the fall and spring of the kindergarten and 1st grade years—periods when students were in school—and widening in the summer between kindergarten and 1st grade—when they were not in school. Although we can’t assume that the same pattern holds in later grades, the ECLS-K data do suggest that schools may reduce inequality rather than widen it.” [ASCD] (emphasis added)

Isn’t it convenient to blame low test scores on ‘failing schools’ without looking at the impact of poverty on the kids who are entering those schools in kindergarten and first grade?  Rather than railing on about ‘failing schools’ and children not reading at grade level, it might be more useful to take a harder look at the conditions from which those children are coming.

There is a “language gap” which has nothing to do with English or Spanish, but with the vocabulary to which youngsters are accustomed in low and high income households.  We have about 50 years worth on research on this topic: [see also: ASCD, NYT, Stanford]

“…five-year-old children of lower socioeconomic status (SES) score two years behind on standardized language development tests by the time they enter school. In fact, a March 2013 study (link is external) by Fernald and colleagues titled, “SES Differences in Language processing Skill and Vocabulary Are Evident at 18 Months,” reported that signs of the vocabulary gap are evident before a child is even two-years-old.”

In short, by lumping all schools in a test-score matrix with bench marks for ‘success’ which don’t factor in poverty, we’re getting only half the picture.  How does one classify a school as failing when a significant number of kids entering it are already two years behind?  Further, if a significant number of kids attending ‘Moose Moon Elementary School’ are already behind before the doors open to them – then perhaps if the kids are reading only 1 level below ‘grade’ in the 3rd grade then we should call that success?

Poverty isn’t only a matter of vocabulary, nutrition plays a role as well.  One study conducted in Canada is instructive:

“These findings demonstrate an independent association between overall diet quality and academic performance among grade 5 students in Nova Scotia, Canada. Dietary adequacy and variety were identified as specific aspects of diet quality important to academic performance, thereby highlighting the value of consuming a diverse selection of foods in order to meet the recommended number of servings from each food group.”

There are all manner of research reports on the relationship between nutrition status and educational achievement.  [USDA, NCBI, GenYouth, NMichU]  However, we also know that, as the headline asserts, “Poverty drains Nutrition from the Family Diet.”  What tends to happen is that carbohydrates (cheap) tend to be a higher portion of the family diet as opposed to fresh fruit and vegetables (more expensive) or proteins in meat and fish.   Makes sense when we figure that Mac/Cheese comes to about 90 cents per box, with about 3 servings per box, that works out to about 30 cents per serving.  Compare that to broccoli at about 63 cents per serving, or fresh spinach at about 52 cents per serving, or even the orange at 34 cents [mdand]  and we can see where this is going.  Then there’s the lard, which can be purchased for about $5.88 for 64 oz.  The commodity markets are showing butter at about $1.61 for 16 oz.  48 oz of cooking oil go for about $2.50.  In sum, if a family is trying to make it on SNAP benefits those dollars and cents will go further on Mac/Cheese than on salmon and broccoli.

It just might be more constructive, in terms of educational achievement, to stop mocking, and rolling back, school lunch nutrition requirements – even if the little darlings aren’t that fond of veggies; and to look at increasing SNAP benefits to families with children so that a few heads of broccoli and more meat and fish proteins were included in the family diet.

It often seems that families in poverty can’t win no matter what they do – Should they try to purchase more books for the kiddies they can be chastised for not spending the money on better food.  If they add a bag of oranges to the grocery trip then they can be taunted for not making the most economical use of their grocery dollars.  Heaven forefend they should add some raw spinach or broccoli to the grocery bag.   I can almost hear it now, “I was at the grocery store and the lady in front of me was buying Kale, KALE! with food stamps!”  No matter that Kale is one of the more nutritious  veggies available.

Sadly, as long as the I Got Mine Now You Try To Get Yours attitude prevails amongst legislators at the state and national level, we’ll have a “language gap” because we’ve not addressed the paucity of time and resources available for lower income working families. How easy it is to ‘save money’ by reducing the hours or staff at the public library!  And, we’ll have achievement gaps because kids are filled (or unfilled) with carbohydrate laden diets because that’s the way to stretch the grocery funds.  Even notions about increasing the minimum wage are met with vehement protests that we are creating a Nation of Takers, and speak to a Living Wage and the air fills with dire warnings of moral hazards.

What IF we tried thinking of children as an investment rather than a line item expense?  What IF we thought of them as assets in need of maintenance and care?  What IF we recognized that their poverty will be a factor in their educational achievement?  What IF we rewarded the schools which helped close the language, achievement, and nutritional gaps in their lives? Children aren’t abstractions, slogans like “freedom” don’t mean much on an empty stomach; they aren’t philosophical constructions, pronouncements on “entitlements” don’t mean much when the parents are working three or four minimum wage jobs to keep up.  We should save the sermons for the pulpits and invest in reducing the number of Nevada children who are falling into language, achievement, and nutritional gaps.  One in four is unacceptable.

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