Written by Sal Bhakuni
When I asked a student at the school I work at to email her project so she could finish it at home, she told me she didn’t have a computer. Another student asked her friend to call her mom’s work phone because she didn’t have a cell phone or landline. And while I don’t know the individual situations for each of my students, I do know that many of them come from low-income households and struggling families. But these kids represent a microcosm of the entire country, where approximately 51% of low-income students make up public schools.
Despite the economy getting better, more and more students are becoming eligible for free and reduced price federal lunch programs – which for many students across the country is likely their only meal that day. While their wealthier counterparts are sent to competitive private pre-schools – of which some exceed even public college tuitions, according to a report by Child Care Aware America – poorer students continue to struggle. Students’ stress about tests and grades is trumped by how they’ll make this month’s rent and where their next meal will come from. All the while, schools remain under a constant pressure to produce better test scores while their students don’t have adequate school supplies or clothing. The president of the Southern Education Foundation, Kent McGuire says that this widening educational gap “didn’t happen overnight, but it’s steadily been happening. Government used to be a source of leadership and innovation around issues of economic prosperity and upward mobility. Now we’re a country disinclined to invest in our young people.”
What’s even more disturbing is that children from low-income neighborhoods and families are far less likely to graduate high school compared to their more affluent counterparts, according to a 2011 study by the American Sociological Association. The absence of a high-school diploma limits economic opportunities and forces these kids to look for alternative paths and careers to make ends meet. And for those who do graduate, the rising cost of college tuition presents another obstacle to overcome. But the rising costs of housing and education are only a small fraction of the problems that plague low-income neighborhoods.
The school-to-prison pipeline, “a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems,” disproportionately affects low-income communities. Not to mention, according to an ASPE (Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation) fact sheet from the Department of Health and Human Services, youth from low-income neighborhoods are more likely to get into a fight, be a member of a gang, and run away than youth from middle and high-income families. And despite the fact that youth from low-income families use and sell drugs and destroy property at the same rates as their wealthier counterparts, they are more likely to be charged with an adult crime by the age of 24. The denial of social mobility for people in low-income neighborhoods makes poverty cyclical, and maintains and perpetuates a system that necessitates a stratified and marginalized periphery in order to have a thriving and flourishing core.
However, steps are already being taken to bridge the achievement gap. The Humans of New York campaign to raise funds for Mott Hall Bridge Academy to start their very own scholarship fund and fund annual visits to Harvard University represents one of many ways in which communities can come together to inspire students to achieve success and aid them in achieving it.
As the educational gap widens and those with little access to resources continue to encounter barriers to entry, the issues surrounding the plight of low-income students cannot be viewed as an issue of fairness anymore. The injustices committed against these students have lasting effects that affect future generations and perpetuate a vicious cycle of poverty. The successful educational model will be one that seeks to include, not subjugate –one that acknowledges and endeavors to correct historical injustices and provides for the common good.