Housing Disorder, Poverty, and Test Scores

Summary: Poverty and serial housing destabilize the school fortunes of children from poor neighborhoods and stymie the battle to improve their academic skills.  Promising political developments, economic insights and human resilience contribute hope to the schoolhouse.

The stability or otherwise of shelter – housing – is one pillar of whether or not a student from a low income household thrives in school. Jori, a real kid whose name has been changed, and his mother, Arleen, have moved so much that Jori has attended five different schools in the course of seventh and eighth grade.

Such a transient kid repeatedly is compelled to adjust his thirteen year old soul to different curricula, different teaching styles, different social contexts, all the while adjusting to the realities of a new neighborhood. The constant change must bewilder. Do we wonder that his test scores flounder? Good luck to Jori.

He is the poster child for the stagnation in the nation’s test scores.

His and his mother’s housing story, as recounted by Matthew Desmond in Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (reviewed by Patrick Sharkey in the Atlantic), exemplifies the cyclical downward forces that perpetuate housing woes in high poverty communities, and which ensnare innocent students in its whorl.

Arleen is chronically behind on rent. She once worked, is now on welfare, is clinically depressed. The stipend she receives has not been increased in ten years; rent typically gobbles a high percentage of it. She and Jori also have to eat and clothe themselves.

Jori’s frustrations in school and in life lead to one eviction. He kicks a teacher, the police show up at the apartment. The landlord wants no such scrutiny, and evicts the family.

But most of the time evictions arrive in the wake of unpaid rent. With Arleen’s history of unpaid rent and evictions, even small claims court find in favor of the landlord or lady. It is cheaper to evict than to do the repairs to the apartment that the tenant might reasonably complain about. Just business. Arleen and landlords do a dance in which they profit and she loses. Jori bounces between schools, loses continuity in his teachers and studies.

The waiting list for subsidized housing vouchers in Arleen’s queue, by the way, is 3500 families long and has been in stasis for four years.

Meanwhile, wealthier communities enjoy mortgage interest tax deductions, and systematically neglect the federal mandate to provide more inclusive affordable housing options for lower income folks. Thus a de facto firewall keeps low income folks trapped in cyclical poverty ghettos. According to Sharkey, “four out of five black children growing up in such places have caregivers who were raised in similar neighborhoods.”

Federal housing vouchers for all low income citizens could alleviate some of the instability in such lives and by doing so bolster low income student test scores.

Even this skeletal version of a much more complex story conveys something of the difficulty that faces low income students whose stance toward school and academics must run a gauntlet of uncertainty where the next night of sleep will be.

In Arleen and Jori’s story, hand in glove with housing is the insufficiency of income. Welfare is grossly inadequate, though it is something. Welfare can be a disincentive to the scramble for work, though not from Arleen and Jori’s perspective in their current survival mode, I would wager.

Most eyes glaze over when the income conversation turns to macroeconomics and finance, but such arcane worlds affect income earning potential for the Arleen and Jori’s of the world. In a recent TIME magazine, Rana Foroohar summarizes her book, Makers and Takers, an analysis of contemporary American economic patterns; a couple of her notions are accessible to common sense.

First, according to Foroohar, in recent years lending to small businesses has “fallen sharply, as has the number of startup firms.” Why should this concern Arleen and Jori? Well, because “new businesses are the nation’s foremost source of job creation and GDP growth.”

Moreover, research and development spending by firms of all types has waned in the same time period. Why is this of concern? Because research and development sustains the long term viability and vigor of the businesses that provide jobs to people.

In the final straw, the funds not directed to new business investment and R&D often are used to purchase a given company’s own stocks. These stock prices therefore rise. The corporate executives who direct the company purchase are serving themselves. They are often paid in stock options; with the rise in stock price these rich get richer.

Thus the road to economic self-sufficiency for parents like Arleen is cratered and the route to academic stability for students like Jori all the more obscured.

The bad news first – vested interests tend not to go quietly.

The good news — restless and disenfranchised voters left and right augur political muscle and challenge to the economic order. More than Arleen and Jori suffer from the coagulation in financial markets.

Also, according to Patrick Sharkey in the Atlantic book review, despite the daunting snarl of dysfunction in housing, within poor neighborhoods the prevalence of welfare has declined. The teen birth rate has fallen precipitously. The dropout rate of students has been declining. The homicide rate has dropped to that of 50 years ago (though very recently there has been a spike in some cities).

From the days of abolition on, it may be that in the long swing of history, initiatives like “Black Lives Matter” in fact make black lives matter.

Enter Paul Krugman, who points out that in the Obama era some quiet but consequential inroads have been made in income inequality. His template is the New Deal. Under FDR and a reluctant Congress pro-union federal policies and raises in the minimum wage increased wages among working folk. At the same time increased taxes on the better off enabled income transfers such as Social Security to aid retired workers and their families.

Similarly, in the last eight years Obamacare has transferred income in the form of health care aid and subsidies. In the same period a combination of Obamacare taxes and the expiration of Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy have implemented a significant increase in tax consequences at the upper end.

Meanwhile, the Dodd-Frank bill, which reformed some of the practices allowed on Wall Street, according to Krugman “put a substantial crimp in the ability of Wall Street to make money hand over fist.”

Finally, new regulations from the Obama Administration will allow some 12.5 million workers to be paid for time their employers previously could require of them as salaried workers, but without pay. Jury rigging of these new rules by management is inevitable, but in sum workers’ hand is strengthened.

With the possible exception of Obamacare, these latter developments may not impact Arleen and Jori in the short run, but they may signal a sustained shift in the cultural ethos from which such struggling folk eventually will find benefit.

With more vigorous business reinvestment, for example, the job market may improve and stimulate accessible job training. In a more sympathetic (and functional) political climate an improved earned income tax credit may pass Congressional muster, which would put more money in low income pockets.

For the poor and the progressive, and for Arleen and Jori, the time will arrive for a balancing of the scales. For the wealthy and the market oriented, capitalism will need saving from itself and, besides, more money in the hands of more people is good for the consumer economy.

All this in the quest to improve low income student test scores, symptom after all of deeper ills.


This entry was posted in At Risk Students, School Reform, Schools and Culture, Schools and Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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