Is education really the solution to poverty?

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Arguing that education is the key to curing poverty is like saying swimming will prevent drowning. Of course, but could the best instructor in the world teach a child to swim if the student showed up for lessons wearing 20-pound weights on each arm?

That weight – the onerous burden of poverty – is what holds back many Louisiana children. It’s what makes the efforts of even the best teachers so challenging. When a child arrives at school unprepared or unable to learn because of circumstances beyond the school’s or its teachers’ control, why would we blame the school and its teachers?

Surely, those seeking public office, especially many now running for governor and the Legislature, understand this. They know that (on average) a sick child, an emotionally or physically battered child or a hungry child cannot learn, in the same way, at the same pace, as a child without those enormous challenges. So, why do so many of our leaders respond to questions about poverty by tossing off mindless, simplistic answers like, “The solution to poverty is a good education”?

I suspect they know it’s evasive and naive, but what else can the average politician tell you? The truth? Imagine a candidate with the courage to say the following:

“Look, I could give you the usual boilerplate answer about poverty. I could blame it on substandard schools and lazy teachers, and you’d nod your heads in agreement. That’s what you want to hear. You want to believe that if our teachers would just work harder, all our problems would disappear.

“Blaming poverty on our teachers and the schools is a cop out. It absolves us of our collective responsibility for the scandal of poverty. We’re scapegoating teachers, which is very much like blaming doctors for an outbreak of the common cold. They are only dealing with symptoms of a problem that existed before the patient arrived.

“If you want to avoid a cold, it’s mostly about prevention – taking steps to ensure you aren’t exposed to the virus. A teacher is no more to blame for his student’s home environment than your doctor is responsible for the fact that some sick kid on the bus sneezed on your child.

“You know what causes poverty? Poverty causes poverty because being born poor is the most reliable predictor we have about whether someone will grow up to live in poverty. So, telling a young person that she needs to buckle down and get a better education when we’re unwilling to invest in the assistance and infrastructure that will prepare that child to learn, is unrealistic. In fact, it’s worse than unrealistic. It’s cruel.

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3 Responses to Is education really the solution to poverty?

  1. John Toliver says:

    Well stated. The real problem is how does a nation such as ours lift people out of poverty. It requires an enormous amount of giving over several generations to lift the poor out of poverty, such that they can become educated and skilled to contribute to society/economy by working at jobs which mostly don’t exist in todays economy. The majority of the people in the U.S. and particularly our politicians and wealthy do not want to give what it will take. They want to claim that if we give to the poor, they will become lazy, complacent and non-productive. In general, this is true for only a very small percentage of the poor, but conservatives particularly want us to think the majority of poor are lazy and moochers. The statistics show that more and more people in the U.S. are sliding toward poverty, while a wealthy few get enormously richer and they, who are in control, choose to do nothing about it. That is what happens in a democracy that becomes an oligarchy. There is no trickle-down economy as conservatives would like for us to think, because the wealthy do not want to open a faucet enough to allow a trickle. They prefer a selected drop here and there so they can get a tax write-off for it, which makes their upward gushing fire hose gush even higher.

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  2. Karla says:

    Thanks, from a teacher!

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  3. June Butler says:

    Imagine a politician saying, “Sixty-five percent of Louisiana’s public school students live in poverty. That’s not a problem; that’s a crisis and an epidemic.” Difficult to do in Louisiana, but John Bel Edwards comes the closest. Excellent post, Bob. Thank you.

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