We all should care about the state of public education

Good public education has long been a staple of American democracy and social mobility; but that promise is increasingly threatened. Nowhere is this more evident than in the state where I live, California. The Golden State’s educational system from kindergarten to the university was affordable and excellent for decades; but today we have a system that works for a privileged few but is failing the majority.

The UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (IDEA) has been tracking the state of California’s middle and high schools for years, pointing to the overall appalling outcomes for students and “opportunity gap” between the primarily higher-income white schools and primarily lower-income African American and Latino schools.

IDEA’s latest California Educational Opportunity Report highlights the latest trends.

• California ranks near the bottom of states in terms of education in many categories: 48th in 4th grade reading level, 47th in 8th reading level, 46th for 4th grade mathematics, and 45th for 8th grade math level.
• For those students who started 9th grade in California in 2003, just 65% graduated four years later, just 25% graduated ready for college, and just 14% were in a Cal Sate University or University of California campus a year after graduation. The outcomes for African Americans and Latinos are even worse.
• California ranks among the bottom three states in numbers of students for every school counselor, in student-teacher ratios, and average high school class size.

Besides just the normal misery index of data, the report provides insights from focus groups with parents of public school students throughout the state. One mother shared:

“Years ago when I was in elementary school, California was one of the leading states in education. Now it’s at the bottom. I look at the opportunities that are there now versus what used to be and it’s just sad, it’s not there anymore.”

Just as sad is the fact that while these opportunities aren’t there for most people, they are for a select few. Another mother in one of the focus groups confessed:

“I agree with everybody as far as the gloom, but…I got lucky [with my children’s school]…It makes a big difference where the school is.”

It shouldn’t matter where the school is, or if you are rich or poor, white, African American, Latino, or Asian. These problems and trends, of course, aren’t unique to California: schools across our nation are failing our students.

As a parent of two children in a public elementary school – in Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest district in the nation with a myriad of problems – I obviously care about the state of our education. But, I contend that even those who have kids in private schools or don’t have kids in school at all should be very concerned as well.

If this current economic crisis has taught us anything, it has shown how fragile our economic system is, a system that depends on innovation to compete in a global marketplace, but in an ethical, sustainable way. A big wave of highly-skilled baby boomers will be retiring over the next couple decades, and we need to replace them with a prepared workforce that can help our economy not implode like it has over the last few months. Businesses need skilled employees, we all need doctors, teachers and other public servants. Where are we going to find these workers? They’re in our schools today, so we better invest in them to increase equal opportunity to raise the level for all our students.

Postscript: In today’s LA Times, Michael Hiltzik contends that cuts to the university systems in California are undermining the state’s economic future.

“The worst social disaster in America”

A couple years ago, I was contacted by an Italian filmmaker shooting a documentary about slums and poverty in various parts of the globe, and she wanted to talk about poverty in Los Angeles. I happened to be free the next morning, so I obliged and so she came over to my office with her crew. After the interview, she wanted to visit a Los Angeles “slum” and asked for suggestions of places to visit. Eventually, she asked – and pleaded – that I accompany them. Slum isn’t a word we use much to describe poor neighborhoods in the U.S., but the closet thing I could think of – both in terms of relevance and proximity to the office – was Skid Row, a 50-block area on the east side of downtown full of extreme poverty and homelessness.

We walked the mile distance over to Skid Row, with the camera rolling and Marta interviewing me the whole time (now, that was a strange experience). When we arrived to the heart of Skid Row and passed one of the missions where people were packed into an outdoor patio during the day, I directed the film crew in that direction. Marta, blurted out with surprise, “spaventoso!” Yes, it is frightening, even for someone who has seen dire poverty in developing nations. Perhaps because it’s so unexpected and yet so overwhelming.

Skid Row has long lived in the shadows of Los Angeles, that area we like to pretend isn’t there. Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez did a riveting series of articles several years ago on the area, called “Life on the Streets.”

Less well-known, but just as illustrative for understanding the challenges facing this area of the city is a 5-part series of videos on www.GOOD.is. The introductory video is embedded below, and the rest of the series, “On Skid Row” is available on the GOOD website.

As this video concludes:

“The measure of any society is how it treats its weakest element…how we do anything is how we do everything…we’re not doing so well on Skid Row.”

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “GOOD » On Skid Row: Introduction»“, posted with vodpod

Yeah, it’s a slow economy

I went into my local bicycle store this morning to get a long-overdue tuneup and saw clear evidence of how the horrible economic situation is affecting retailers. First, I was the only customer in the store: this on a Saturday morning, when that store is usually filled with cyclers passing by the bike route in front of the store. As the mechanic was writing up the order, I looked around and noticed that the store was more than half empty. Normally full of hundreds of bikes, there were now only a few dozen. I asked him, “low on inventory, huh?” He responded, “yeah, and it’ll probably stay like that for awhile,” adding sarcastically, “apparently people think the economy isn’t doing too well.”

Obviously, it isn’t doing well, as evidenced by the latest job figures. Several years ago, I created the Quality of Life Index to track socio-economic conditions in Los Angeles, and I was struck at the relatively low unemployment figures (around 5%). How could this be in an area with such high levels of poverty? The problem then wasn’t finding work; it was finding work that paid a decent wage. Well, that’s changed today, and unfortunately not for the better. As this chart shows, unemployment is up overall in the U.S., but it is rising even faster in LA, now approaching 11%, double what it was just 14 months ago.

Unemployment in the U.S. and L.A. County January 2000 - January 2009
Unemployment in the U.S. and L.A. County January 2000 - January 2009

With all this bad news, those who can are saving more. As Justin Fox explored recently in an interesting essay in Time Magazine, this thriftiness can be damaging in the short term, though it is still important in the long term (if we’ve learned anything from this crisis, that is). I’ll try to do my part in helping out retailers when I can, while at the same time heeding wise words from Fox’s column:

Don’t spend more than you make. Don’t buy things you don’t need. Save for a rainy day. Saving stimulates investment. Careful stewardship of resources brings prosperity. Frugality is its own reward.

GOOD reporting on a sad reality

If you haven’t heard of GOOD, you should check it out at www.good.is. Here’s how the website explains what it’s about:

GOOD is a collaboration of individuals, businesses, and nonprofits pushing the world forward. Since 2006 we’ve been making a magazine, videos, and events for people who give a damn.

You can get a subscription to their magazine at any price you set, AND they donate that amount to a nonprofit of your choice (currently among 12 that they offer). It’s an interesting business model and, as the site claims, “an experiment.”

Because GOOD is independent, they can provide interesting, investigative reporting (of the variety that has virtually disappeared from traditional news media). One example of this is a current article “Death by Detention” (full disclosure: this article was written by my cousin Bill Wheeler), which tells the disturbing stories of people dying unnecessarily in immigrant detention in the U.S. Here’s an excerpt:

In September, 2006, a 50-year-old mechanic named Abdoulai Sall showed up for a green card interview in Fairfax, Virginia. Born in Guinea, Sall had spent the past 17 years working at Washington, D.C., taxi company, and his boss had agreed to sponsor his application. When he showed up at the interview, he was arrested on an outstanding deportation order and was transferred to the Piedmont Regional jail in Farmville.

Sall’s attorney, Paul S. Allen, wrote numerous letters to authorities warning them his client suffered a kidney disorder, that he was not getting the appropriate medication, and that his feet had begun to swell. “I don’t make assumptions that the government is going to do the right thing,” he said recently.

In December of that year, Allen learned his client was dead. Tom Jawetz, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, wrote to detainees at the Piedmont jail for information about Sall’s death and learned he had indeed been sick for a prolonged period and, in his final days, was seen shivering under a heater for warmth. “Everyone knew that he was requesting care,” said Jawetz. When Sall collapsed, the detainees took it upon themselves to call 911.

If we can’t even provide adequate health care and safety for those in our prisons, what does that say about our society? Check out the article and the website; they’re good.

Disparities Faced by Boys and Men of Color in California

In a previous post, I alluded to the endurance of inequality along race/ethnic lines in many socio-economic indicators. A recent report by RAND, commissioned by The California Endowment, is a good example of research documenting these disparities. The report, titled Reparable Harm, looks specifically at the gap between Latino and African American males and their white counterparts. The disparities are usually astoundingly large. Here is a sampling:

  • Nationally, the risk of contracting HIV or AIDS is 6.9 times higher for African-American and 3.1 times higher for Latino male adults and adolescents than for their white peers.
  • Nationally, African-American men are 5.5 times more likely than white men to go to prison in their lifetime, and the odds of Latino men experiencing this outcome are 2.9 times higher than for white men.
  • African-American Californians over the age of 25 are nearly twice as likely to be without a high school diploma as whites in that age category, while Latinos in California are almost seven times as likely as whites to be without a high school degree.
  • Young African-American men (15 to 24 years) have a homicide death rate of more than 16 times that of young white men in California.
  • African-American and Latino children are 3.4 times more likely than white children to live in poverty in California.

The reasons for these disparities are complex, and as the report highlights, there are macro, community, family and individual factors across health, physical, safety, social, economic, and educational domains that contribute to individual outcomes. No matter whether you see the causes of these disparities as mostly societal or structural, on the one hand, or from personal or family factors, on the other (or all of the above), the magnitude of these gaps is simply unacceptable. Thankfully, the report offers up some examples of proven approaches and programs at various levels that can help reduce these disparities.

The impact of the recession on the poor, and what’s in the stimulus bill for the hardest hit anyway?

As highlighted in my previous post, accurately measuring poverty is difficult enough, but another challenge is the timeliness of the data. Even when we have good numbers there is usually a significant lag time between when residents were surveyed and when the final data are released. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty has been doing a great job of compiling data from around the country on how the housing and economic crisis is growing. They have a Fact Sheet and even a Wiki that you can add to with information from your city or community. A few of the examples that caught my eye are:

* In Denver, nearly 30% of the homeless are newly homeless.

* Massachusetts reports that number of families living in shelters has risen by 33% in the past year.

* The Iowa City school district (where I attended, by the way) is reporting a sharp increase in the number of homeless students living in the district. There were 354 homeless students in the 2007-2008 school year, up from 279 in 2006-2007, and from 234 the year before that.

NLCHP is also tracking the implications of the recently passed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for the poor. As outlined below – and at http://www.nlchp.org/news.cfm?id=83 – there are some significant resources in the bill to help the most vulnerable as part of the recovery. The key now, as with the stimulus bill over all, will be spending those resources wisely and being able to show that they led to economic recovery.

Homeless Prevention
* $1.5 billion to the HUD Emergency Shelter Grant Program
* $100 million to the FEMA Emergency Food and Shelter Grant Program

Food Assistance
* Food stamp benefits will increase by approximately 13%. This increase will phase out over time.
* $100 million for formula grants to states for elderly nutrition services, including Meals on Wheels
* $150 million for the Emergency Food Assistance Program to purchase commodities for food banks

* $70 million for the Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program

Disability Payments
* Supplemental Security Income (SSI) beneficiaries and veterans receiving disability benefits or pensions from the VA will receive a one-time payment of $250.

Unemployment Benefits
* Increases unemployment benefits by $25 per week
* Continues the extended unemployment benefits program until December 2009 (the program was due to expire in March 2009). The extended unemployment benefits program provides up to 33 weeks of extended benefits.

Earned Income Credit and Child Tax Credit
* Provides additional tax credit to families with three or more children and decreases the marriage penalty for the tax credit
* Decreases the annual income required to claim the Child Tax Credit from $8,000 to $3,000

Assistance to Persons Fleeing Domestic Violence
* $50 million to the transitional housing program authorized by the Violence Against Women Act to assist individuals and families fleeing from domestic violence

Measuring poverty

It seems like it should be so simple to know how many and what types of people live in poverty, but in reality it isn’t. As highlighted in the Why section of this blog, the official method for measuring poverty in the U.S. was developed decades ago and has several serious limitations. This is more than just a technical issue; it has important policy implications. After all, in order to know how to best attack poverty, we first need to understand exactly who is poor.

A recent commentary on Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity (which, by the way, is a great resource for a wide range of resources and opinions on addressing poverty) by Rebecca Blank and Robert Kerr called “Poor Measurement” succinctly summarizes some of the limitations and current efforts to improve how we measure poverty. (A longer explanation of their argument is in “Improving the Measurement of Poverty,” a Brookings publication). As the authors point out, the official methodology in the U.S. does not adequately account for how employment and households have changed since the 1960s when it was first developed, nor does it account for regional differences in the cost of living (i.e. the income needed to be out of poverty is the same in Beverly Hills as in rural Alabama).

The good news is that there is a clear blueprint for creating a more accurate methodology for measuring poverty, recommended by an expert panel by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The bad news is that this panel made its recommendations in 1995 (no, that is not a typo) and still there has been no official change made by the federal government. Researchers and policy makers looking for more precise numbers on poverty have devised alternative methods for estimating poverty (e.g. using a ratio such as 200% of the federal poverty line). New York City has even moved forward on doing its own calculations, based on the NAS recommendations. Federal legislation has been introduced in Congress to implement the NAS recommendations, and Blank and Kerr suggest the Obama administration could make the change administratively without legislation.

So, what’s the hang up? Certainly part of the problem is that such an alternative measurement would certainly increase the number of people defined as living in poverty. I remember a “West Wing” episode several years ago in which the administration was considering revising the poverty methodology to give a more accurate picture of how many and who was living in poverty. But in the end they decided against it because the political advisers said that President Bartlet (played by the great Martin Sheen) would be known as the leader on whose watch the numbers of people living in poverty increased substantially overnight.

Well, poverty is certainly going to swell over the next couple years no matter what, so perhaps this is the perfect time politically to change how we measure poverty. Besides, with a clearer understanding of who is poor, hopefully we can be smarter about how best to help them get out, and stay out, of poverty.

Layoffs increase the ranks of the uninsured

Thanks to Joe Martinez for sending the link to an interesting, though sobering, report from the Jim Lehrer NewsHour about the health care implications of the 2 million layoffs in the U.S. over the past three months. One example comes from a single mom whose job was outsourced, leading her to make difficult choices such as going without her arthritis medication for six months:

We don’t go bowling anymore, but I think the most important thing that I had to give up was doing without my medication, because I don’t have insurance now. I can’t afford to pay for my medication for my rheumatoid arthritis. And before my daughter got her insurance, it was either I buy my medicine or my daughter’s medicine, who has a heart condition and epilepsy. And her medication is $180 for one bottle. So I gave up my medicine to be able to buy her medicine.

You can read, view or listen to how layoffs are affecting people here.

Also highlighted in the clip is analysis supported by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which found that:

Unemployment and Health Insurance

A one percent rise in the nation’s unemployment rate is projected to lead to 1.1 million additional uninsured and 1 million new Medicaid enrollees (600,000 children and 400,000 adults), increasing overall state Medicaid spending by $1.4 billion while tax revenues fall 3 to 4 percent.

For more information on that analysis, go here.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in the U.S. went up 1.6 points from September 2008 to January 2009, which would mean according to these estimates that the number of people without health insurance increased by about 1.7 million. Clearly, the economic meltdown is affecting all sectors of our society and placing strains on already-overburdened safety net systems.

Report from New Orleans, Part II: What you can do to help

As noted in an earlier post, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina to New Orleans was unbelievable, but just as impressive from my recent visit there was the vibrant spirit of rebuilding by committed residents and organizations. As promised, here are some ideas on what you can do to help in this effort:

  • Visit, eat and listen to music. This one’s easy. If you’re planning on going somewhere for a vacation, why not visit New Orleans? It’s beautiful, home to the mighty Mississippi with interesting architecture and neighborhoods, has excellent restaurants seemingly on every block and is the birthplace of jazz. I’ve noticed that a lot of organizations are having conferences in New Orleans, so maybe that’s another way for you to visit. You’ll have a great time and be supporting the local economy.
  • Participate in a work project. United Way and many faith-based groups have hosted Spring Break service projects for young people, and groups such as Habitat for Humanity provide regular opportunities for helping out in the rebuilding process. HandsOnNewOrleans is another resource you may want to look into if you’re interested in volunteering.
  • Tell people about what you’ve seen and advocate for federal support. This was the most common response when I asked people in New Orleans about what people from outside Louisiana could do to help in the recovery effort. As highlighted in the previous post, there are specific issues to weigh in on, such as the pending expiration of 14,000 Disaster Housing Assistance Program housing vouchers, which would immediately put thousands more people at risk of falling into homelessness. A colleague who works in the recovery effort also recommended The Equity and Inclusion Campaign, a regional nonpartisan advocacy initiative that bulletins and call to action alerts.
  • Donate to the recovery effort. If you are compelled to make a financial contribution to the long-term recovery effort, you may want to look into donating to an intermediary that provides support for a broad base of groups, such as the United Way or the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation. It’s always difficult to single out specific groups, because so many are deserving of support, but if you are interested in helping the most vulnerable residents of New Orleans I can recommend UNITY of Greater New Orleans , which is doing great, vital work to move people from the streets to permanent housing.

Race and Inequality: the End of White America?

One of the most enduring factors in socioeconomic inequality in the U.S. has long been differences along racial lines, particularly between whites and African Americans. Due in large part to the successful presidential campaign of Barack Obama, the salience of these dynamics have come into question. If he could win over the nearly all-white populace of Iowa early on and go on to win the general election by a fairly substantial margin, does this mean that we as a society have gotten past the black-white divisions that have plagued us for so long?

More precisely, the most recent cover story of The Atlantic asks the provocative question of whether we are witnessing “The End of White America?” It is a timely question and something worth reflecting on. The thrust of this article is that culturally, “whiteness” (be it defined by the privileged class of The Great Gatsby or the rural working class of NASCAR) has lost out to a multiculturalism as expressed through hip-hop music, and that demographically, the U.S. is headed toward a future not dominated by whites.

So, what exactly do we mean by “white” in this context? The most obvious component is skin color, and those of us with exclusively, or mostly, European ancestry – and in my case pretty much limited to the British Isles as far as we know – are typically referred to as white today. This ignores, of course, the fact that at different parts of the history of our country, Jews, Italians and even the Irish were not considered white, although they are today. Generally, whiteness has signified privilege, at least socially if not economically (e.g. even poor whites enjoyed the right to vote or ride in the front of the bus at the expense of African Americans or other groups). As Sociologists tell us, race is socially constructed, meaning that its definitions change and adapt over time, something that is critical to remember in any discussion about race.

As to The Atlantic article’s second point that by sheer demographics, we are becoming less white, that is certainly true, but we still don’t know how this will change how we view race in the future. The dominant black-white paradigm is still very real because of the sad history of slavery and discrimination in our country, but this paradigm has been disrupted over recent decades by the rapid increase in the numbers of Latinos and Asians across the country. (By the way, when I use “race” here I include “ethnicity” which is what the U.S. Census Bureau uses for Hispanic or Latino groups. If you’re interested in more info, go here). In Los Angeles, for example, Latinos represent about half of the population, while whites are less than a third, while Asian Pacific Islanders are about 13% and African Americans about 9%. Whites are a majority in most of the country today, but demographic projections from the Census Bureau indicate that no group will be the majority by 2042.

Now that we’ve elected an African American President, should any of these distinctions matter? Well, no and yes. On the one hand, it would certainly be nice to realize Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a society where his children will “not be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” and Obama’s election is hopefully a step in that direction. However, we clearly have a long way to go. When we analyze almost any socioeconomic condition by race, whites clearly tend to enjoy much better conditions than other racial groups. (Asians are in many cases on par with, or even, surpass whites, though that sometimes masks low socioeconomic conditions of some southeast Asian groups). Racial differences are very real and will not disappear over night, and those of us from the privileged group need to acknowledge that fact and work to rectify it.

Clearly, poverty and inequality don’t discriminate and can afflict anyone from any racial group. Our conceptions of race and identity are shifting and will continue to do so as our population becomes even more diverse and bi- or multi-racial. So, are we witnessing the end of White America? Perhaps demographically and even culturally, but unless we create a society truly based on equality we risk replacing “whiteness” with just another construct of privilege, with stark divisions between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”