Going for broke in schoolPoverty becomes a growing brain drain
It’s hard to know what 17-month-old Terreace makes of his world, but his mother has an idea. In Valerie Klinker’s three-and-a-half minute film, Through My Eyes, she follows Terreace and his 3-year-old brother Terry from morning through evening bath time, describing the signs of poverty in their
neighborhood as if spoken by her curly-haired toddler.
“Daddy doesn’t like us to take our shoes off,” narrates Klinker as the boys play in the sand and on climbing structures at the park. “He said there are things in the park that little kids shouldn’t touch,” she continues as the camera focuses first on a hole in the ground that has sharp sticks in it, then on two small rectangular packages that look like they may hold syringes.
Klinker and seven other young journalists showed their films this week at a forum sponsored by New America Media, called “Growing up poor in the Bay Area.” They are intimate stories of poverty that shared a theme – sometimes spoken, sometimes not – of the inextricable connection between poverty and all aspects of a child’s life: health, civic participation, education.
Shawn Savers’ Roseanna chronicles his sister, forced to leave college and live out of her storage unit after she and her mother became homeless. Justin Lai, who attends San Francisco’s Lowell High School for the city’s academically gifted students, profiled an Asian American classmate who has decided not to attend college, an unthinkable choice even for a low-income Asian American, and one who attends Lowell, no less.
“He’s kind of an anomaly,” said Lai of his classmate. “Education kind of equalizes your status. Gordon is the only person I’ve met, out of like 5,000, who is not planning to go to college.”
More children living on the edge
By sheer coincidence the forum was held September 14th, a day after the U.S. Census Bureau released sobering statistics on rising levels of poverty in the United States.
The federal poverty line is an income of $22,000 a year or less for a family of four. It doesn’t matter if you live in the most expensive city in the country or the poorest. Six million Californians, over a third of them children, fall into that category. Their numbers have been rising steadily for the past four years.
The threshold is higher for free or reduced price school lunches in California: 185% of the poverty level, or about $45,000 a year. Nearly half the state’s students qualify. The number of students who qualify is much higher in some regions; two-thirds of the students in San Bernardino and three-quarters in Merced.
Living in poverty, even for a short time, can have a profound and long-lasting impact on a child, said Andy Krackov, with the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, who presented the latest statewide figures on family income and childhood poverty. The Foundation runs a program called kidsdata.org, which gathers and analyzes data on more than fifty topics including school safety, bullying, and reading ability.
Poverty, said Krackov, is linked to lower reading levels. Statewide just 30% of economically
disadvantaged children scored proficient or higher on the state’s English/Language Arts standardized test. Students in higher income families did more than twice as well. But it’s not clear why this is the case or what to do about it, said Krackov. Part of the problem is there’s not enough data and part is not enough time to make sense of it.
“This is partly conjecture,” said Krackov, “school districts in many ways are collecting these data, they probably know it, but what I think may be hard for them is to find the time to analyze those data, to look at grade level or socio-economic differences in reading scores. If school districts could do this, they would be in a better position to be able to respond to it.”
The role media can or should play
Sandy Close, the founder and executive editor of New American Media, doesn’t think much will change unless more stories, like those produced by the young filmmakers, get told. She says the media hasn’t covered poverty as a policy story, perhaps because it crosses so many boundaries and doesn’t fall neatly into one category, or maybe because we don’t necessarily have the right words to describe it.
“Do we want to talk about poor as a noun?” she asks. “What are the other words? Underprivileged? Disenfranchised? We have such poor language.”
Somehow, she says, we have to both confront the statistics of rising youth poverty and go beyond the numbers to get the public to care.
“We’re journalists damn it all,” said Close in an even, but resolved tone. ”We should be making this right front center every day.”