National tragedies have a way of bringing life into perspective.
With the recent shootings of five law enforcement officers in Dallas, Texas, many people are asking questions about where we are as a human race. We turn to our governmental leaders for answers. We want to hear from the president, as if he is in the position of righting all that is wrong in America. We want to hear from Congress and our state legislators, as if they should have seen this coming and acted preemptively.
Dallas Police Chief David Brown made an astounding statement that has hit home with me. He said, “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”
Ironically, that is exactly how I have felt for a long time about public schools. There seems to be a program to solve any problem through the public educational system. Here in Mississippi, nearly every state agency has an office, bureau, program or project that can be implemented as part of the curriculum in public schools. Many state associations also create materials to be used by teachers in the schools to either address a deficiency in the public understanding of their industry or to promote their industry among the students.
Why do so many look to governmental agencies to solve society’s problems? Just as Chief Brown said about policing, schools were never meant to solve all of these problems. Yet, that seems to be the only place that is ever looked to to make an impact on man’s downfalls.
This has been going on for far too long. In the mid-1960s, President Lyndon Johnson launched his “War on Poverty.” His goal was to increase self-sufficiency and enable recipients of welfare benefits to have the opportunity to lift themselves out of their circumstances. Over time, this system has grown into an ever-increasing benefits program that seeks out more and more beneficiaries.
Since its inception, the United States has spent nearly $20 trillion on welfare programs without making an impact on the self-sufficiency of the masses. This is an amount virtually equal to our national debt. The problem is that, although many welfare beneficiaries have material living conditions that far outweigh those from when the programs started, dependency on those programs has grown dramatically. Defining poverty has changed over the years to include many who once would have been excluded because their economic situation was not severe.
In other words, as the conditions of those receiving benefits has gotten better, the dependency on governmental assistance has grown. People are becoming more and more comfortable with their “poverty.” And, that dependency is passed along to the next generation. A 2002 study by the University of California, Davis, found that a woman from a family who receive some type of welfare benefits was three times more likely to receive welfare benefits as an adult. A vicious cycle is started that is either broken during childhood as a student attends school, or society will expect law enforcement to handle should the need arise. Regardless, government is looked upon to solve society’s problems.
This whole process incentivizes dependency, in one form or another, at the expense of taxpayers. Often, the material well-being of families on government assistance is greater than families who refuse a handout and work hard to provide for one another.
In today’s world with today’s rules, sometimes it doesn’t pay to work hard. A recent study by the Heritage Foundation finds that the average poor family has one adult that works 16 hours each week. It would seem logical that working a full time job and increasing household income would help pull a family out of poverty. But, the loss of benefits by working is greater than the gain of the increased income. Government has disincentivized working.
Once work is devalued, the education needed to obtain gainful employment is also devalued, making the task of educating some students from families living in poverty far more difficult. If there is no need to learn reading, writing, and math skills then there is a lack of desire to learn. This concept is not specifically taught to younger generations but is observed for many years by children prior to them being required to attend school. These students often fall behind, are placed in alternative learning environments, or simply quit school all together.
The federal government measures poverty by the number of people living below a certain income threshold. This determination only accounts for the wages and income earned by individuals in the household. It does not account for the more than $800 billion in food, housing, cash, medical, and other benefits. It is entirely possible for a family to have a low earned household income but, with the added benefits from the varying welfare programs, have better material living conditions than a family with parents working full time and receiving no benefits.
Food stamp spending has increase from $19.8 billion in 2000 to $84.6 billion in 2011. In fiscal year 2011, over $900 billion was spent on nearly 80 federal welfare programs reaching more than 100 million people. That is enough to bring the annual income level of a family of four in the poorest one-third of the nation to $44,000. This doesn’t take into account the state-level spending.
These programs are not only detrimental to education, they decimate the family structure. The most effective way to combat childhood poverty is with a strong, two-parent family structure. There is an overwhelming correlation between unwed childbirth and dependence on welfare programs through poverty.
Yet, the introduction of another adult into the household, even working part-time, changes the income level and adversely affects the benefits received. For those below the poverty level, it is financially better to raise a family with a single parent than with two parents, further damaging the social, emotional, and psychological development of children and perpetuating the cycle of governmental dependency.
Chris Kieffer of the Daily Journal wrote that in 1964, slightly more than 14% of babies born in Mississippi were born out of wedlock. This was near the beginning of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” By 1980, that number had risen to 28%, by 2000 it was 46%, and in 2011, more than 54% of all babies born in Mississippi were born to mothers who were not married. The correlation between increased welfare programs over the last 50-plus years and the destruction of the basic family structure is mind blowing.
Rev. Chris Traylor of the Lee County NAACP said, “Family is a major problem in our society. We are thinking we can just go and perform in fornication acts and it is OK, and it is not. When a kid never hears the value of family, they don’t think it is important.”
These children are at a higher risk of dropping out of school, becoming teen parents, and living in poverty as adults. The normalization of these problems has led to its perpetuation. And, the negative impacts are felt in every area of society.
It is no secret that, generally speaking, the higher the poverty rate in a school district the lower the overall achievement for that district. The converse is true, as well. For example, eight of the ten poorest counties in Mississippi have school-level ratings of D. Yet, nine of the ten least poor districts have either an A or B rating. Poverty has an adverse effect on education, which in turn has an adverse effect on economics and society.
More than one-third of Mississippi’s children are living in poverty. And the problem is being perpetuated by a government that incentivizes its continuation.
There is no doubt that we expect students in poverty to perform lower academically as a group. We anticipate discipline problems and higher rates of failure. The government even incentivizes schools to identify these students and give them a label. Schools then reap the monetary rewards by way of grants to help these students succeed. Yet, far too often the reward is based on documenting that a problem exists and having a plan on paper rather than actually having results that show a solution.
There is a desire and monetary incentives for public schools to correct the problems that aren’t caused by a breakdown of the educational system. There are schools that develop alternate settings for some students, offer after-school tutoring, seek to work with churches and community organizations, provide afternoon activities to keep students engaged for as much of the day as possible. While these are noble efforts by well-meaning educators and community members, they only treat the symptoms and not the problem. The costs of these programs can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a district without providing a long term shift in the poverty level of the district.
Ron Nurnberg of Teach for America-Mississippi, stated, “To me it ultimately one way or the other falls to the school’s personnel to solve because it lands on their doorstep.” This statement is problematic. As an educator, I should not be held responsible for fixing a problem that was created outside of my area of influence and expertise, and one that is incentivized to stay as is rather than be solved. It’s like beating my head against a brick wall.
When will this madness stop? We have real problems in America and we keep thinking the solution is to throw more government money and more government programs at them. We cannot separate these issues into small, finite boxes and solve one at the time. They are mutually inclusive, intertwined, and a change in one area affects another. We must build a case for personal responsibility. Sharing one another’s burdens was never intended to be done by force of law or by taking from one unwillingly and giving to another. We cannot continue to take from those who work hard and give to those who are incentivized to live, and live relatively well, off of governmental assistance.
Sure, there are anecdotal cases of individuals lifting themselves out of these situations. I am one of them. I know what it is like to use food stamps, eat government commodities, and struggle with family finances. But, my parents never used that as a crutch. They never sought that as a way of life. My siblings and I never saw that as a means to an end. My parents used the system for assistance, not sustenance.
Policing will be much easier; education will be much more successful when we have a government that values hard work, individual responsibility, the family, and learning. Continually relying on government to solve society’s problems, and incentivizing the perpetuation of societal degradation, will only lead to the continued collapse of our great state and great country.
Jerel Wade is an educator and small business owner from Jones County, MS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org