Why Higher Education Is A Must For Low-income Mothers

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Deborah Muscari, at right, teaches a GED class at Del Mar High School Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015, in San Jose, Calif. Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown is getting pressure from members of his own party to spend some of the state’s surplus on welfare, health care, child care and other social programs to assist those who are missing out on the economic recovery. California is currently enjoying an influx of tax revenue but Brown is expected to release a budget proposal Friday that emphasizes restraint and savings for a rainy day. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

More than ever a college degree divides the haves and have-nots in American society. College graduates earn wages 56% higher than those of high school graduates, according to recent data from the Economic Policy Institute. Equally important, employment stability increases with a college degree. A 2017 Report found that following the 2008 recession over 95% of renewed employment went to workers who were college educated. By 2020 at least two-thirds of all jobs in the United States will require a level of education beyond high school – widening the already considerable income gap between those with and without such educational attainments. People without degrees will fall further behind, especially low-income mothers and their families.

Low-Income Mothers in the Labor Market

For decades, low-income mothers have found themselves restricted to chasing opportunities in the low-wage labor market, which offers insufficient wages and few opportunities for advancement to workers and their families. In the United States, children living in poverty or just above the poverty line suffer as much because of low wages earned by their parents as because of any lack of jobs.

And why are so many of America’s low-income mothers stuck in dead end jobs? That fact can be traced not just to blind economic forces, to expanding low-wage jobs, but also to intentional policy choices. Congress’s enactment of “welfare reform” in 1996 explicitly discouraged states from offering poor mothers chances to pursue post-secondary education. The new law called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) called for “work first,” requiring states to push poor mothers into immediate employment. Impoverished female heads of households, among the most vulnerable in our country, were suddenly told to “become self-sufficient” – and were prodded to do that without access to the college ladder. This work first drive ignored decades of research showing that college attainments – not low-wage jobs – are the best route out of poverty.

Despite this history and the obstacles they face in the current U.S. welfare system, millions of low-income mothers are tenaciously trying to complete a degree and escape poverty. Over the past 10 years, the number of student parents has increased by more than 30%. A 2017 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that nearly five million undergraduate students, a quarter of all undergraduates, are parents of dependent children – and more than seven in ten of these are women. In fact, about 43% of the total student-parent population consists of single mothers. But the road to degrees is difficult. Try as they may, only a little more than a quarter of single parents in college are able to complete their degree within six years of enrollment. They graduate at less than half the rate of other students.

A Model for Providing Services to Students with Children

Recognizing the growing importance of helping student parents continue and finish their studies, some universities have established programs to meet the specific needs of this population – much as they have for veterans, international students and students of color. One leading model of support is the program called Services for Students with Children at Portland State University. This program provides counseling, childcare subsidies, lactation rooms, family-friendly study space and a place where student parents can connect with one another as they juggle complicated lives.

In a 2016 interview at Portland State, a 35-year old mom said the program “made all the difference between giving up and keeping on.” Other parents in the program talked about how the climb to graduation is much steeper if you are bringing children along. At the same time, though, some say children are “what keeps me going” as the interviewers heard again and again. Student-parents question why state policies are still focused on pushing mothers into “lousy jobs” rather than supporting efforts “to try to build your future” (as one mother of two put it). Support really matters. As a 28-year-old student confided, “There is no way I will ever be able to support my daughter if I don’t get this degree” yet she was taking the next semester off, because “I’m in debt now, I can’t borrow anymore and I can’t pay for childcare.” Interruptions like this often lead student-parents to drop out.

Lisa Wittorff, the director of the Services for Students with Children program, has watched hundreds of student-parents struggle to graduate: “I see parents who are doing everything possible. They are running from classes to daycare, to jobs and back to the library. At the very least states could count college effort as work effort – and provide fulltime childcare support.” Yet recent research from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research reveals that funding for day care centers has declined since 2002 at universities and community colleges. “It makes no sense,” Shanda a thirty-four year old mother declared after losing childcare support. “This is my fourth try going back (to get a college degree). I want my sons to see that you can succeed. But if I don’t have a safe place to leave them, how am I supposed to show them that?”

Supporting Mothers in College Builds Social Equity 

A college education is the surest pathway out of poverty, especially as the demand for a more educated workforce accelerates. Of equal value to American society, attending college gives low-income students the chance to explore and develop their talents and interests, helping them set a positive example for their children and pass on new connections and skills.

Yet these valuable effects are not possible unless poor parents who undertake college studies can gain access to reliable family support services. Childcare and income supplements to pay costs of housing and food are essential to the success of these doubly burdened student parents. Providing the necessary supports is a short-term cost to society, but this kind of social investment stretches far into the future. Beyond providing immediate help to individual students and their families, supporting poor students who study for a better future builds a more educated and equitable nation for all Americans.

Study Shows Tax Return Delay Could Hurt Low-Income Families

Millions of low- and moderate-income Americans who claim certain tax credits will have to wait weeks longer than usual this year for their federal income tax refunds because of a new law aimed at reducing fraud.

The delay could prove costly for countless families “in relatively vulnerable financial circumstances,” finds a new study from the Brown School and the Tax Policy Center.

The Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act (PATH Act) of 2015 requires the Internal Revenue Service to hold refunds claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC) until Feb. 15. Because of weekends and the Presidents Day holiday, the IRS said in a recent statement that affected taxpayers may not have access to their refunds until the week of Feb. 27.

“Many of these families file their returns early and use refunds quickly to pay down debt or for spending on necessities,” said Stephen Roll, research assistant professor at the Brown School’s Center for Social Development and co-author on the study.

“Delaying refunds will likely lead to additional financial hardships for some of these families, who in previous years had received and used their refunds before Feb. 15,” he said.

The study, “Delaying Tax Refunds for Earned Income Tax Credit and Additional Child Tax Credit Claimants,” is co-authored by Elaine Maag, senior research associate at the Tax Policy Center, and Jane Oliphant, program manager at the Center for Social Development.

“For the average American household, the tax refund is a nice yearly bonus that likely does not impact their finances in any major way,” Roll said. “However, for EITC or ACTC households affected by this delay in the refund, the tax refund is often the biggest single payment they’ll receive in a year.

“Imagine that you didn’t have much in savings and your income was entirely taken up by your expenses,” he added. “Then imagine that, without much warning, an entire month’s worth of your income just didn’t come for two or three weeks longer than you expected. That’s potentially what these households are facing.”

For the 2016 tax year, the Tax Policy Center estimates that on average EITC beneficiaries with children will receive a $3,314 tax credit. The median EITC or CTC family with children reported only $400 in liquid assets, and 69 percent reported credit-card debt at a median rate of $2,000. Fewer than half of these families reported they could access
$2,000 in an emergency, and barely one-third are homeowners.

What can impacted families do?

“Filing early may help, but only to an extent,” Roll said. “Even if you file on Jan. 23, the first day that the IRS begins accepting returns, there will still be a delay until at least the 15th of February.  Filing early ensures that families will receive their refund as quickly as possible.”

Beyond that, Roll said, there are steps families can take to minimize the impact of this delay.

“For example, families should be aware of this delay and try to avoid taking on extra debt, and high-cost debt in particular, at a point when they may have to wait weeks to pay it off,” he said. Additionally, families may be tempted to rely on ‘refund anticipation loans’ that function as short-term loans to provide the expected value of the refund early.

“While these loans can potentially provide families with quick cash when they need it, they can also come with a number of fees or hidden costs that may cause more harm than good,” Roll said.

Windows into a Life in Poverty and Lessons for Social Workers

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Living in poverty is more than not having enough money to meet an arbitrary threshold. For many, a life in poverty is one of perpetual disappointment, missed opportunities, self-loathing and blame. Recognizing these feelings in others, and the impact they have on us professionally, is an important step in creating change. A simple transaction at a thrift store, or a quick inventory of gas purchases, can open our eyes to so much more.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I found myself browsing the racks at a nearby thrift store, shopping for clothes for my upcoming second child. As I haphazardly tossed one-dollar onesies and two-dollar leggings into a growing mound in my cart, I observed another woman, presumably a mom like me, anxiously moving through the store aisles. She carefully scrutinized each item and, even more carefully, examined the price tag. Surveying items that held promise, she would look at the cost and quickly place them back on the rack.

I encountered this woman again at the checkout. She had ended up with four or five items—clothing for a small boy–and paid for the items using carefully counted nickels, dimes, and pennies.

As I got back to my car, I couldn’t help but feel great sorrow for this woman; too poor to buy many of the second hand items she wanted for her young son, and pulling from the bottom of the barrel to provide him with a few essentials. As a mom, I could intimately relate to the deep-seeded desire to provide for your children, and the failure and humiliation we feel when we can’t do that as well as we feel we should.

I, however, had visited the thrift store because I am thrifty, not poor. I can’t stomach the prices at fancy children’s clothing stores for items my child will likely wear once. I have never been unable to purchase clothes for my kids for financial reasons. I have never had to worry that my family won’t have enough of what they need.

Of course, my assumptions could be off. There are undoubtedly multiple scenarios for the woman’s behavior, and there are certainly those who would presume this mom’s prior bad choices or poor money management had gotten her to the place she was that day.  But as a social worker, these are the experiences I can’t help but internalize and analyze. Like many social workers and other helping professionals, I can’t help but feel the pangs of sadness and anxiety, observing the lives of those who struggle to make ends meet.

These observations offer a window into the reality of living in poverty; an unending series of difficult decisions and stress, feelings of unworthiness and humiliation, excited to watch your children grow, but scared about what it will mean for your tight budget. Research increasingly points to the impact of poverty on cognitive functioning and physical health, which is likely no surprise to those of us who have worked in the field. As social workers, observing and internalizing these feelings is a part of what makes participating in this profession so profound, yet often so painful.

This is certainly not my only experience which offered a glimpse into the daily lives of the poor, and if you gathered a group of social workers to discuss, they could most likely build a long list. Both in practice and in our daily interactions in the community, we see it. Some are more obvious. Observations of diapers not changed because there are too few to get through to the next pay, bare cupboards during a home visit, moms who stay with abusive partners to keep a roof over their children’s heads.

Others are less obvious. One dollar lunches at a fast-food restaurant, kids in too-small clothing. A mother snapping at her child who asks for something at the store, not out of anger at the child, but anger with herself for always having to say no. I keenly remember, several years back, watching a low-income parent at a birthday party interacting with the other moms and dads. One mom was gleefully sharing about an upcoming family event in the community. “Only five dollars per child!” she exclaimed. I saw the other mom hesitate, look down, shame in her eyes. Five dollars per child? Easier said than done.

My father, a life-long advocate for low-income people, has many times encouraged people to take a glance at the gas pumps in any given community when they stop for gas. In wealthy and middle class communities, pumps will show recent purchases of $30, $40, even $50 dollars. Full tanks, gas flowing until the pump clicks, symbolic of the abundance in the community. What about a glance at the tanks in poor communities? Purchases totaling $2, $4—gas purchased one or two gallons at a time, as money becomes available (sometimes borrowed or found) — to support a single trip to the store, or the doctor, or work. This strategizing with scarcity is a prime example of the difficult day-to-day decision making that plagues many in low-income communities.

Much like identifying signs of child abuse and neglect, social workers are often the first to observe these seemingly insignificant behaviors. And while others may be quick to blame poor judgement or character deficits for these unfortunate circumstances, we as social workers can see them as symptoms of a larger problem. We can choose to believe that all people, regardless of income, have the desire and the right to care for their families, have meaningful work, and participate in the community. We can choose to view these conditions as motivation for why we must take care of one another.

Internalizing the pain that these families and individuals feel, day after day, is an occupational hazard that we can’t completely avoid. Sometimes these feelings can seem like a burden too great to bear. Compassion fatigue is very real, and we must always remain mindful of the need for rigorous self-care. But it is important not to ignore these instincts, as it exactly these feelings of empathy and care for others that are at the root of our profession, and that can serve as a call to act. I would encourage us to use these experiences and our reactions as ammunition to become better helping professionals.

These interactions can provide us with needed inspiration to keep going in our pursuit of social justice. In daily practice, there are small opportunities. We can provide families with information on free community events so parents can still feel the pride and joy of giving their child a new experience. We can organize a clothing swap among low-income clients to share gently used items. If there are no options for free diapers in our community, we can work to create one. When interacting with clients, we can consider the physical, cognitive, and emotional implications for those living a life clouded by scarcity. More broadly, we can bring these issues to light to our decisions makers, locally and beyond, in the hopes of developing sustainable solutions.

Fare and Square Brings Hope to Those Living in a Food Desert

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Fare and Square – First Nonprofit Grocery Store

It seems counterintuitive, but many families live in a desert in the middle of the city. While some cities are located in the arid, hot variety of desert, there are also food deserts in many major American cities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a food desert as, “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas.” While there are often many bodegas, convenience stores, and fast food places in these areas, they area devoid of grocery stores and farmer’s markets, making it nearly impossible for their residents to access fresh food.

Living in a food desert and relying upon convenience foods for sustenance increases the risk of obesity and obesity related health problems. It is more costly, both due to the actual cost of food, and the cost of the associated health problems. Additionally, food deserts disproportionally effect minority and low-income families; 8% of African-American families live within a mile of a grocery store, compared to 31% of white families. Overall, 23.5 million people live in areas over one mile from a grocery store.

However, in spite of the disheartening statistics, there are creative solutions in many areas. One solution, in Chester, PA, is a non-profit grocery store. In addition to their already low prices, Fare & Square provides SNAP users with a discount, so that their food budget can stretch further.

While the solutions to food deserts seems fairly simple and obvious, build more grocery stores and/or encourage more farmers’ markets in low-income areas, the reality it is more complex. In the past several years, many new or expanded grocery stores have been built, and the federal government has allocated funds to ameliorate food deserts. However, in some areas, these expanded markets have not had the effect that many were hoping.

According to Steven Cummins, a professor of population health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, for many people, shopping in a grocery store and preparing healthy food is not part of their routine. Perhaps they do not know what kinds of food to buy or how to make them, or perhaps despite the new, bigger stores, financially, fresh food continues to be out of reach.

As for Mr. Cummins’ observation that some people may not know how to prepare fresh foods, there are several programs which teach healthy and budget friendly cooking to low-income individuals and families. Cooking Matters, a project of Share Our Strength, provides hands on cooking classes and nutritional support to individuals and families who are facing food insecurity. During their six-week courses, participants learn everything from knife skills to budgeting techniques to reading ingredient labels.

Food deserts continue to pose a major problem to low-income families. For some, simply providing a store is not enough; programs are needed to support families in all aspects of healthy eating, including preparation, storage, and shopping. Hopefully, there will be more creative solutions to food deserts to help all families enjoy fresh and healthy foods in their diet.

Blue Cross Report: Social Services Critical to Improving Health

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In a new report by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation, social, behavioral, and environmental factors are shown to determine a staggering 60% of one’s overall health. The report provides overwhelming support for increased investment in, and collaboration with, social services as a way of improving overall individual and community health.

The report’s key findings include:

-Providing housing support for low-income, high-need individuals can result in net savings due to reduced health care costs. The net savings range from $9,000 per person per year to nearly $30,000 per person per year for the Housing First model, a harm-reduction approach in which adults who are homeless and who have behavioral health conditions are provided supportive housing.

-Nutritional assistance for high-risk women, infants, and children as well as older adults and people with disabilities lowers infant mortality rates, improves birth weights, reduces nursing home admissions, and significantly lowers federal and state Medicaid costs.

-Vulnerable populations experience health gains when their care is coordinated across primary, specialty, behavioral, and social services and that hospitalizations and emergency department visits are demonstrably reduced.

-Partnerships between health care and social service providers, particularly housing service providers, have been effective in improving health outcomes in certain high-need populations.

-Income support programs, specifically the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), were associated with better health outcomes for those individuals who qualify for such programs.

By attributing 60% of one’s health to social, behavioral, and environmental factors, Blue Cross Blue Shield is making known that social workers and social service programs are the key to improving the health of individuals and communities. The report opens the door for unprecedented collaboration between social workers and private sector health insurers, who can work together to address patient care as a whole unit.

The report adds to the increasing evidence that integrated healthcare is the future of care delivery. Integrated care involves primary care providers and behavioral/mental health providers working in unison to treat the whole patient. Social workers, who are trained in interdisciplinary collaboration, are uniquely qualified to serve in this capacity.

Most importantly, the message of the report is clear: achieving optimal health is impossible without increased investment in social service programs, especially for vulnerable populations. This provides a major opportunity to advocate on behalf of increased investment in programs that improve health while reducing healthcare costs. When one of the nation’s largest health insurers says that social service programs are critical to the health of our nation, policy makers will have to listen.

TalkPoverty is Lifting the Voices of Impoverished Communities

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Citizens living below the poverty line are often treated as an absent third party while policy makers and service providers decide what “they” need in order to become productive members of society. Debates are launched about how the poor game the system, their laziness, immorality and poor choices leading them to a cycle of generational poverty, but how can we be the experts on communities in which we do not live? Typically when we do let someone struggling with poverty have access to a platform to speak, we are using them as a testimonial to provide proof or support for our decision-making.

However, TalkPoverty is taking a nuanced approach to advocacy by creating a platform specifically to elevate the voices of low-income communities. What will happen if we let members from impoverished communities be stakeholders in the policy making conversations that affect them directly? What could we learn? In social work, we have a term called client-centered practice which means the client is the expert on their life, but it our job to help them use that knowledge to improve their outcomes.

This week, I had the opportunity to chat with Tracey Ross who is one half of the dynamic duo hosting the TalkPoverty Radio Show on the We Act Radio network beginning April 30th at 4:00 PM EST.  Check out our conversation below:

SWH: Can you tell us about TalkPoverty and your role with the organization?

Tracey: TalkPoverty is actually an arm of the Center for American Progress’ poverty team. Just over a year ago, Greg Kaufman, former poverty reporter for The Nation, joined CAP’s poverty team as a Senior Fellow and started TalkPoverty.org, a blog that features stories from low-income families and other community members who explain the impact of our public policies and provide information on grassroots actions across the country helping build to momentum and dramatically reduce poverty.

Earlier this year, we had the opportunity to launch TalkPoverty Radio on SiriusXM Insight, produced by Greg and our colleague Alyssa Peterson.  On April 30th, we’re relaunching the show on the We Act Radio network, a progressive radio station in the heart of DC’s Anacostia neighborhood. We’re using this as another platform to lift up the untold stories of some of the 45 million Americans living below the poverty line.

While this is a serious topic, the show manages to be both entertaining and informative as we work to dispel myths, offer solutions, and call out people and structures creating barriers for people struggling on the brink. Each week, my co-host, Rebecca Vallas and I will speak with grassroots advocates, journalists, elected officials and people living in poverty in order to share important perspectives with our listeners.

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SWH: What are the top priorities for TalkPoverty, and what activities are you currently engaged in to accomplish those goals? 

Tracey: One of our main goals for TalkPoverty Radio is to increase the quantity and quality of poverty reporting. Less than 1 percent of media coverage is dedicated to reporting on poverty. And while there are great reporters covering this issue, there are many news outlets that rely on stereotypes about people living in poverty and don’t provide a nuanced discussion about the causes and solutions. For instance, while many people know that roughly 15 percent of the population is living in poverty, based on many news stories, you would think it was the same people year in and year out. In reality, 4 out of 5 Americans will experience at least one year of economic insecurity at some point in their working years. This is a failure of our economy.

Further, we understand that people experiencing poverty are the real experts, so we give airtime to low-income people, so they can speak for themselves.

SWH:  What are the biggest challenges and barriers you face in creating awareness on poverty?

Tracey: Unfortunately, a majority of Americans report having a family member living in poverty, so I think we’re at a point in time when people are increasingly aware of some of the causes of poverty. A poll we conducted revealed that nearly two-thirds of Americans strongly believe that poverty is primarily the result of a failed economy rather than personal failings. The public also express very strong support for key policies to fight poverty, such as increasing the minimum wage, expanding health care coverage, supporting nutrition assistance, etc.

I think the real challenge we face is holding policymakers accountable. While leaders from both sides of the aisle are increasingly talking about poverty, conservatives in Congress are blocking or cutting key programs that the public supports and that help working families. And we need more progressive candidates to include fighting poverty in their platforms. The public supports these policies, so we need to build a movement to ensure policymakers are doing the public’s will here.

SWH: How can others engage and support TalkPoverty’s efforts?

Tracey: The blog is always looking for contributors from low-income families, but we also hope people will share links to the blog and the show. While many people support specific policies to fight poverty, we need to ensure that this issue gets the attention it deserves, and that people hold elected officials accountable. Lifting up the stories of low-income people, as well as advocates like yourself, will bring life to this issue and will hopefully contribute to a the growing movement for a more equitable economic system.

As our show’s tag line states: “Tune in. Fight back.”

No Child Left Behind and the Role of School Social Work

It’s no secret a high-quality public education can develop a knowledge base and nurture skill sets within children further maximizing their potential while stabilizing communities and strengthening economies. On January 8, 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) was signed in to law by President George W. Bush in an effort to reform public school education.

Although NCLB acknowledges and seeks to close the achievement gap, it unfortunately does not address the systemic barriers that children often face when they live in poverty or oppression. From a social work perspective, high student expectations are essential for academic success, but failure to account for segregation and structural inequalities sets up already disadvantaged schools to fail. Moreover, NCLB does not take community differences or issues of multiculturalism and diversity into account. Even though the research literature available in education has long identified personal and family characteristics as risk factors regarding academic achievement, NCLB does not adequately take these factors into account.

ssw2015School social workers are often assigned to work with students in the at-risk subgroups defined by NCLB, and research demonstrates that by alleviating the social and emotional barriers at-risk students face, it increases their likelihood of being successful in school. NCLB does not mandate interventions to address the many additional barriers to learning that students in at-risk subgroups are likely to face and that contribute to the educational achievement gap.

A new study was published that found if we eliminate the achievement gap in the United States, we can grow our gross domestic product by 10 percent and raise the lifetime earnings of low-wage workers by 22 percent.This study by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth outlines strategies that have worked in other countries to bar achievement gap.  NCLB affects every public school in the United States–with the unified goal of leveling the playing field for students who are disadvantaged including:

• Students in poverty
• Minorities
• Students with learning disabilities
• Students receiving other special education services
• Those who speak and understand limited or no English

NCLB is the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) with efforts focused on providing equal educational opportunities for disadvantaged students. Therefore, even if a school as a whole seemed to be doing well, it wouldn’t be making enough progress to satisfy the state if a large enough group of minority, disabled or otherwise disadvantaged students missed their targets.

NCLB changed the relationship between the federal government, states, and K-12 schools. The ultimate goal was to make every student proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or disability. States did not reach this goal but Congress has yet to overhaul this law so it is still currently in effect. There’s much more to No Child Left Behind than testing but the testing and accountability provisions have always been the most controversial parts of the law.

There’s a debate centered around the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,a law signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson as part of his War on Poverty, at its root, was about leveling the playing field for kids. No Child Left Behind, which is the law’s most recent iteration in emphasizing testing, pulled us away from the focus on kids especially those who are poor–as are half of public school students in the United States.

I have found stories from teachers and administrators even more compelling as they reveal the inequities that continue to persist in America’s classrooms. A teacher from Florida wrote, “I work every day to support learning and high expectations for students who are hungry, are homeless, have experienced trauma, and struggle in many ways. … Please, authorize ESEA in a way that provides for the needs of all students, whether they live in an affluent neighborhood, or in my school’s neighborhood.”debate centered around the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,

While the current house bill would make some needed improvements to accountability, it would also lock in recession-driven cuts to education., allowing state and local governments to walk away from their responsibility to maintain funding from year to year. It would also divert money meant to go to urban public schools and give it to wealthier schools.

A recent report released from the White House found that this bill would cap “spending for the next six years at $800 million lower than it was in 2012.” This is happening at a time when child poverty rates are alarmingly high and when Title I — the biggest federal education program — has failed to see any increase since 2012. The report also found that high-poverty districts could lose $700 million, while more-affluent districts could gain $470 million.

The House bill would further harm our most disadvantaged youth. We need a law that gives kids the resources they need, including computers, lower class sizes, nurses, social workers, and counselors, even when their communities can’t afford them. If the American public define success as getting every child able to read and do math by the 2013-14 school year, No Child Left Behind has failed. By 2011, nearly half of all schools nationally weren’t making adequate progress toward proficiency.

Although the data produced in response to NCLB does show some state-by-state decreases in the achievement gap, national indicators reveal that poorer, urban schools and children in at-risk subgroups continue to under perform in comparison both with national averages and with their white and affluent counterparts. Additional studies have found that the new accountability demands imposed by NCLB may unintentionally be widening the achievement gap for at-risk students.

Accountability mechanisms based on test scores can have a disparate impact on schools with larger populations of minority and low-income students. Small schools and those with highly concentrated at-risk and homeless populations, such as schools in urban and rural areas, are also more likely to fail to meet the requirements. In addition, many schools do not start with a level playing field because of scarcity of resources, lack of qualified teachers, and lack of technical ability to fulfill accountability requirements urban schools and children in at-risk subgroups continue to under perform.

For instance, policy stipulations do not address the impact of nutrition, adequate housing, safe communities, or adequate health care on a child’s ability to attend and excel in school beyond implying that even students in difficult situations should be expected to perform academically. When families do not have access to such services and conditions, children are more likely to struggle academically. Personal and family problems such as abuse and a lack of parental supervision are also risk factors for underachievement. In addition, a lack of steady housing or employment is negatively correlated with school success.

The presence of a mental health problem also makes students more likely to underachieve. It is estimated that 20 percent of children have mental health problems severe enough to impede their learning, but only one-fifth of these children receive the services that they need. NCLB does little to address student mental health and its influence on academic success, with the exception of stating that states can apply for federal funds to address student mental health concerns, which aren’t always acknowledged.

Consequently, some scholars have argued that NCLB overlooks the overall well-being of children in schools. Research has identified protective characteristics such as belief in self, determination, independence, and cultural appreciation all help students from disadvantaged settings to excel. However, when schools are focused solely on test scores and a narrow curriculum, it is difficult to utilize the creativity and effort needed to assist students in developing these traits.

As a result, students are not able to tap into resiliency-promoting traits that make them less likely to fall behind academically or to drop out of school. The quality of the school environment is recognized as a major contributor to student learning, yet it is not addressed in NCLB. Positive school environments are those in which students feel supported by adults, have positive peer networks, and feel secure. Conversely, a lack of positive peer networks is a major risk factor for academic underachievement.

When schools foster feelings of self-connectedness, students experience less emotional distress, exhibit fewer violent behaviors, are less likely to use alcohol and other substances, and be less sexually promiscuous. Feelings of alienation and disengagement in middle and high school students leave them at risk for increased truancy and dropout levels. The socio-emotional risk factors outlined in this article pose a large enough threat to student achievement that policies such as NCLB cannot be expected to succeed unless these conditions are adequately addressed. Focusing federal education policies on both academic interventions and those that address these risk factors could be a more effective means for bridging the achievement gap.

However, the good news is that school social workers can take a lead role in helping students to overcome these obstacles and in bringing these policy issues to the forefront. School social workers are in a unique position to intervene on behalf of students at risk and, thus, help ensure their academic success. School social workers are equipped with knowledge of the structural, social, and emotional barriers to learning, especially for vulnerable students.

They can help reduce the achievement gap by working within the current system of educational reform by educating school staff members about the impact of poverty and racism on students’ ability to perform in the classroom and helping school systems to become more culturally competent in their interactions with students by assisting them in broadening the range of multicultural education.

Examples of ways that these issues can be addressed directly in schools include holding regular in-service sessions for staff, establishing a committee to address the needs of students, making connections with community resources and agencies to help families in need of employment, health care, housing, clothing, and other basic needs.

Social workers can assess students for mental health problems, substance abuse problems, and problems in the home environment. They can also offer school-based interventions to begin to overcome these obstacles. For example, research has described successful school-based interventions such as Positive Behavior Support (PBS) and Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) that improve behavior and social functioning for at-risk students and facilitate meaningful mentoring relationships to increase attendance and classroom engagement.

The creation of school-based health and mental health centers can help students and their families receive comprehensive health care, individual or family counseling, and other vital services that may improve academic performance. More importantly, school social workers must monitor the impact of their services on academic achievement which will support how school social work services improve academic functioning and decrease the risk of dropout for at-risk students. It will also demonstrate to teachers, administrators, and policymakers how social and emotional problems contribute to the achievement gap and how social interventions can help to eliminate this problem.

The development and implementation of programs addressing bullying, peer mediation, teen pregnancy, substance abuse and other fundamental school issues are also relevant to promoting academic success. In addition, it is important for school social workers to understand the amount of stress that policies such as NCLB place on teachers. School social workers should offer support to teachers and help them to more successfully tackle their classroom concerns especially for at-risk students. Addressing barriers to learning enhances students’ ability to focus more on academics and positive interaction.

School Social Workers are best situated to advocate for education policy change that looks beyond test scores to the multidisciplinary best practices that help at-risk students succeed in school. Additionally, school social workers can address resource inequalities, school segregation, and the impact of NCLB at the macro and mezzo level.

Its current state, NCLB is not working. Social Workers must advocate for policy improvements by addressing the impact ethnicity, poverty, and inadequate school resources have on academic achievement. As members of a profession that focuses on social and emotional barriers to change, we have a unique perspective to lend to policymakers regarding both the strengths and the flaws of NCLB.

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