America looked like a better, more progressive place 50 years ago.
President Lyndon Johnson launched his War on Poverty, which led to the creation of numerous Great Society programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, better education, job training, Head Start, and food assistance for children and families. Congress passed and Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which had been long sought by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the civil rights movement.
The Voting Rights Act followed in 1965. People then knew that for the United States to remain a world power its poorest and most oppressed citizens had to be healthier, welcomed and more productive.
We’ve trashed that in the last 50 years. The effect is surfacing in our schools, where a recent study shows that the majority of public school children in the South since 2005 are from low-income households.
That trend is expanding. The Southern Education Foundation reported that in 2010 and 2011 for the first time in modern history, the majority of pre-kindergarten- through 12th-grade public school students in the West also were low-income kids.
Low-income students were the majority in public school in Mississippi, New Mexico, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama, California, West Virginia, Oregon and Nevada.
“Sixty percent of the public school children in America’s cities were in low-income households in 2011,” the report said. “By all accounts, the 2008 recession reduced family incomes in the United States and added to growth in the number of low-income students in public schools, especially in states where both the housing market and the local economy collapsed. But there has been a steady increase in the number and percentage of low-income students attending America’s public schools for a much longer period of time.”
U.S. Department of Agriculture data show a “consistent growth in the rates of low-income students in most states in each region of the country since at least 1989.” Unlike 50 years ago, there’s an unwillingness to do anything about poverty now.
Poverty rates rise while per pupil spending fails to keep up.
“The number of low-income students in the West, for example, grew from 2001 to 2011 by 31 percent, but per pupil expenditure for students in the West grew only 7 percent,” the report said.
“Public schools in the Midwest had a growth of 40 percent in the number of low-income students and an increase of 12 percent in per student spending,” the study said. “In the South, public schools had a one-third increase in the number of low-income students during a time when they had little more than a one-eighth increase in per pupil spending.”
People years ago feared today’s poverty and wealth disparity. Low-income students are more likely to fall behind in school, dropout, be underemployed, unemployed or in prison.
The income and learning gaps threaten America’s future. “The future consequences of these trends are likely to severely undercut the American promise of fairness and equity for children in low-income households,” the report said.
“When the public school achievement of low-income students constitutes the educational success or failure of a majority of all public school students, our entire nation’s future educational capacity is at stake,” the report said. Our children’s “success or failure in the public schools will determine the entire body of human capital and educational potential that the nation will possess in the future.”
Like Johnson, lawmakers must improve the wealth and educational outcomes for all children or everyone’s future will be in jeopardy.
Lewis W. Diuguid is a member of The Kansas City Star’s Editorial Board. Readers may write to him at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or by email at Ldiuguid@kcstar.com.