OP-ED: The Truth About Delinquency Prevention

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What is an albatross to the poor is a woe to the affluent.

Living in poverty is devastating for children in many ways, especially the impact of poverty on their education. Consider the following data:

  • High School seniors from poor families are, on average, four years behind more affluent peers;
  • Only one out of two students from low income families graduate high school;
  • Only 33 percent of high school students from poor families go to college and only 8 percent complete a degree within six years of matriculation;
  • Third graders from poor families and who read below grade level are three times more likely to drop-out of school.

These devastating statistics may be explained by the fact that children from poor families entering kindergarten and first grade are significantly behind their more affluent peers in terms of academic knowledge and cognitive and social skills.

Like a chain reaction, what begins with poverty ends in prison costing us $1.7 trillion annually — and that hurts everyone on both sides of the tracks.

Schools were once thought to be the “great equalizer,” but that has been disrupted by the “powerless equalizer” — poverty.

Poverty is color blind. Studies show that students from low income families consistently, regardless of ethnicity or race, score well below average.

Despite this colorblindness, Kids of color are the hardest hit by poverty. According to the 2010 census, the US population is 72 percent white, 16 percent Hispanic, and 12 percent African-American. But 38 percent of African American and 35 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty compared to just 12 percent of white children.

The reasons are largely attributed to the residual effects of slavery and segregation compounded by “repressed discrimination” — the reduction of outward acts of discrimination to avoid civil rights violations that materialize in other forms not readily visible to those in the majority, but felt by those in the minority.

I refer to this phenomena as “subtle discrimination,” or discriminatory practices and policies, whether intended or unintended, that are promoted to achieve some “compelling” or “legitimate” state objective, but which stymie the educational and economic growth of people of color.

So long as there is poverty, there will always be high drop-out rates. It will always follow that how goes drop-out rates, so goes crime rates. This chain reaction will continue until we figure out how to reverse the growing inequalities in education that exists between the “haves” and “have nots.”

The impact of poverty on education has become so noticeable that researchers have dubbed poor communities the “million-dollar blocks” — not for the money spent on resources, but the amount spent to lockup residents.

Solving this problem requires understanding its complexities, or as stated by Malcolm Forbes, “It’s so much easier to suggest solutions when you don’t know too much about the problem.”

Truth — its not about crime. Its about punishment. The more we incarcerate, the more money we rob from education to build prisons.

The dramatic increase in incarceration since the ‘80s gives America the dubious distinction of leading the world in prison population. We account for 25 percent of all prisoners but only 5 percent of the global population. We spend almost $70 billion annually to place adults in prison and jails, to confine youth in detention centers and to supervise 7.3 million individuals on probation and parole — and 75 percent of this comes from state and local governments.

This trend is starving education — there is less discretionary money available to invest in education.

Truth — stop throwing money at the problem and be strategic about how it’s spent.

Truth — foster better relationships between community stakeholders. The research shows the need to create stronger, better partnerships between schools, families, and communities while providing better intervention programs for students struggling with exceptional outside barriers.

Truth — improving one point on the educational continuum isn’t going to make a difference unless all points on the continuum simultaneously improve.

Truth — no school system is that powerful to accomplish it alone. It takes a village.

The final truth is grounded in economist Milton Friedman’s observation that, “The government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem.” Local governments and school systems must be willing to work together along with other organizations, public and private, to create a backbone organization that coordinates child services between all agencies. This braided system opens the door for braided funding, public and private, to target our most vulnerable kids with interventions that work. It builds a bridge for schools to send their chronically disruptive students to receive services schools are not equipped to provide nor should they.

In my county, this bridge is called The Clayton County System of Care. This bridge is built using the “collective impact” model — when community leaders decide to abandon their individual agendas in favor of a collective approach to improving student achievement. We are a poor community and we desperately need a “community care plan.”

It is an ambitious mission, and it may take years, but improving educational outcomes for poor children begins with coordinating improvements at every stage of a young person’s life, from “cradle to career.”

2 thoughts on “OP-ED: The Truth About Delinquency Prevention

  1. Good question John. The “collective impact” model is beginning to pick up steam, but like anything that can work, it must be carried through with fidelity to the model. There are some great articles on this model, especially out of Stanford University. Also, there have been a number of communities who have used this model to successfully address their social problems. When I was in Columbus OH this past Monday, I referenced the collective impact approached employed by the stakeholders in Cincinnati called Strive. The folks from Cincinnati in the audience quickly recognized it and acknowledged its success toward helping the school system. You can look that one up as well. What bothers me John is the will of politicians to forge ahead and try this. This braiding of public and private entities scares the politicians because many of them have trouble wrapping their heads around this concept–unfortunately the result of working in a government box that limits creativity and innovative thought. Also, because too many politicians still think the solution must be owned by the politicians–this helps them get re-elected I opine. If they would only learn to spin it differently and say instead–“Hey, I have this innovative idea to partner with the private sector to strengthen our forces for good in the community.” Now, that will definitely get votes! Their is more than one way to skin the political cat.

  2. Once again a great breakdown of what is really going on. I wonder about poverty in Europe and how it affects educational outcomes. There is such a lack of willingness here to support a safety net, and the old trope about it becoming a hammock seems to encapsulate a lot of opinions. In some ways we are fatalistic and accepting of these outcomes, much like with gun violence, even in the face of alternative approaches to how to address the problem. Maybe I don’t have the facts, but it seems to me that poverty and dysfunction don’t necessarily go together. An approach like you and others are building in Clayton County is a great model for a lot of communities, but I wonder if there is the will to implement it in a lot of other places.