Culture

Americans Oppose School Segregation in Theory. So Why Not in Practice?

In the Upper West Side of New York City, Public School 199 stands on West 70th Street as a high-wealth, high-performing, and intensely sought-after elementary school. But this fall, the popular school will usher in a new, different class of students—and the enrollment change has drawn fear, scorn, and fierce opposition from local parents.

In the fall of 2015, the New York City Department of Education announced plans to redraw District 3’s attendance zones with the goal of making schools like P.S. 199 more economically integrated. The proposed changes would move several elementary school students from Public School 191—a neighboring, high-poverty, majority-minority school—into P.S. 199.

Parents at the wealthy school were outraged, and the city’s first attempt to integrate the two schools failed amid the backlash. After contentious debates and heated protests, the city dropped the plan, stating it would need more time to devise a new approach that “reached consensus.”

The city resurrected its proposal the next year, and although the rezoning plan is still fraught with conflict, it somehow muscled its way through the dissension to reach a final vote last fall. District 3’s Community Education Council—a locally elected parent group that votes on zoning policies—had long been in favor of new zoning lines and approved the city’s plan on a 9-to-1 vote.

But parents who are opposed to the plan have continued to fight. Some are placing political pressure, threatening to campaign against any official who supports the new zones. Others have warned of enrolling their children in private school. Some have even hinted at taking legal action. Overall, the battles roiling P.S. 199 and P.S. 191’s elementary school campuses have proved that when it comes to school integration, change is no easy task.

One would think Americans are ready for school integration, though. In a new study released by me and my colleague, Ulrich Boser, we found that most Americans—more than 60 percent—report that school segregation is an important issue for them, and nearly 70 percent of Americans agree that more should be done to integrate low- and high-poverty schools.

These findings were a bit startling at first glance. After all, if most Americans are in favor of school integration, why aren’t diverse, integrated classrooms spreading across the country?

Historically, school integration has met intense resistance. But at least in principle, the general public seems to endorse it, and our poll may have tapped into the country’s sympathy for people living in poverty.

Affluent parents may feel territorial over the high-flying success of their school.

In fact, one 2012 poll found that 52 percent of Americans believe “helping the poor and needy is a top priority.” Another poll found that reducing poverty is “very” or “extremely” important to most Americans.

National support for school integration may also be due to the country’s increased attention on income inequality. More than three-quarters of adult Americans, for instance, believe “the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer.” Nearly 90 percent of Americans also believe they are “falling backward” in their finances. And a majority believe “the next generation has it even worse.”

Seeking to disrupt trends of economic inequality, Americans could be keen on helping children with low incomes have a fair shot at entering the middle class, and they see education as the best way to get there. But if there’s anything the desegregation battles in New York City prove, it’s that integration can leave both a sweet and bitter taste in Americans’ mouth. Americans might support integration in theory, but many have different reactions when it reaches their own backyards.

Research shows that reporting favorable views of integration can demonstrate a “superficial tolerance” of integration. But sending one’s own child to an integrating school is a much greater challenge: It requires a person to acknowledge—and maybe uproot—deep-seated stereotypes about families with low incomes and education.

Poverty is also racialized in the United States, and words like “low-income” in America can trigger other words like “black” and “brown.” Children of color, as young as five, are more likely to be perceived as violent and disruptive, which can stoke fears about integrating schools on both economic and racial lines.

But it may not be student diversity, per se, that is distressing to parents as is the thought of losing certain privileges. For affluent parents, they may feel territorial over the high-flying success of their school. And property values, neighborhood identity, and a sense of safety feel as though they are at stake.

“A school belongs to the neighborhood it resides,” said one parent at PS 199.

“It’s not that I don’t want my children to go to school in a mixed school … But at the same time we want the best for our children. We want the best for our property value,” said another.

And it’s not just wealthy parents who are afraid. Through our focus group sessions with diverse parents in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., metro areas, we found that low-income parents were wary of integration, and they drew on their own life experiences as supporting evidence.

For instance, low-income white parents spoke of being looked down upon by the “rich kids.” As one parent put it: “They don’t want us there, so why should we go there?” They pictured affluent families throwing lavish birthday parties, showering the higher-income kids with fancy cars and expensive gifts, making their own children feel insecure.

Despite whatever frustrations may be brewing among high- and low-income parents, District 3’s rezoning plan will take full effect this fall. In the Upper West Side of Manhattan, children who used to live in two separate worlds will now read, write, learn, and play together.

Fortunately, it’s not the only plan to mark a real shift in school diversity for New York City. The New York City Department of Education recently unveiled its citywide plan for integration, pledging to increase diversity across their entire public schooling system.

These changes are promising. Despite rapidly changing demographics in this country, school diversity has barely kept pace, and research shows that all students perform better academically and socially when they learn in diverse classrooms.

Many Americans do believe the time is ripe for change, but it remains to be seen whether all Americans will embrace this change when it arrives in their own communities.

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Media and Politics

No, Young People Aren’t Poor Because They’re Not Married

In his latest op-ed, Washington Post columnist George Will deplores the culture of today’s young people, blaming their disproportionate poverty on the fact that too many don’t get a high school diploma, a good job, and a spouse before they have kids.

Just a minor problem: Literally every aspect of the argument is dead wrong. Today’s young people are more educated than any previous generation, and the share of people living in poverty who have some college education has grown dramatically. Seventy-seven percent of people in poverty have the high school degree that Will claims is part of the golden ticket out of poverty.

BoteachPovertyData-webfig1
Source: Center for American Progress

Even with those increased credentials and growing productivity, young people still can’t escape poverty because there are not enough good jobs. Unemployment and underemployment have been falling for years, yet the electorate gave a primal scream this past November, imploring policymakers to understand that their communities had been left behind. Take a look at the graph below: Even with unemployment falling, the share of families struggling to make ends meet remains high. Why? If you pay people poverty wages, workers will remain in poverty. Unfortunately, President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans’ solution is that if we simply take away people’s health care to pay for more millionaire tax cuts, that will help people find jobs faster!

BoteachPovertyData-webfig2
Source: Center for American Progress

And marriage? Two poor people getting married does not make anyone less poor. As my colleague Shawn Fremstad explains in his issue brief, Partnered But Poor, “the vast majority of people in low-income families with children are in families headed by married or unmarried partners, as are most people in families with children that receive means-tested benefits.”

Today’s young people are more educated than any previous generation

Moreover, this overemphasis on marriage can actually have detrimental effects and promote extremely dangerous practices when considering violence committed against individuals—usually women—within partnered relationships. Blindly promoting marriage over programs that support independent financial security—like jobs that pay a living wage or education that’s accessible for all—places even more pressure on survivors to stay in an abusive marriage or partnership.

We all want our children to get educated, work hard, and find partners who will treat them well (if they want partners). But George Will’s column conveniently forgets two things: At the macro level, in an off-kilter economy, where the gains from economic growth are concentrating among the wealthy few, all the hard work in the world isn’t going to change this basic economic reality: There are not enough good jobs for today’s young people, and this has implications for their marriage prospects as well.

At the micro level, life happens. People lose jobs. They get sick or have an accident that leaves them with a disability. They have babies in a country without paid leave or adequate child care, leaving families struggling to afford the basics for their kids. “The poor” aren’t some stagnant group that just needs to make better life choices. Seventy percent of Americans will turn to a means-tested benefit at some point during their working years, because Medicaid, nutrition, tax credits for working families—all the things at risk under this conservative Congress and president—are there for us if we fall on hard times. And most of us will.

Will’s column isn’t just wrong; it resurfaces a dangerous myth at a moment when the basic economic security of millions of struggling Americans is on the line.

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Safety Net

How the U.S. Can Prevent a Fire Like Grenfell Tower

At least 80 people are missing and presumed dead after a devastating fire in Grenfell Tower, a high-rise apartment building in London. It’s the deadliest fire in Britain in more than a century.

This fire is, unequivocally, a tragedy—particularly because it was so preventable. Investigators say the root causes were lax regulation and an unwillingness to invest in basic safety features. Residents had repeatedly warned that their living conditions were dangerous, pointing out that the building didn’t have fire alarms, sprinklers, or a fire escape, and there was only one stairway for people to get out and one road for firefighters to get in.

The fire has been a wake-up call for British politicians about a dangerous lack of investment in safe housing. Unfortunately, Britain is not the only country that has underinvested in safe homes.

A report by the Federal Healthy Homes Work Group found that more than 30 million homes in the United States are putting their occupants at risk. Six million homes have moderate to severe infrastructure problems, such as substandard heating, plumbing, and electrical wiring. Another 23 million homes have lead-based paint hazards, and 6.8 million homes have dangerously high levels of radon exposure. This means that millions of families face increased risk of lung cancer from radon exposure, fire-related injuries, and lead poisoning.

So far, the Trump administration has stymied efforts to address these problems. The administration’s proposed $6 billion in budget cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) would severely curtail efforts to provide safe and affordable housing.

At least $300 million in cuts would come from rental assistance programs such as the housing choice vouchers program, which means that 250,000 people could lose access to housing vouchers. Landlords participating in the housing choice voucher program commit to extensive property maintenance and safety standards that other private landlords serving very low-income families are often not required to meet. When families who cannot pay their rent are evicted, they often move into homes with more health and safety hazards, which is why children who are evicted are twice as likely to be in poor health.

More than 30 million homes in the United States are putting their occupants at risk

The Trump administration’s budget also calls for direct cuts to the HUD public housing Capital Fund, the program that funds repairs to public housing. The budget would slash the fund by more than half, so that 212,000 fewer units would receive the repairs they need next year. It also means that local public housing authorities—which rely on this funding to address fire hazards before they become disasters and address health risks like mold, lead, and rodent infestations—could be short on their budgets.

Even indirect cuts, such as the proposed elimination of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), will put more people at risk. LSC funds civil legal aid organizations that help low-income households bring lawsuits against landlords who refuse to deal with potentially deadly living conditions. After similar cuts to legal aid in Britain, residents of Grenfell Tower were unable to afford legal advice when they had concerns about their building’s safety.

We’re not doomed yet. Fire deaths have been dropping across the United States due to stronger building safety codes. Most states ban the usage of flammable aluminum cladding in tall buildings, which contributed to the Grenfell Tower fire.

Still, the Trump administration has promised to dramatically cut back on important safety regulations. Trump’s recent executive order that requires eliminating two regulations every time a new one is created forces agencies to choose which life-saving regulations they should prioritize to comply with the rule. Congress is now considering the Regulatory Accountability Act, which would add so many hurdles to the regulatory process that companies that produce dangerous products could delay regulations indefinitely. The Environmental Protection Agency faced similar roadblocks when it tried to ban asbestos—a known carcinogen—more than 25 years ago. Asbestos manufacturers used hurdles in the regulatory process to their advantage and blocked the agency from removing this toxic substance from commerce. Since 1999, at least 12,000 Americans have died every year because of asbestos exposure. Under the Trump administration, long-awaited asbestos regulations and many other critical protections may never be implemented.

In a chilling letter written just months before the building caught fire, residents of Grenfell Tower warned that “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.” Americans shouldn’t wait for a tragedy of this magnitude. Investing in the health and safety of low-income Americans begins with the funding decisions Congress will make this year.

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Culture

The Media Narrative Around Families Is Racist and Homophobic. It Needs to Stop.

Last week, David Brooks wrote an article about “Why Fathers Leave Their Children.” In a piece that largely focuses on the perceived moral failings of low-income families, where women are “bossy” and men are “disreputable,” Brooks lays out a plan for how to get Americans to live in “the stable two-parent family…we want.” This plan includes waiting to have sex, creating a couple’s budget, and “a few economic support programs and a confident social script.”

This goal—and the plan for how to get there—are bullshit.

Let’s talk about the goal first: a stable two-parent family. Brooks is feeding the narrative that there is an ideal kind of family—one that does best, one that is how people should be. It’s a family with two married parents. It’s a family in which people have children and mostly women raise them. It’s a family in which no one dies or is infertile or is incarcerated. It’s a family in which no one decides to stay single or childless or get divorced.

It is, in short, not reality. And making policy around this idealized vision of family has very real, often terrible consequences.

First, there is the emotional toll. When there is one ideal, people are crucified for falling short. They are blamed and marginalized. Their families are vilified and demonized. We have seen this with black single moms during welfare reform, gay parents during the same sex marriage movement, and now families with disabilities as policymakers seek to cut benefits. This helps no one.

Second, policies that focus on this idealized family, which account for less than one-fifth of American households, leave out the needs of tons of other families. We saw this last fall, when the Trump campaign floated a paid leave plan that only applied to birth mothers. The plan not only left out adoptive parents and male parents, it also ignored the needs of people caring for aging or disabled loved ones, sick children, their partners, or themselves.

Third, it can waste a ton of money. Jennifer Randles’s work reveals that though the nation has spent close to a billion dollars on programs that promote marriage over the last two decades, “couples who took government-funded relationship skills classes were neither more likely to marry or stay together nor to improve their financial situations.”

Fourth, policies aimed at keeping people married can trap people in dangerous relationships—even kill them. Perhaps the starkest example is the dramatic changes in women’s well-being after the passage of no-fault divorce. Research by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers shows that in states that passed no-fault divorce laws, suicide rates among wives decreased by 8 to 16 percent and domestic violence rates fell by 30 percent.

The policies he mentions would fall short of what any kind of family needs.

Even if we set Brooks’s dubious two-parents-a-dog-and-a-white-picket-fence goal aside, the policies he mentions would fall short of what any kind of family needs. His proposals to “help” families focus on changing individual choices without mentioning the systems that override them. Brooks fails to mention how America’s incarceration system is dividing families, particularly black families. He doesn’t address the fact that our nation’s immigration policies are literally ripping families apart. He does not discuss the importance of health care, good jobs, or reproductive care—all of which have been linked to strong and stable families. A few programs and a social script are not going to cut it.

Instead of this harmful, narrow vision of family, we should be looking for ways to value and support a whole range of healthy, stable families. Some are single parents. Some are couples without children. Some are brothers taking care of sisters, grandparents caring for children, extended chosen families. All of these families deserve support and appreciation.

When you have a broader vision of family, you can make the kind of policy choices that actually support everyone. And you can also make clear to all kinds of families that they are not less than or inadequate—and they deserve to have their needs met.

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Culture

What People Get Wrong When They Try to End Homelessness

When my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2007, she asked me to promise I’d never move her into a nursing facility.  I promised, although I wasn’t sure how I’d keep my commitment.

I pulled out of a four-book editing contract and moved in with her.  I learned from a social worker that I could receive 20 hours a week of help from home health aides, as well as SNAP benefits and cash assistance to help compensate for my decreased work income.  It was enough for us to get by.

About a month after I moved in with her, we returned from grocery shopping to find a state trooper standing outside of our front door. He handed me a court summons:  My sister had sued me for custody of our mother.  She wanted to place her in a care facility.

The court denied my sister’s request and named me our mother’s legal guardian, but it appointed my sister as guardian of her property.  In 2009, when my mother passed away, my sister evicted me.

The day I was scheduled to move out, I stood in a convenience store, dazed, as I stared at microwaveable meals.  These would be my new staple when I moved into the motel room.

My phone rang—my sister.  She told me she needed me out of the house in a couple of hours—she was a real estate agent and a client wanted to see the house.

“No hard feelings,” she said.

*            *            *

I was homeless for less than six weeks, a relatively short time compared to most.

The reason I fared better than many suddenly homeless people is because I was already in the social services system in Ocean County, New Jersey due to my mother’s illness.  Social services simply reopened my case and quickly provided temporary emergency housing.

For most people, emergency housing is just a port in the storm, since it only gives you six weeks to find permanent housing. It’s not easy to find a home—most landlords don’t want to accept housing vouchers for rent—but I was fortunate.  The woman who ran my church’s homeless outreach program vouched for me, so I was able to move into an apartment before my placement at the motel expired.

After my housing was stabilized, the trauma of familial conflict, loss, and eviction pummeled me like a tsunami.

The trauma of familial conflict, loss, and eviction pummeled me like a tsunami.

I was overcome with anxiety, convinced that things would never go right again.  Every time I heard a noise at night I would jump out of bed to check on my mother—worried that she was trying to get up and go to the bathroom by herself—before I remembered she was gone. In the mornings, depression made getting out of bed a struggle. Confused, I went to my local hospital where I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  For three months, I participated in an intensive outpatient treatment program: three days a week I received cognitive mental health counseling, medication, and group therapy.

I came to understand that being solely responsible for my mother’s care for two years, combined with fighting to prevent her worst nightmare—losing her home and being forced into an institution—had been too much for me.  My brain and nervous system had been denied adequate time to recover from prolonged, severe stress.

It took me a couple of years, but I finally recovered—or at least adjusted to living with PTSD.  And I wanted to use my experience to help others going through the same thing.

*            *            *

At first I thought I could teach people how to successfully navigate the social services system like I had. But I quickly learned that my experience wasn’t necessarily transferrable to them. The fact that I had already been in the social services system, and had a key relationship through my community, made all the difference for me.

For example, someone contacted me to see if I could help find housing for a young man who was living in the woods.  When we sought emergency shelter through county social services, they turned him down because he’d been homeless for too long. They prioritized people who had been homeless for less than two weeks, and he’d been homeless for four months. Then we applied for Emergency Housing Assistance, but he couldn’t get to the mandated weekly career or substance abuse counseling. Those offices were across town, and out of reach of public transportation. Plus, the county requires documentation proving you are not currently receiving unemployment benefits and a letter from the Internal Revenue Service stating that no relatives are claiming you as a dependent—complete with a mailing address.

That young man spent another year in the woods before he was taken to a county mental health facility. Turned out he was autistic, and therefore eligible for permanent housing in a facility for persons with disabilities.  The county didn’t seem to understand the urgency of getting people housed quickly so they could begin their recovery.  There were too many pre-conditions and not enough affordable housing units to get the job done.

*            *            *

Since people clearly needed much more than the current system could offer, I explored a different avenue: Advocating for a County Homeless Trust Fund that would secure the monies needed for a shelter and real-time emergency housing assistance.

Unfortunately, advocates’ conversations with elected officials weren’t productive. In one meeting, a political representative charged with overseeing social services simply ticked off a series of negative stereotypes: “The homeless have always been here no matter how much money we spend trying to solve the problem… Nothing seems to work… I think many of them prefer to live like that.”

Clearly, she didn’t know any homeless people. In my half-dozen years working with people without homes, I’ve met very few individuals who wouldn’t prefer having a roof over their head, security, privacy, heat, running water, a toilet.  Nevertheless, this mischaracterization of the homeless is common—I’ve heard it from social workers, religious leaders, and agency heads. If you repeat a lie enough times, it gains currency.

Advocating for the Trust Fund reinforced the same feeling I had when I tried to advocate for people navigating social services: Unless policymakers and government employees enlist the involvement of people who have experienced this kind of struggle, they will not understand, support, or implement the solutions we need.

*            *            *

In one sense, I’ve now come full circle.  I’m volunteering at the same homeless outreach center that first helped me when I was evicted. We provide people with necessities like clothing, blankets, tents, heaters, and food, as well as services such as haircuts and laundry.  The center also creates a sense of community where people can lean on each other as they try to recover from trauma and find stability in their lives.

Now I’m also trying to connect our outreach community with opportunities that will help people achieve financial and housing independence.  A couple weeks ago I took a few young men and women to a farm where I used to volunteer, so they can hopefully earn some money and pick up some skills in a growing industry—vertical farming.

It was a diverse group. One woman was living in the woods and “here and there.” Another guy has emergency housing assistance and tons of energy—he skateboards everywhere—but no job. The third guy has been living without housing for more than five years and was looking for work.

They were given a tour of the operation and invited to fill out an application for a 60-hour summer work and training program. The manager also gave them her cell phone number and said to call her anytime to check on job openings.

Before we left town, we stopped at a restaurant where one of them applied for a job.  Then I took them to the beach on the other side of town—none of them had ever been there before.  For a little while at least, they were simply young people enjoying a beach, free from the burden of being labeled “disaffected homeless youths.”

These moments of normalcy—in a culture that constantly treats us as flawed and abnormal—are part of how we find our way again.

*            *            *

My experiences since my mother’s death and my eviction have taught me what we need to do to end homelessness in America.  If we simply invested in affordable housing—and committed to getting people housed quickly so they can begin their recovery—we would immediately see dramatic reductions in homelessness and an increase in people contributing to our communities.  On top of it, we know that this approach would save our nation money.

But it doesn’t matter how many studies demonstrate that this is the direction we need to go.  What is lacking, still, is political will.  And that will only change when our elected representatives begin listening to—and taking seriously—those of us who have lived this struggle.

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