Low-Income Students Are Returning to Dangerously Hot Schools

This week marks the last of the first days of school. In some school districts, classes have already been in session for several weeks, and they’ve been hot ones. Teachers are bringing fans from home and schools are closing because temperature control is too challenging.

Alex, a teacher in the Bay Area, says conditions in her school have been particularly bad this year; many buildings in the region are not designed for high heat, thanks to the historically temperate climate. Her classroom doesn’t have openable windows, so she uses a fan to try to suck air in from the cooler hallway, but it’s not enough.

“Students will ask to go to the bathroom more often just to get into the hallway where it’s cooler,” she told TalkPoverty. She said the heat makes students feel sluggish and unfocused, a problem particularly acute for young women in her class who struggle with body image, and stay tightly wrapped up even in high temperatures. “I also notice that I tend to run out of energy a lot faster on hot days.”

Not ideal for a high school teacher trying to keep order in a classroom of 16-year-olds, even one who loves her job and is passionate about education.

This is a problem that’s only going to get worse due to the confluence of rising temperatures thanks to climate change — average temperatures in the U.S. could increase by as much as 12 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 and have already risen several degrees since 1900 — and declining school funding. Schools that don’t overheat today are going to in the future.

Education budgets were cut deeply during the Great Recession and some states haven’t returned to their pre-Recession funding levels; capital spending across the country hasn’t recovered to pre-recession levels either. As a result, schools that urgently need temperature control updates along with other infrastructure improvements face an uphill struggle to increase their budgets.

Overheated classrooms aren’t just uncomfortable. They can actively inhibit health and learning. There’s a large body of evidence showing that air conditioning can improve student health and academic performance, and research as far back as 1984 on the effects of learning in a hot classroom.

A May 2018 paper found that a temperature increase of just one degree can reduce the amount learned over the course of the school year by 1 percent. The researchers estimate that around 30 percent of schools in the U.S. lack air conditioning, and that even within hot areas with widespread air conditioning penetration, kids in low-income schools are less likely to have access to have cooling at school.

They also argue systemic inequality can exacerbate this phenomenon among low-income students of color, who live in hotter regions and are more likely to attend schools without adequate temperature control.

Jisung Park, one of the researchers, said that, “What we’re finding is totally consistent with the last mile of the school desegregation movement not having been completed … the neighborhood-level disparities driven by residential wealth still very much hold true.”

Park, an environmental economist, is swift to note that simply installing air conditioning — itself a known contributor to climate change — is not the solution. Greening electric infrastructure, taxing carbon, and taking other measures to tackle climate change is key, he said.

So is investing in school infrastructure, including new buildings; maintenance to bring schools up to new standards; and retrofitting to help schools adapt, inside and out, to climate change. That must include rich and poor districts alike, or the inequalities they observe will perpetuate themselves.

An Oklahoma educator who works in a school with a high percentage of low-income black students sees the consequences of being housed in outdated school buildings without adequate resources firsthand. Her classroom can get up to 80 degrees, and it takes a noticeable toll on her students. “I’m trying,” overheated students will tell her. “I’m tired, it’s too hot in here.”

Overheated classrooms aren’t just uncomfortable. They can actively inhibit health and learning.

Her school actually has a climate control system, complete with thermostats in every classroom. But it is not well-maintained. It can take hours for the district to respond when teachers put in a request for help.

For one of her colleagues across the hall, that means suffocating in heat as high as 90 degrees until her class is relocated to a comparatively cooler spot. But, she says, in the state with some of the worst education funding in the country, there are so many things going wrong that overheated classrooms aren’t at the top of her list.

This isn’t just a problem indoors. It’s also an issue in the schoolyard. Schools serving low-income students tend to have less greenery, and that’s not just an aesthetic problem. Trees, shrubs, and other plants can help to control temperatures, including indoors, when they’re planted strategically to provide shade to a building’s hot spots.

The lack of shade also increases exposure to harmful UV radiation on the playground, setting kids up for future health inequalities. From the moment they walk into school for the first time, some students are set up for failure, with Park noting that access to greenery can improve temperature control, but also offer mental and physical health benefits.

Oklahoma is not the only state struggling with school infrastructure, from campus trees to sound roofs. Across the United States, kids are attending classes in outdated, poorly-maintained, inadequate, and sometimes unsafe buildings. Schools across the country are struggling with lead contamination. Environmental Protection Agency regulations govern schools that maintain their own water supplies, but not those using municipal water that may get contaminated on its way to the tap. Kids are overheating, and they can’t even drink the school’s water.

It will cost $200 billion nationwide to bring America’s schools into good condition.  But schools, especially low-income ones, face a funding crisis. They rely on property tax revenues alongside some state funding to fund capital improvements, pay teachers and staff, and cover the numerous other expenses associated with running a school. Wealthy districts have a larger tax base and more access to loans and bond issues, and consequently spend more; their students are more likely to attend class in appropriately-cooled classrooms, to drink from lead-free taps, and to have access to well-maintained amenities.

“Targeting school facility upgrades should be part of a long-overdue federal infrastructure bill,” said Park, “or an education reform package.” Modernizing, and installing, HVAC systems is not a trivial task. Failure to make these investments, however, will keep low-income children in the U.S. at a permanent, sweaty, disadvantage.

Editors’ note: By request, the teachers in this article have been anonymized.



A Recession May Be Coming. Millennials Never Recovered from the Last One.

Rosamaria Cavalho graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and entered the workforce in 2007. Latina and a woman of color, she is the first in her family to attend a four-year university. She knew that if she wanted to transcend her economically depressed upbringing, she had to attend college and graduate.

A common pressure among first-generation college students, especially those from low-income families or immigrant families who came to the U.S. to give their children more opportunities, is the pressure of finishing. The weight of their family’s sacrifice and struggle is omnipresent.

With all that on her shoulders, graduating into a recession wasn’t even on Cavalho’s radar. But that’s exactly what happened.

“I thought I should be able to get a job with this degree because that’s what I was told. You get your college degree and then good stuff will come. I knew there was value in a college degree,” she said.

A generation lambasted for being the reason America can’t have nice things, while derided for the ways they choose to spend the little money they have, millennials have never fully benefited from our robust economy. Many are still trying to get right after the last recession, which was so bad it earned the moniker “great.”

Unfortunately, as news headlines keep telling us, a new recession may be on the way.

Like a lot of recent college graduates, Cavalho moved back in with her family. According to Pew Research, in 2014, people aged 18-34 were most likely to be living with their parents rather than by themselves or with a spouse. At first, she applied for office jobs. When she didn’t hear anything, she applied for customer service positions at Wal-Mart, Taco Bell, and Jack in the Box. But still, no call-backs.

Her parents were confused as to why she had gone through the trouble and expense to attend college. Didn’t her degree afford her the opportunity to get a good job and be living on her own?

After a few months at home, Cavalho returned to the Bay Area to find work. She eventually found a job working for a private investigator. She was living in her car and hiding her struggles from her friends. They had been so proud of her for graduating, and she had already felt like she had disappointed her parents. She eventually found a job as a labor organizer for AFSCME and relocated to Los Angeles.

This was the cruel reality for many graduates who went to college to lift themselves out of poverty. They earned their degrees at the same time 30 million individuals were losing their jobs. New graduates weren’t just competing with their peers for what few jobs there were, but with the millions of others who had just been brutally tossed into the job market.

The employment nadir came in March 2009 when 803,000 non-farm jobs were lost. Entry-level jobs became harder to get, as competition came from people with much longer resumes. A wealth of volunteer positions became available, as funding dried up essentially, everywhere. Those who had financial stability and extra time were able to leverage competitive unpaid internships and volunteerism, which could then be used as a way to make up for a lack of entry-level positions. Everyone else was out of luck.

This stunted millennials’ earnings potential for the rest of their lives. In fact, millennials had lower real incomes than previous generations. In the year 2014 (using 2016 dollars), the median earnings for millennial men and women were $40,600 and $31,200. Compare that to the earnings of Gen Xers in 1998 at $44,200 and $32,400 and Boomers in 1978 at $53,400 and $33,100 (still 2016 dollars and median earnings).

Once you start behind on earnings, you never really catch up. And it’s even worse for people of color and women, who get left behind even during good economic times. In March, a report entitled “Clipped Wings: Closing the Wealth Gap for Millennial Women” was released by Insight Center in collaboration with Asset Funders Network and Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap. The authors found that income inequality persists according to race and gender, in addition to generation.

“Young Black people earn 57 cents and Latinx earn 64 cents for every dollar earned by young White people,” the report says. Single millennial men currently have an average of 162 percent more wealth than single millennial women. College educated white women hold two-thirds more wealth ($52,406) than college educated Black ($3,316) and Latinx ($29,889) women combined.

But it’s not just income where those who graduated into the Great Recession have fallen behind. A study published last year entitled “Are Millennials Different?,” by a division of the Federal Reserve Board, found that in the year 2016, millennials were also less likely to own homes and have fewer financial assets than previous generations. They also carried debt loads larger than boomers did when they were young, thanks in part to the ballooning cost of education.

If a new recession comes before they’ve had a chance to get ahead, they likely face empty bank accounts and unknowable challenges.

Millennials without access to family wealth were less likely to benefit from opportunities that were available to their peers who had more family or inherited wealth.

Case in point, homeownership. KPCC in Los Angeles analyzed data for Federal Housing Administration loans made to Californians and found that in 2018, one in three borrowers received family contributions. This number was up from one in four in 2011.

Millennials trying to buy houses but lacking help from their family had a harder time buying a home — the very hallmark of middle-class wealth generation. Millennials of color would have been deeply affected if their parents had lost their homes and assets to the foreclosure crisis that followed the Great Recession, due to predatory subprime lending to communities of color.

This inability to build wealth was compounded by student loan debt. Young adults had accepted thousands of dollars in federal loans, in effect leveraging their potential earnings, based on the assumption that a job market would exist when they were ready for it.

Spoiler alert, it didn’t.

Ten years after the beginning of the recession, a third of millennials hold student loan debt, with black women holding the most and white men holding the least. The national student loans debt load outpaced auto loans back in the third quarter of 2009 and is now just over $1.6 trillion. Women hold two-thirds of that amount.

Recovering from a recession takes time. And things such as student debt, high costs of living, and asset and wealth depletion hold millennials, especially millennial women of color, back from choosing what they want to do over what they need. If a new recession comes before they’ve had a chance to get ahead, they likely face empty bank accounts and unknowable challenges.

I recently had dinner with a friend and fellow woman of color who also graduated college in 2009. She says she feels like she’s just now making it; working as a city planner, feeling stable in her job, able to plan for her future, and about to start an MBA program. Cavalho just got into one of the top law schools in the country, accomplishing a goal she didn’t dare admit to herself because she felt it was so impossibly out of reach.

It took us 10 years just to get our feet under us. Let’s hope we’ve gotten far enough to weather whatever comes next.



Andrew Luck Gets to Walk Away. Not All Athletes Can.

Earlier this week, Andrew Luck, the 29-year-old starting quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, retired. The announcement surprised the entire sports world: Luck is a former number one overall draft pick, a four-time Pro Bowler who, in the context of quadragenarians like Tom Brady, could have played for at least another decade. Colts’ owner Jim Irsay estimated Luck was giving up not just the $60 million he was owed over the life of his current contract, but as much as $450 million in future salary.

But I’m not shocked. Luck has played more than a decade of high-level, year-round football both for the Colts and at Stanford University. He’s dealt with a litany of injuries more reminiscent of someone involved in a car crash than a professional athlete, including a concussion, a torn labrum, and a lacerated kidney. That’s likely why the players around him have, nearly unequivocally, understood his decision. At some point, career viability matters less than the freedom to live a normal life without pain. And so on a Saturday afternoon in the August preseason, at the snap of a finger, Luck short-circuited our fandom and was gone.

What’s truly unusual about Luck isn’t the choice he made — it’s the fact that he had the freedom to make it. Luck is the son of former Houston Oilers quarterback and current XFL commissioner Oliver Luck, which at least theoretically means his extended family is not reliant on his NFL income. He’s a Stanford graduate, with a second career available to him if he chooses. Football might have needed Andrew Luck, but Andrew Luck doesn’t need football.

Most NFL players aren’t so — ahem — lucky. The majority have spent a good portion of their adolescent and adult lives perfecting physical skills to make a career out of football, sacrificing other opportunities to do so. In a 2011 survey, NCAA Division I football players reported an average of close to 40 hours a week of athletic activity in-season, double the NCAA’s own restriction on time spent in athletic activity. That means there was no time in college for labs, study sessions, or other enrichment that a normal student gets — all of which are important parts of determining a career path. As a result, the handful of players who manage to secure a career in professional football are left adrift once they are forced into retirement.

Even worse is the physical damage to players’ bodies. Luck’s injury list is the norm, not the exception. In the NFL, as long as you have four accredited seasons to your name, you’ll receive the same health care as current players for up to five years. That care comes with two issues. First, the average NFL career is about 3.3 years, meaning many players won’t qualify for that health care at all. Second, medical issues of former players can, and will, show up beyond that five year limit, leaving players on the hook for their own care. That’s particularly troubling given the new research around chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries, which new studies estimate affects at least 10 percent of professional players. CTE is progressive and debilitating, but it often does not show symptoms until many years after the injuries that caused it.

The NFL may be great work if you can get it — the rookie minimum salary for the 53-man roster is $480,000 — but one has to reasonably ask: Is it worth it?

More than half of all NFL players come from a county with a poverty rate higher than the national average.

To answer that question, you also have to understand where the majority of NFL players come from, and what they look like. Today, more than half of all NFL players come from a county with a poverty rate higher than the national average. Nearly 70 percent of NFL players are African-American, and face a much higher likelihood of being in poverty than most demographic groups. The average household income for an African-American family hovers roughly around $40,000 a year, making NFL salaries particularly tempting. When a player is making the decision of whether an NFL career is worth the risk, it depends on who you ask and where they’re from.

In this context, it becomes pretty hard to fault Luck for stepping away from the game when he did. Hopefully, he will be able to heal his body and avoid the nagging injuries that plague many former players. Hopefully, he will find meaningful work that will allow him to take care of himself and his family. To step away from a career, a vocation, that you are passionate about is difficult no matter what it is, and for that Luck’s care and grace in the face of perplexity should be commended. But let’s not forget that Luck’s economic background and education allowed him to make a choice of passion, rather than a choice of need like so many others have to. And if we’re going to be shocked by anything in this whole saga, it should be that.



Impossible Burgers Aren’t Going to Change the Industry Until Everyone Can Afford Them

I got interested in plant-based meat alternatives when my 9-year-old son declared himself a vegetarian after New Year’s Day 2019. I thought finding options for a kid who loves hot dogs and hamburgers would be difficult.

Turns out, the market for meatless options is well developed. Not only was I able to find Beyond Meat products such as sausages and hamburger patties at the local grocery store, but there are restaurants like Bareburger, which my son and I frequent, that have a vegan menu consisting solely of plant-based meals. Plus, Burger King now sells the Impossible Whopper, a plant-based version of its popular Whopper hamburger.

The Impossible Whopper doesn’t come as cheap as Burger King’s more traditional meat offerings: It’s $5.19, a dollar more than the regular Whopper’s $4.19.

That dollar might not seem like a lot, but it is an important issue, since many choose a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle for health or moral reasons. (While the health benefits of a plant-based diet are unclear, it is true that it lowers your carbon footprint.) Making this choice shouldn’t be limited to those with higher levels of income and wealth, as pointed out by economist Dr. Rhonda Sharpe:

Economics tells us the prices of goods are determined by the supply and demand for that given product.  Demand for meat alternatives will not be decreasing anytime soon, so for costs to fall we need to see an increase in supply.

There’s reason to believe that will happen. While Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are the two pre-eminent firms in the industry, other well-established firms such as Nestle, Tyson, and Perdue are now looking to compete. Having large firms with extensive distribution networks should help lower the price as economies of scale already exist.

The higher prices of meatless options are due to the supply chains for the inputs, like proteins derived from peas, being less well established than the inputs for traditional meat options. Essentially, because the process of creating meat alternatives is so new, firms have not found efficient ways to produce it. As these manufacturers continue to expand and existing firms create more efficient supply chains, input prices should fall — leading to lower prices across the board.

However, we must be cautious about mergers and acquisitions in this industry. Established firms may acquire the new upstarts and not only keep prices high, but also chill research and development towards making improvements. There are tools in place to combat anti-competitive behavior, but they need strengthening.

And to be clear, meat alternatives aren’t only more expensive because they’re newer. Beef and other meats are cheaper because of government subsidies.

The other factor that may lower the costs of meatless options is the availability of the meals at restaurants, including fast food chains. Having several establishments compete should drive prices down. Several other fast food chains offer (in a limited capacity) meatless versions of their meals, such as White Castle’s Impossible Slider or Del Taco’s Beyond Taco.

Food deserts did not occur randomly, and in many cities are the outcome of systemic racism.

Even with the expected decrease in the price of meatless options, though, there is the concerning problem on the availability of meatless options for communities that lack grocery store options. Meat alternatives are offered at traditional supermarkets, with Beyond Meat products such as burgers, sausages, and crumbles already available and Impossible Foods getting approval by the Food and Drug Administration to have its products in stores.

But this is not helpful for communities in food deserts, where there is limited access to supermarkets or grocery stores.

Food deserts are a problem in many communities, both urban and rural. For many low-income individuals, the only option for groceries are places like Dollar General or Dollar Tree.

Food deserts did not occur randomly, and in many cities are the outcome of systemic racism. The process of redlining, creating race-based maps to exclude African Americans from receiving federal housing loans, not only prevented African Americans from obtaining mortgages in certain neighborhoods, but redlining also diminished the incentive for firms like grocery stores to locate in predominantly African American neighborhoods.

The problem is not just availability but also accessibility, as many individuals in food deserts have transportation issues. There are programs to address these problems and meat alternatives should be a part of the solution. Whole Foods has started to locate their stores in neighborhoods like the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. Further policies to combat the structural issues must address the underlying inequality that plagues low-income communities.

As I have discovered from a summer living as a (pseudo) vegetarian/vegan with my kid, there are so many flavorful and delicious options with a plant-based diet. This is available to me because I live in a neighborhood where I have many transit options to Bareburger and where my local grocery store carries Beyond Meat sausages. But the choice to eat a plant-based diet should not be determined by your location.



The Government Spends 10 Times More on Foster Care and Adoption Than Reuniting Families

It sounds like a conspiracy theory: The United States government incentivizes foster care placements and forced adoption over social support and reunification with birth families. It seems unreal, possibly even illegal, and not at all like something a responsible government would do.

Unfortunately, it’s very real, and the root cause of many  of the problems in child welfare cases.

“Some people do phrase it as a conspiracy theory,” acknowledged Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. “When they say the government makes money on foster care, that’s not true … on foster care they still lose money, but they lose less money [than on reunification]. And private agencies do make money on foster care in many cases.”

In the United States, child welfare agencies are tasked with ensuring the health and safety of the nation’s children. Each agency receives a complex web of funding from federal, state, and local sources, leaving it accountable to a hodgepodge of authorities. Although these agencies are often referred to as “child protective services” and considered by many as a cohesive national program, state and local agencies are only linked by a loose set of federal guidelines that provide broad definitions for child maltreatment, along with the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA).

First enacted in 1997 under the Clinton administration, ASFA has undergone several rewrites, but its overarching purpose has remained steady: to ensure “timely permanency planning for children.” Part of the emphasis on “permanency” includes financial reimbursements for foster care programs, as well as adoption bounties, which are lump sums in the thousands paid to states for each child they successfully adopt out after a certain threshold.

This starts with the Federal Foster Care Program (Title IV-E of the Social Security Act), which functions as an open-ended entitlement grant. There is no upper limit to the amount of funding that can be provided for eligible foster children each year. States receive reimbursements ranging from 50 cents to approximately 76 cents for each dollar spent on daily child care and supervision, administrative costs, training, recruitment, and data collection.

But when it comes to programs that support family reunification, the budget slims. Title IV-B of the Social Security Act, which governs federal reunification funding, includes a capped entitlement component and a discretionary component. So, unlike foster care funding, these dollars come with a set limit.

And that limited money isn’t all for reunification services. Title IV-B also includes provisions that allow for some of this funding to go toward foster care programs. A portion is also required to go toward adoption promotion.

The result of this imbalanced funding structure? The federal government spends almost 10 times more on foster care and adoption than on programs geared toward reunification.

One of the less-known sources of federal funding for child welfare programs is the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. TANF is supposed to be a cash-assistance program servicing low-income families with children, In reality, TANF funds can be used to support many services designed to help “needy” children, including child protection agencies. The result is that many states use TANF funds to finance foster care, child welfare investigations, and adoption or guardianship payments.

Because child welfare program data are self reported, it can be difficult to track exactly how each dollar is spent, but Wexler was able to identify eight states using TANF to pay for adoption subsidies, 23 states funding CPS investigations, 27 states funding foster care, and three states diverting TANF money to fund residential treatment facilities for child welfare involved children.

Considering that three-quarters of substantiated child maltreatment cases are related to neglect, which is often the result of poverty, it seems exceedingly unjust that funds supposedly intended to offset the worst effects of poverty are instead being used to finance the separation of mostly poor families.

The harder the system deems the child to place, the higher the bounty.
– Richard Wexler

Under ASFA, states are — with few exceptions — required to file for the termination of parental rights when a child has been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months. In an attempt to curtail the infamous foster care hopscotch, which leaves children whose parents have lost their rights bouncing from foster home to foster home, the government created adoption payment incentives.

Adoption bounties range from $4,000 to $12,000 per child. As Wexler explained, “the harder the system deems the child to place, the higher the bounty.”

But in order to begin collecting that money, a state must exceed the last year’s number of adopted children, thus incentivizing states to permanently re-home an ever-increasing number of children each year. As can be expected, the number of adoptions increased in the five years after the implementation of ASFA, while reunifications declined. The Bush administration’s Adoption and Promotion Act of 2003 further codified this adoption bounty system by allocating $43 million yearly to states that succeed in increasing the number of adoptions from foster care.

Many states contract with private agencies that oversee out-of-home placements and service referrals for child welfare involved children. Said Wexler, “that agency will probably be paid for each day that child remains in foster care … So the private agency has an incentive to convince itself that the child really, really can’t go home and has to stay with them for a long, long time.”

What does this look like on the ground? Painfully delayed referrals to support services such as parenting classes and addiction treatment, judges hesitant to find fault with the way agencies and providers handle cases, and private agencies eager to deem parents unfit for reunification.

There have been some recent moves at the federal level aimed toward shifting some of these financial imbalances. The Family First Act, signed into law in 2018, now allows federal reimbursements for mental health services, evidence-based substance use treatment, and in-home parenting support. Its purpose is to create similar incentives for helping families stay together.

Unfortunately, the act does not support many of the common needs that lead to family separation, such as housing or child care support. And because the programs it does support must meet stringent requirements in order to be eligible for reimbursement, foster care and adoption subsidies continue to exceed reunification programs by the hundreds of millions.