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Sunshine State News: Addressing the Cycle of Poverty

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

By Ed Moore

If you are in your 60s or older, you came of age during the government boom at the federal level. You witnessed the birth of the Great Society, America’s massive engagement destined to eliminate poverty and open the American dream to all willing to pursue a better life and better education.

I was reminded of these times recently when I saw a video clip of a stirring speech by speaker of the Florida House, Will Weatherford, addressing a group of business and civic leaders in Broward County. Weatherford speaks from what he knows well, rising from a time of difficult family economics to become a successful father, political leader and businessman. He has firsthand experience with the travails that face families when life gets tough and options seem to shrink. One value that prevailed in his home was education and the pathways provided by educational opportunity.

In his address he spoke of those who “are stuck in a cyclical, generational poverty environment” questioning whether “we are doing enough to help them.” This caused me to think about my lifetime and question whether we have, through governmental programs, done what was needed to address the seemingly pervasive and intractable stain of poverty that hangs with us. Perhaps we are doing the wrong things the wrong way. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that much of what we do and the vast resources we have spent are not effective since they have not made the intended difference.

Nearly 50 years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan penned a now famous report on black families and poverty. He cited single parent families, high divorce rates and the numbers of fatherless children as leading causes of cyclical poverty. A recent Urban Institute study using a broader analysis on poverty found that 50 years later not much has changed. The author, Gregory Achs, stated, “If we let kids grow up in poverty, in single families, going to bad schools, they’re going to grow up to become dependent adults. The cycle will just repeat.”

Achs grew up in a single parent, working poor family – as did many of my friends growing up in South Florida in the 1950s and ’60s, pre-Great Society. Access to education and holding a job while in school made all the difference for us. We could dream big and chase those dreams, using every bit of our time to do what was needed and break the cycle, climbing the economic ladder.

We have spent a great deal as a society since the advent of the Great Society — increasing more than 16 times since 1964 — and yet the numbers on paper do not look much better.

There are success stories from every racial or ethnic category, many more from across the board than was ever possible in those days, so maybe all has not been lost, as success breeds future successes. But it is clear from the data that what has been done has been relatively ineffective in solving the issues of cyclical and generational poverty. One in seven Americans lives at or below the federal income level for poverty designation.

There are clues buried in the data. Married mothers from intact families have the highest levels of educational attainment with at least 38 percent with a college degree compared to only 15 percent of single moms. Among poor families, one in two are headed by a single mom, while among all families the rate is one in five. One-third of families headed by an unwed mother are categorized as poor, while the norm for all families is one of 10.

The data reflect that by age 6, only 14 percent of kids will experience poverty living in a household headed by an adult with at least 12 years of school, but the rate for less than 12 years of education by the household head is 49 percent. Here we have made inroads as the dropout rates nationally have declined greatly, even since 1990. And yet, losing 20 percent or more, especially in urban areas, adds length to the timeline of poverty and the future burdens on public resources.

While many have risen from despair to create better lives and opportunities for their own children, too many remain in the cycle. We have done much, but perhaps we have done it in the wrong way. One action we can take is to remove the archaic law that allows students to drop out of school at 16. Through this we encourage and endorse the cycle of poverty. Beyond that we must have an honest and thorough discussion of our war on poverty. It is clear we have done an incomplete job, in spite of the will, the money and the time spent.

The numbers across time reflect a failure to solve the social problems that Speaker Weatherford spoke about. We can take a lesson from his willingness to raise the bar while working together as a nation to increase opportunity for those who need it most.

Dr. Ed H. Moore is president and CEO of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida. 

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