Race, the poverty gap, and access to education

The problem may not be that black kids don't have access, but that poor kids don't. Photo: Illinois Springfield (Flickr)

WASHINGTON, March 12, 2012—Race has divided people all over the world for centuries, and as we as a nation grow and evolve, barriers between peoples of different color are under constant attack.

As important as that is, the fixation on skin color has diverted attention from other issues surrounding race. The NCES posted a report showing that, although white students do perform better on average on examinations than black students, the educational gap between the races has closed significantly. In contrast, newly posted U.S. census data show that the gap between rich and poor Americans has grown dramatically. Mark Mather, associate vice president of the Population Reference Bureau, commented, “Millions of people are stuck at home because they can’t find a job. Poverty increased in a majority of states, and children have been hit especially hard.”

As this economic chasm has grown, the achievement gap between white and black students has yielded to the extra attention paid to it by universities and high schools. These paired facts raise the question: When the ideals of economic equality and educational access collide with diminished means, should educational resources be allocated on racial grounds, or on the basis of economic challenges faced by promising students from low-income households?

Of course, aid is offered to students from low-income families. There are scholarship, grant and loan options for the children of people who can’t afford to pay for a university education. The percentage of students receiving financial aid is at a high, and progressive universities such as Brown have crafted creative systems to ensure that students can leave college without crushing debt as they pursue their careers. Wealthy philanthropists create scholarships worth significant amounts of money to promote the education of the non-wealthy.

Sadly, those who attempt to help often hurt the chances of the poor. It is apparent that our fixation on race blinds us to other variables affecting educational achievement at universities. High school students have resorted to blood sample analyses to uncover racial heritage deep in their ancestry that will give them a better shot at acceptance. Yet who has the edge in this scenario? The wealthy, for a poorer white family could not possibly afford such frivolities for their son or daughter in order to ensure entry to the university most tailored to his or her talents.

This is not to say that race is not an issue in the world today, but in our struggle against poverty, it may make more sense to focus on the financial standing of our people rather than on the color of their skin. Furthermore, while the American economy continues to show signs of weakness, race wrongly continues to supplant poverty as the battle of choice in our education system.

It is said, “money isn’t everything,” but it is flippant to so dismiss the enormous economic challenges facing poor families. Parents with money use it to pay for the best sports camps and the best coaches and tutors and clubs, and those born without such opportunities are left, regardless of potential, with the slimmer pickings. Universities will always pick the young man, black or white, from the wealthy family with the best SAT scores (the product of tutors and classes), the most sports potential (camps, clubs and private lessons), and the best essays (products of opportunities and experiences likely brought about through money), over the poor kid without the money for any of this, with potential but an unequipped mind.

It would be absurd to punish the child with the resources in this situation. The talented child of wealth who takes advantage of his opportunities deserves the option to go on to a competitive university. The issue, as it was brought to light in studies by Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University, researchers at the University of Michigan, and the Russell Sage Foundation, is simply that equal opportunity should be given to those who have less money to work with.

The fact is that black kids often come from poor backgrounds, but kids from poor backgrounds are often white, and kids from wealthy families are sometimes black. Our goal should not be to provide extra opportunities to kids from one race, regardless of economic background, but to provide extra opportunities to kids from poor backgrounds, regardless of race.

Truly, money is power in the marketplace. As a nation we have tried to bring rights and opportunities to racial minorities, women, and others who have been denied full participation in our political and economic systems. But now our focus should be poverty, not race.

Do we not have the ability to challenge poverty? Many are willing to give up, calling this an insurmountable problem or claiming that, in the words of Douglas J. Besharov of the Atlantic Council, “the cupboard is bare.” We cannot allow an economic gap to get the better of a nation that has always taken the time to consider the outliers. President Obama and the majority of the Republican candidates have voiced their intentions to improve educational access for all. It’s a goal worth striving for in the land of the free.

 


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Jack Maes

Jack Maes is a junior at McLean High School where he is taking AP English Language and Composition classes.  

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