Poverty of Mind Affects Graduation Rate


For the 16 million American children living below the federal poverty line, the start of a new school year should be reason to celebrate. Summer is no vacation when your parents are working multiple jobs or looking for one. Many kids are left to fend for themselves in neighborhoods full of gangs, drugs and despair. Given the hardships at home, poor kids might be expected to have the best attendance records, if only for the promise of a hot meal and an orderly classroom…But it doesn’t usually work out that way. – Daniel Cardinelli, New York Times, Aug. 25, 2014

“You have no idea how hard this is for me” a 16-year-old, newly minted felon says after my latest Gentle Jesus, mini-diatribe about staying in school. “Seems like I get farther behind every day, whether I go to school or I don’t. So what’s the point?”

This is one of the most pained and painful questions haunting those of us who work on the juvenile justice frontlines where, mostly owing to poverty and the ensuing collateral damage, hundreds of thousands of youths are leveraging their future for things and people you don’t want to know about.

The young people we see are a hurting lot; nearly always forsaken or alienated by the adults in their lives by the time they are adjudicated and enter “the system”. Their presents are troubling, but no less so their futures: their childhoods were lost far too soon, causing them to adapt to sustained trauma in ways that increase the odds they will perpetuate generational suffering.

And generational poverty. Each year one in five American secondary students does not graduate high school nor pass the General Educational Developmental (GED) tests on schedule. While there is some solace to be found in statistics indicating an overall increase in the graduation rate, youths from economically challenged environments remain stubbornly overrepresented in those data. Environmental links between chronic poverty and chronic absenteeism are well established. As noted in perhaps the best of recent works describing the consequences of going wanting for basic needs in America, Bridges Out of Poverty (Bridges, DeVol and Smith, 2006), there is a direct correlation between being impoverished and undervaluing formal education.

But there is growing evidence for a biological link between the two. In a 2011 paper published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatricians, child/adolescent specialists Jack Shonkoff and Andrew Garner cite longitudinal studies suggesting a post-traumatic stress disorder unique to children raised in economic adversity. In an abstract on toxic stress and brain development, the authors posit long-term poverty as a causal agent in the brand of developmental delays common to nearly three-quarters of those students who leave school without a diploma or GED:

“Advances in fields of inquiry as diverse as neuroscience, molecular biology, genomics, developmental psychology, epidemiology, sociology, and economics are catalyzing an important paradigm shift in our understanding of health and disease across the lifespan.

This converging, multidisciplinary science of human development has profound implications for our ability to enhance the life prospects of children and to strengthen the social and economic fabric of society.”

Shonkoff and Garner describe the need for an “ecobiodevelopmental” framework that “illustrates how early experiences and environmental influences can leave a lasting signature on the genetic predispositions that affect emerging brain architecture and long-term health …” as well as the “extensive evidence of the disruptive impacts of toxic stress, offering intriguing insights into causal mechanisms that link early adversity to later impairments in learning, behavior, and both physical and mental well-being.”

Shonkoff and Garner conclude “… many adult diseases should be viewed as developmental disorders that begin early in life and that persistent health disparities associated with poverty, discrimination, or maltreatment could be reduced by the alleviation of toxic stress in childhood” and call for their colleagues to “… serve as both front-line guardians of healthy child development and strategically positioned, community leaders to inform new science-based strategies that build strong foundations for educational achievement, economic productivity, responsible citizenship, and lifelong health.”

Such holistic frameworks are necessary to a fuller understanding of chronic school absenteeism among impoverished youth. The evidence confirms the intuitive awareness that poverty and its aftershocks bring with them a deep, even cellular disposition for impaired development and learning. If we are to have anything of substance to offer our economically vulnerable young with little to no motivation to finish a secondary education, it will be because of our increased appreciation of what they’ve been through.

Maybe then we’ll have a better answer when they ask us what’s the point.

Don Rollins is a juvenile court program coordinator and Unitarian Universalist minister in Jackson, Ohio. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2014


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