Promises and Priorities: New Hope for Children in Poverty

by Marilyn Sherman

Photos by Derek Gee are courtesy of The Buffalo News, which ran a yearlong series on children in poverty in the country's second-poorest city.

In the United States today, 13 million children — about 17 percent of all children — live in poverty. Trailing after poverty are grim consequences for children that include lower school achievement and higher-risk behavior, research shows.

Especially during the preschool period, living in poverty has a harsh impact on children, according to professor of education and social policy Greg Duncan, who has devoted his career to researching the effects of poverty on children. He sees promise in two avenues for addressing poverty issues: preschool programs for children and economic supports for parents.

Likewise, learning sciences professor Louis Gomez sees hope in proven education strategies, especially if the candidates for election would pay more attention to education. "The prospects could be quite good if education at large were on the agenda during the election and afterward," he maintains.

Preschool to combat poverty effects
To soften the ravages of poverty for children, Duncan points to the benefits of preschool programs. Many studies have found positive effects from programs at both the state and federal levels. In fact, one study by SESP professor Thomas Cook and doctoral student Vivian Wong found increases in language and mathematics skills with high-quality state programs.

"These preK programs are promising enough to focus attention on them — to expand their scope and make them as effective as possible," says Duncan. He advocates more evaluation of curricula and an increase in the number of high-quality programs nationwide.

The other key weapon against child poverty that Duncan recommends is "helping kids by helping parents support themselves with full-time work." Seven million children live at the poverty level despite one parent in the household working full-time. To "make work pay," Duncan holds up the New Hope program, tried and tested in Milwaukee in the 1990s, as a stellar model. For poverty-level residents who worked 30 hours per week, New Hope provided a package of income supplements, health insurance subsidies and child care supports. It also offered community service jobs to those who couldn't find work.

"Boosting parents' income while producing work could bring gains for kids," Duncan maintains. New Hope, which was rigorously evaluated through a random-assignment study by an independent research firm, benefited children in many ways, including their school readiness and achievement. Children in New Hope families had better school performance, fewer behavior problems, more cooperation in school and higher expectations for pursuing schooling than children in the control group. Especially striking was the positive effect on boys, since boys have a greater chance of high-risk behavior.

Duncan, who headed up a child development study of New Hope, was so impressed that in 2007 he co-authored a book called Higher Ground: New Hope for the Working Poor and Their Children. This year, as a pilot for a national initiative, he is trying to persuade Congress to try a similar program in five states over five years.

"My fingers are crossed that prospects are good for passage of national legislation to try a program similar to New Hope," he says, noting that the program needs to be well thought through and well executed. He and his colleagues have put forth a specific proposal through the Hamilton Project of the Brookings Institution. Work-based programs such as New Hope are the anti-poverty policies most likely to be accepted, he says, based on his many years of work on poverty that includes 23 years with Panel Study of Income Dynamics and seven years with the Joint Center for Research on Poverty.

Overall, Duncan's objective is equal opportunity for all children, rich and poor alike. "It seems to me that one reasonable goal would be to equalize the chance of success across different classes, and if New Hope and preschool provide some measure of that, then they are successful," Duncan says.

Giving children tools for success
Like Duncan, Gomez too has an optimistic viewpoint about the future for children in poverty — and all children — if education becomes more of a priority in the national discourse during this election year and beyond. "What will it take to get education to be a more important topic in the campaign and an agenda item for the next president?" Gomez asks. "Given that it's possible, I think there are reasons to be encouraged."

One bright sign can be found in U.S. schoolchildren's scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress in reading and mathematics. "The vast majority of children now are at the level of basic skills in reading and math," he notes. "If you can say that almost all children achieve at a basic level — this wasn't true a generation ago — that's reason to be encouraged."

Experts have the know-how for improving education, according to Gomez. "The technical corps is up to the task," he says, stressing that education needs more attention from the candidates. Referring to the problems of teaching and learning as a political and social concern, he says, "We know how to make progress. The question is 'Do we have the political will to make progress?'"

His own projects illustrate how experts can make progress in critical areas to improve the lives of children in poverty. Because jobs in the 21st century rely more heavily on communication and analysis, he works on fostering tools for literate practice. "Literate practice is probably the most significant barrier to participation as a citizen and having economic viability in the 21st century as it unfolds. Technical and mathematical skill matters, but the things we call literate practices are absolutely fundamental," he says.

In an effort to guide children toward a successful future, Gomez and his colleagues work with teachers and students on "reading to learn." Mastering this skill means learning to extract information and meaning from text in content areas, and the Gomez team taps strategies such as annotation, double-entry reading logs and summarization for understanding science texts. His intensive focus on text has proven successful in projects in Evanston middle schools and seven Chicago public high schools.

Digital divide: fact or fiction?
One worry for children growing up in poverty is that they will fall behind because of lack of experience with technology. Gomez disagrees. "By and large there is not a 'digital divide.' Poor people and rich people alike have access to technology. Most classrooms have access to computation," he says.

If a digital divide exists, Gomez sees it as more about whether technology is put to good use or not. "Technology should be seen as a way for people to become more literate, more representationally and numerically competent," he explains, describing promising new programs that are stepping up to the challenge of using digital media to expand opportunities to learn both in and out of school.

For children living in poverty, the problem is less about having technology and more about the ability to use technology productively. "It's not as simple as some having technology and others not," he says. "It's more about being in environments that nurture you to use these things that will be valued both politically and economically in the next century."

Questions of how to address child poverty and how underserved children can learn best should become more prominent in the national dialog, according to both Duncan and Gomez. "All of us should be spending more time taking this set of concerns and getting them on the radar screens of the politically elite," Gomez asserts.
By Marilyn Sherman