Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund said of Mississippi in 1965, “As a lawyer, I could get people into schools, desegregate the schools, but if they were kicked off the plantations — and if they didn’t have food, didn’t have jobs, didn’t have health care, didn’t have the means to exercise those civil rights, we were not going to have success.”
The Detroit Future Cities report cites Detroit as having a poverty rate of 40 percent. Fifty-seven percent of children under age 18 live below the federal poverty line, or $24,339 for a family of four. Seniors are also living below the poverty line by 20 percent. The U.S. Census Bureau indicates children remain the poorest age group in America. Approximately 13.2 million children or 18 percent of all children were living in poverty in 2016. Nearly 70 percent of poor children are of color. This is the real challenge for not only the public-school system, but the pursuit of equal opportunity in our nation.
There are many factors that determine how families cannot fully receive the benefits of our educational system.
The Coalition for the Future of Detroit School Children, identifies transportation as a key issue. “Over 75 percent of students rely on unreliable public buses, walking, or cars to get to school. Twenty-five percent of Detroit families do not have cars. Twenty-nine percent of parents say that transportation is a problem.” These are key factors that certainly determine the impact of education on our children.
It is difficult for a child who comes to school with their water shut off, heat is not on, or with little food in the home. This leads to personal hygiene issues and ostracism by the child’s peers. It can mean name calling and distractions from learning math, science or reading. Parents are under stress because they know their child is also in distress. A hungry child turns into an angry child. Remember the last time you were hungry? Teachers are more challenged by the social needs of the child, rather than the academic duties of the teacher.
I grew up in a large family, in a little town called Kinloch in St. Louis. We took our lunch to school in brown paper bags. We did not have all the resources of most public-school systems. Yet, what we did have were teachers that inspired, a family that loved, and a community that supported us. We saw in ourselves more than just workers, but also future leaders. I applaud the emphasis today on skilled-trades and training our next workforce. Yet, we must not overlook the need to develop scholars and leaders. It is not a question of training our people to be workers, it is also the necessity to inspire our people to be scholars and creators. It must not be either or, but both and in building our future.
Despite these factors, strong teachers, strong academic programs and a cadre of dedicated parents can make a huge difference in the life of the student. One may wonder, if we had a holistic approach to education, how much more successful would we be? If there were jobs available to parents of these children, how would things change? Suppose there was dependable transportation to and from schools, would that result in a renewed spirit among the people? If we had appropriate financial support and public appreciation for teachers and staff, how much further would Detroit be as a city, and America as a country?
There are those who may wish to write off public education as a solution to this quagmire. Each student must know, as Maya Angelou has said, “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. And still, I rise.” This reflects the genius of those who are pushed back but refuse to stay back. Let us always keep in mind that poverty is the scourge of a community. Education is the blessing of a nation.
The Rev.Wendell Anthony is president of the Detroit Branch NAACP and pastor of Fellowship Chapel UCC.