Skip to main content

For poor children, trying hard is not enough

By Trina R. Shanks, Special to CNN
July 12, 2012 -- Updated 1211 GMT (2011 HKT)
An installation representing the number of hourly school dropouts nationwide is seen on display in Washington.
An installation representing the number of hourly school dropouts nationwide is seen on display in Washington.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Upward mobility is much less likely today for working-class children, says Trina R. Shanks
  • Income level and educational opportunity are linked, and effects begin early, she says
  • Even children with proven academic ability fall behind if they are poor, says Shanks
  • Shanks: Our nation must help develop children's potential rather than let it go to waste

Editor's note: Trina R. Shanks is an associate professor of social work at the University of Michigan and a Rhodes Scholar. She was appointed to serve as a member of Michigan's Commission on Community Action and Economic Opportunity from 2010 to 2012. This essay was written in association with The Op-ed Project.

(CNN) -- I am the granddaughter of an elementary school cook and a woman who cleaned other people's homes. Both my grandmothers worked hard and didn't earn much money, but they encouraged their children to get an education.

Although starting from limited economic circumstances, my parents both earned a college education and were able to attain a middle-class lifestyle to raise me and my siblings. I, their daughter, went on to receive a Ph.D. Unfortunately, this type of upward mobility is much less likely for the children of maids and school cooks today.

A decent job and a decent life should be a possibility for anyone who makes an effort. As a nation, this was more likely in our past than in the present. A college education should be affordable to anyone who is willing to do the work, but that is no longer our reality. As the likelihood of a college degree and economic security becomes less attainable for a significant portion of the population, the future of the United States will be in jeopardy.

Late last month, Congress passed a bill that will keep student-loan interest rates from doubling, just days before the deadline. It's an important step in keeping college affordable, but student-loan interest rates are only one piece in a complex puzzle that shapes how income level and educational opportunity are linked -- and the effects begin years before a student might apply for loans.

Trina Shanks
Trina Shanks

Even children with proven academic ability fall behind if they grow up in families that are poor. By the age of 3, one study showed, poor children already have half the vocabulary of higher-income children. Another study showed that children in high-risk social and economic environments can start in the top 25% academically at the age of 4 but fall to the bottom by the time they are in high school.

In a similar example, only 29% of the highest-achieving eighth-graders complete college if they come from low-income families.

In contrast, 30% of the lowest-achieving eighth-graders and 74% of the highest-achieving eighth-graders complete college if they come from high-income families. Until we get to a point where ability and effort predictably lead to greater educational attainment and improved outcomes, many kids will stop trying because the obstacles become too daunting.

As a social work researcher, I've shown that race greatly influences economic standing, with children of color being the most likely to be poor and have no assets. Children start out very similarly up until about 2. Then economic circumstances start to influence outcomes, and children begin to diverge in achievement before they even enter school. These disparities continue even once formal education begins. My research also shows that children with limited economic resources are more likely to live in disadvantaged neighborhoods and face toxic stress that can lead to permanent lowered brain functioning, further limiting educational achievement.

Even middle-class families are now concerned that their children will not be able to succeed. Until we provide a pathway of success for all children, regardless of economic standing, it will be hard to sustain a strong and vibrant society and economy.

There are proven tools to increase opportunity for children if we have the political will to implement them, things such as universal high-quality preschool and child savings accounts that provide resources to reach long-term goals.

Some might think that a child's educational future is the responsibility of that child's parents alone. Others believe that enough government money already goes to help poor people. Only 32% of entitlement benefits and 2.8% of tax expenditure benefits go to the lowest-income earners. And many programs, such as rental assistance and child care, don't reach everyone who is eligible.

But regardless of what you think about the current mix of government programs, educational outcomes are too tightly linked to parents' economic status. Many children start out school eager to learn and wanting to achieve. But as it seems that no one cares about their efforts and their basic needs are not being met with each passing grade, they start to become less engaged in school and search for other ways to survive. This is tragic and unacceptable.

Others predict that charter schools will reduce achievement gaps. While charter and independent schools do well for some low-income children, their record is still mixed. Consequently, it is nearly impossible to find a low-income area where all schools perform well, whether charter, public or private.

Unless we want a "Waiting for Superman" society of lotteries and waiting lists for parents seeking a decent education for their child, the ultimate goal is to ensure all schools, no matter how they are organized, provide a quality education.

My parents, even as poor black children, could pursue their dreams growing up in the 1960s, when opportunity was expanding for all. Times have changed.

As we better understand the way economic circumstances dictate life options, perhaps we will get outraged and demand a nation that helps develop potential rather than allow it to go to waste.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Trina R. Shanks.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT