DEAR READER: There's work to be done in closing the poverty gap

Saturday, January 18, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:27 p.m. CST, Sunday, January 19, 2014

Dear Reader,

Outgoing superintendent Chris Belcher said in a Q and A this week that improving the achievement gap in schools had been a disappointment. Then he said: Columbia is a reflection of the nation.


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It was a blunt assessment by an educator who focused on that singularly difficult problem more than any I can recall in recent years. The Missourian has written about attempts — some successful — to combat the problem, which extends well beyond the schoolhouse doors.

The biggest barrier to closing the gap isn’t race or gender or geography. It’s poverty.

Or, as the Missourian Readers Board put it this week, the divide between the haves and the have-nots is growing wider and with little evidence that things are changing.

Almost the entire 90 minutes of the board meeting was given over to community, not journalism, matters. The group brought up tensions between two visions of bucolic small town and bustling big city. They talked about the boom of student housing and the prevalence of boutique shops around downtown. They discussed economic diversity and traffic problems and affordable housing. One member worried about our dependence on the student loan system. Another said she sees race played out in similar ways in a Southern city she lived in but without the honest, public conversation here.

But I was most struck by how often the board members (seven attended Tuesday’s meeting) returned to poverty as one of the core issues getting in the way of Columbia’s progress: More kids in poverty based on free and reduced lunch rates. Fewer people in the “haves” category who understand what it means to be poor. More adults working multiple jobs and still facing the prospect of not having enough to eat.

Consider: By 2012, public school children living in poverty in Columbia had risen by 10 percent since 2003. About 40 percent of public school kids qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.

At one point I brought up crime in town. It had been more than an hour into the conversation, and the only mention had been a sense that some people perceive downtown as a high crime area when once it was thought safe. (I was happy to hear them also refer to a Missourian article last fall showing crime rates in most categories have gone down.)

But the group didn’t bite on the crime apple I dangled. They turned things back to those haves and have-nots. Several nodded as one described crime as a symptom of poverty (though not the only one).

They even brought up a category of poor I think we often dismiss: the college poor. While some students can afford luxury apartments and studies by the poolside, others are working full time and more. And, too often, they’re graduating with a mountain of debt and few prospects for jobs.

What does this all mean for the Missourian’s journalism? One board member wanted to be able to see the face of poverty beyond facts and figures. Another wanted to know about the increasing strain on the support network in town, and I assume she meant from government and civic areas.

In other words, I took the conversation to mean that these people wanted their newspaper to shine a light on the problem — one that hasn’t gone away in the 50 years since Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”

I believe that has been Chris Belcher’s greatest accomplishment in attacking the achievement gap problem. He’s right that the needle hasn’t moved much in some ways. But he hasn’t let the conversation die. He continued to raise it at civic gatherings and school board meetings throughout his four-plus years as superintendent. There is movement, even if it’s not always seen.

I’m sure Belcher will continue to beat the drum until his retirement this summer. After that, it’s incumbent on the rest of us to make sure the beat isn’t silenced.

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Michael Williams January 18, 2014 | 10:12 a.m.

That was pretty slick rhetoric torpedoing any contrary opinions, to wit: "Fewer people in the “have’s” category who understand what it means to be poor."

That is to say, "You disagree, but have never been poor, so your disagreement is obviously flawed and erroneous and we're not going to listen to you."

Well, I've been poor. Twice. Once as a boy, and once as a grad student. More than once we had to leave items at the checkout counter because we'd filled our cart too much. And I've bought gasoline by the 2-gallon quantity plenty of times, too.

It appears "income inequality" is the cause-of-the-year for liberals. Apparently we've moved past climate change and other causes.

So, now my thoughts on the matter:

I happen to think inequality has increased over the last 5 years.

But, I also think monetary efforts by gov'ts to close this gap have a 50-year history of utter, abject, and complete failure. I've seen good economies come and go, and even in the BEST of economies I still see THE SAME PEOPLE not accepting their own responsibilities as parents and students and griping about their own poverty. This article is printed during a bad economy, a time best suited to selling this politically-expedient inequality issue. But, where the hell was the article in the late 1990s? What the hell were folks in poverty doing to get out of poverty during the GOOD times?

I've finally concluded economies have little to do with this thing called poverty. Rather, the inertia comes from within individuals and groups, stemming from attitude and cultural choices on the part of parents, students, and peer-groups.

Your Readers Board is identifying a symptom, not a cause. The most accurate statement coming from this article was "...the honest, public conversation here" that isn't occurring.

But, I do understand how hard it is to say "You're doing it wrong" to individuals, groups, cultures, and the like on something as sensitive as this. I'm sure the Readers Board meeting would have been a bit more raucous if such an explanation had been offered.

For me, I have little use for continuation of the 50-year same-o-same-o strategies.

So, I disagree. You're doing it wrong.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 18, 2014 | 12:23 p.m.

Maybe the author could just as easily have said, "Fewer people in the “have not” category who understand what it means to be wealthier."

Which might be an even more meaningful statement.

Then folks might more clearly see the positive effects of paying attention in high school, not having kids until your financially and emotionally ready, showing up for work on time, accepting individual responsibility, knowing the difference between an asset and a liability, understanding interest rates, understanding the extraordinary value of delayed-gratification and good long-term choices, the horror of poor short-term bad decisions....and the like.

Instead, it's always a "thing" or a "they" holding folks down.

It's never a "me...I did it".

You want a good story, Missourian?

Find several poorer, older, and wiser folks willing to tell you all the mistakes THEY made in life getting to where they are today.

There's no need for you to report on the folks who have made no mistakes, the mistakes having been made...of others. Their assignment of "fault" lies elsewhere, and we've heard THAT story many, many times.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith January 18, 2014 | 11:20 p.m.

I'm reminded of a bumper sticker quite popular during the Johnson administration, in particular about 1965. At the time, while had my office in Missouri, I was working on projects around the country. No matter where I went, there was that same bumper sticker: I FIGHT POVERTY - I WORK!

That attitude still exists, and the day it ceases to exist this country will be finished! But today there are fewer well-paid employment opportunities for those seeking work, because increasingly jobs today require specific skills, in turn requiring specialized education or other skills training.

When will THAT situation be addressed in depth by the media? Doesn't it NEED to be? As you read this there are students enrolled at colleges in Columbia pursuing majors with both scant and decreasing demand: probably soon to become blind alley careers.

The concept that earning a college degree, with no thought to the degree's utility, is something neither students nor our country can afford.

PS: Am I the only one growing tired of this "us" versus "them" manner of framing all current issues?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 19, 2014 | 8:18 a.m.

"Am I the only one growing tired of this "us" versus "them" manner of framing all current issues?"

Rich v. poor, male v. female, religious v. not-religious, homosexual v. heterosexual, black v. white, and on-and-on-and-on ad nauseum.

Yeah, I'm sick of it. I didn't start it, either, but I've watched it start and grow. The Missourian helped(s)(past and present tense apply).

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith January 19, 2014 | 1:23 p.m.

There are obvious reasons for "soft peddling" diminished value of certain college majors. One is that if it were honestly acknowledged that a major has lost relevancy it would suggest that the faculty, and by extension the entire educational institution, is also losing relevancy.

For state institutions the problem is that funding has been and continues to be tied to number of students present in a program*. It "pays" to entice students into potential dead-end occupational programs because that continues their funding. Whether this is fair to the students' welfare or society's needs seems to be beside the point.

Also, if the programs were terminated, how would younger (not eligible for retirement) faculty members find outside employment? If there's a scarcity of employment for college graduates, wouldn't there also be for former faculty members?

There are plenty of topics to be addressed, but WHEN? We certainly wouldn't want to discuss any that might close to home. :)

*-IF a strict funding policy of number of students in a program were absolutely followed there would be NO institutions of higher learning in this country offering Ceramic Engineering, Metallurgical Engineering, Mining Engineering, Petroleum Engineering or Nuclear Engineering. As it is, there aren't many, but graduates have no problem finding well-paid employment.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 19, 2014 | 2:22 p.m.



I have the sticks, stake, and rope.

Anyone have a match?


(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith January 20, 2014 | 6:23 a.m.


Earlier this month we had air temperatures here of minus 16F with wind chills to minus 50F, so heat might have been welcome.

If the present state of higher education causes some to be uncomfortable, they might consider doing something about it. Reducing administrative costs would be a worthwhile place to begin.

Bigger is not necessarily better.

For many, the cost of a college education at a public institution in the 1950s also represented a financial sacrifice, but those folks came far closer to receiving fair value for dollars spent.

(Report Comment)
Skip Yates January 20, 2014 | 7:41 p.m.

Undergraduate degrees that lead to nowhere are a significant source of revenue for MU...not only that it employs a number of professors or assistants of questionable significance; but, you might find that large numbers of those students switching from one soft major to another, take 5 years to get a 4 year degree. At MU, the engineering folks tell prospective candidates what the normal expected salary would be for graduates; outside of medicine, no other college seems to do that for good reason. A upside of this is that here in Columbia, we have an overload of highly educated bartenders and servers at the local drinking holes. Both my sons were initially engineering students and "bright flight" scholars and they were told up front, expected initial salary was $53,00 (or so) per year. Indoc at other MU colleges had no such comment, although we only attended one or two others. It has been a while; but, I think back then, the university actually had a degree in "peace studies". Made all the liberals feel good. Downside is you could read the help wanted ads in the Sunday issue of WAPO forever and never find anyone asking for a person with a degree in Peace Studies. There outa be a law........ Just sayin'

(Report Comment)

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