If we let Forbes writer Gene Marks tell it, it's easy to make it out of poverty and into prosperity. Step 1: Grab your bootstraps. Step 2: Pull really hard. Voilà! You are now on the fast track out of being lodged in under-resourced neighborhoods and schools and one step closer to the American dream.
In a widely read article, Marks advises poor black students to work their hardest and don their super-responsibility caps so that they, too, can beat the odds. The poor black student who does everything Marks suggests would be exceptional, in more ways than one. The catch is that one exceptional case is just that: one exception to a larger reality. Most black children born into poverty will not make it out of poverty. It's not because of their lack of effort; it's because of the structural limitations they face.
Recently, there has been an increased interest in urban school reform. Media celebration of charter schools and "no excuses" schools would make one think that for poor black children, school choice is a path out of poverty. In reality, while poor families have more choices, they're still choosing between schools that on average do not equal or outpace their suburban counterparts in academic performance. Among charter schools "that work," there are many things that remain unclear about what helps them achieve success and sustain that success.
Even if an individual child is resourceful enough to identify a well-performing school in his or her area, there is high demand for such schools, making them often out of reach. Plus, it is rare for a high-poverty school to beat the odds consistently.
It's easier to tell a child to find the one good school around him or her than it is to tell that same child the truth: that urban schools have been failing kids for years, and we haven't figured out how to turn them around. Saving one child or one school is achievable; saving a failing district and providing quality choices is difficult but essential.
Urban schools are not the only institutions in crisis. Many of the other resources that children and adults need for education and growth are in crisis, too. While library time may seem like the cure-all for ambitious learners in ailing schools, many libraries are struggling to keep their doors open. In cities like Detroit, budgetary restraints are forcing hard decisions about schools and libraries, with a number them under the threat of being shuttered.
With hours of operation being reduced and fewer resources annually going to collections and staffing, the library is dwindling as a site of community, knowledge gathering and civic education. While Google Scholar and digital access to resources may seem like fast alternatives, in reality, you must overcome the digital divide to use them — and then, many of the contents you desire must be paid for.
Access to costly digital resources is best achieved at the library, but again, budgetary constraints have exacerbated the decline of brick-and-mortar libraries. This means that people, particularly low-income people, have less access to technology, information and safe spaces in which to convene.
Having access to educational resources, or even choices about schooling, does not automatically mean that you will reap the benefit. I can recall spending long hours trying to teach myself statistics in lieu of taking a class; suffice it to say that I was not my own best teacher. It was not until I took a proper class and had good teaching that I learned statistics. Initiative and books are not enough to succeed; most students need support from teachers, librarians and other trained professionals to gain the most from schooling and educational tools.
When we put all the onus on poor black folks to do for themselves, we are also scoffing at the importance of other participants in their growth. Too often, black youths are located in schools with underqualified teachers. Amid the heavy pressure by federal and local authorities to change, schools are moving quickly to reform, but sometimes too quickly.
The threat of closure has left many educational reforms half-baked and unceremoniously discontinued in hopes of finding the next best thing. This is the problem of many and cannot be solved by the initiative of one.
Poor black children and communities remain in crisis, and it's going to take a restructuring of society to improve this condition. Imagine you are in an office building with hundreds of inhabitants on 10 floors. At the bottom of the building, there is only one exit. In the event of a fire, you would be right to head for the exit as quickly and as orderly as possible, but the problem is, there is only one exit. Will a few escape the fire? Yes! Will most? No.
Many poor children in America today face this kind of condition. They remain in places with the odds stacked against them in dangerous ways. Instead of adding more exits and options, politicians and commentators routinely blame the poor for being trapped in poverty.
Yet the building I have described would never be allowed to exist. Local and federal agencies would be mandated to fix the structure, not to advise the building inhabitants to try harder at getting out of the building. We need to adjust the structures of poor schools and communities to make sure we can get as many out of poverty as possible.
The best thing we can do as concerned citizens is make sure there are more exit options. Whether rich or poor, black or white or any other identity, we must demand true education reform and comprehensive poverty alleviation. This would help all children gain a better-quality education, not just a select few.
We must raise our voices to politicians who think that cutting municipal services like libraries and closing schools is a healthy way to revive poor communities. We must widen opportunities for people lodged in low-income neighborhoods, instead of telling them to work hard and compete for crumbs of the American dream.
R. L'Heureux Lewis is an assistant professor of sociology and black studies at the City College of New York of the City University of New York. His research and writing specialize in education, race and inequality. Follow him on Twitter.