Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

By Lewis, Anne C. | Phi Delta Kappan, November 1996 | Go to article overview

Breaking the Cycle of Poverty


Lewis, Anne C., Phi Delta Kappan


Recently, an article on welfare reform that appeared in the publication of an education group conveyed a message that essentially said, "Don't worry. The details don't affect us much." True. The specifics of the legislation probably won't mean much more to schools than some changes on the fringes, but this analysis fails to look at the big picture. From a wide-angle perspective, virtually everyone is in the view finder, and even the most privileged students and their families will be drawn in eventually because what is done (or not done) for the least of us will affect us all.

The poor and their problems are so complex that blame is passed around freely and solutions are fractured into pieces too small to have much impact. Some maintain that teachers and administrators, even those in the most disadvantaged schools, are justified in believing that they cannot have much of an effect on the lives of the poorest children because of what happens outside the school and what has occurred before these youngsters are old enough even to attend school.

That is pure nonsense. At the core of the problems of those on or nearly on welfare is the inadequacy of the schools' efforts to teach what they should teach first and foremost - language. Above all else, young children must be taught to read, write, speak, and listen so well that they can use these skills competently and can interpret increasingly challenging material.

Unfortunately, three-fourths of all welfare/food stamp recipients perform at the lowest levels of literacy as defined by the National Adult Literacy Survey. And this is not a problem of race and ethnicity. The largest number of welfare mothers who will soon be required to be skilled enough to join the work force are white. Higher percentages of blacks and Hispanics are on welfare, but whites outnumber them. This is a problem of class.

Similarly, low levels of literacy result in low employment rates and lower wages. Not having literacy skills usually makes it impossible for an individual to break out of the intergenerational cycles of poverty. In the long run, the higher the income of a family, the more education succeeding generations receive. This is a puzzle that only higher literacy skills among citizens in the lower economic strata can solve.

Drawing from the same data provided by the National Adult Literacy Survey, researchers at the Educational Testing Service found that two-thirds of prison inmates are also at the lowest levels of literacy. If the current trend toward higher prison rates continues, according to the ETS researchers, there soon will be more people in prison than in four-year colleges. It is chilling to think of a society that fills its prisons with uneducated (mostly young) men and women and fails to see the connection between good education and good lives.

But how do we break the cycle of poverty and illiteracy? It becomes clearer if we start by sorting out the populations and setting priorities for immediate attention. There are young mothers and fathers whose literacy skills must be made good enough to prevent their children from reliving the cycle of low skills/low wages. There are teenage mothers with poor literacy skills who must be prepared for an increasingly demanding workplace, and there are teenagers at risk of dropping out and/or starting families too early. Finally, there are the unborn, who should be able to count on entering families that are prepared to think of the future of their newest members from the moment of their births.

Here are four research-based proposals that - if adopted by educators, schools, and communities - might finally break the intergenerational cycle of poverty that blights the lives of children.

* For young children already in the system, educate their parents, especially the mothers, to the hilt. …

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