According to a report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers, historical standards for what constitutes poverty have improved and therefore the anti-poverty movement has been a success. While this analysis may take into account those historical factors that describe conditions of poverty, it grossly understates the human suffering and intergenerational character of poverty as viewed by those of us who continue to fight this insidious war.
Admittedly, a full understanding of poverty and the solutions for reducing the rate of poverty are not easy. Economists continue to debate about which factors contribute most to poverty: for example, is education the single most important factor causing poverty; or, are there other factors such as family structure, parental educational status, racism, class division and, or, social inequality? Can the pathway out of poverty be determined solely by the quality of education one receives; or, are there other variables that are equally determinant – and if so, where should our priorities lie? Of course this academic exercise has little real world relevance. Any practitioner in the war on poverty knows that it takes all of the above — all the time. If fact, to view education in isolation or independent of any other factors related to community life loses sight of its comprehensive and organic nature. Education is not an end in and of itself. It is a means to a far greater outcome: prosperous and healthy living, social equality, economic wellbeing. Quality education is infused throughout the life of the community extending far beyond the classroom. It can serve as the source for community problem solving, cultural and social advancement and economic prosperity. Since the Enlightenment and the advent of Western democracy, the purpose of education has been foundational to every aspect of community and personal life as well as future aspirations.
Creating a successful educational environment intended to advance the interests of our communities requires a vision that organically aligns our efforts both vertically and horizontally. The vertical alignment between our educational institutions, or what is referred to as a K-16 model –must take into account what we already know about educational theory and student learning. New knowledge builds on prior knowledge and deep thinking requires synthesis, integration and application which are reinforced from one level of learning to the next. In an effort to build on this concept, the Community College of Philadelphia and the School District of Philadelphia engage in a number of early-college, dual enrollment and middle college initiatives. These programs have a high level of continuity between the high school and college level learning experience. On average, students who take part in the programs do better in college, graduate from college sooner and attack the cost of higher education head on. Aligning the school curriculum with workforce, business and community needs creates a horizontal alignment. Career and technical pathways provide students with the opportunity to take short-term certificates and then move directly into the workforce or parlay those certificates into higher levels of learning and credentials. Embedding civic engagement, internships and clinical rotations into the curriculum allows our students to apply their classroom learning experiences to real life conditions. Similarly, students are able to volunteer in the community whereby the community setting becomes part of their formal classroom — extending the educational reach of the college into the community.
The good news about higher education is that students who graduate with a post-secondary education have a life time earning potential 66 percent higher than those without a college degree. However, the current challenge is the expected gap between post-secondary degree attainment levels and the economy’s need for a trained and educated workforce by 2025. According to the Lumina Foundation, 65 percent of new jobs will require some college education. Currently, only 46 percent of the adult population hold a post-secondary credential. Also, common thinking suggests that issues of access and opportunity have largely dissipated due to financial aid and the open access mission of the community college. That is not necessarily the case.
Poverty’s reach inhibits too many who seek a college education and, more importantly, it impacts those who have managed to make it through the doors of the community college but then are confronted with life’s conditions making it near impossible to succeed. Hunger, food insecurity, homelessness and housing insecurity have become far more common among college students. Colleges must provide support services that go beyond the traditional academic and student support programs. Community College of Philadelphia provides a food pantry for hungry students; the Single Stop program helps students to deal with housing issues, hunger and legal services. Our Foster Care project helps those who have aged out of the foster care system; and our Center for Male Engagement helps men of color confront the issues of racism and related institutional hostilities. There are many more programs and services provided by the College to help students succeed despite economic and social hardships. They are all essential components to a quality higher education experience.
Despite the obstacles caused by poverty, those who are able to persevere do quite well and therefore demonstrate the importance of a higher education credential in combating the scourge of poverty. For example, according to a New York Times article in 2017, Community College of Philadelphia ranks within the 98th percentile of colleges whose graduates are able to move up the Social Mobility index by 2 or more income quintiles. This is a powerful indicator of the College’s success and evidence of the impact higher education can have on poverty.
There is much to be proud of, but much needs to be done. Reducing the poverty rate requires a coordinated effort by institutions of education, government, business and civic enterprises.