Income and education inequality persists, more must be done

As the country begins to take stock of President Barack Obama’s legacy, many will look to the economy as a measure of our country’s progress. After one of the worst recessions in over 80 years, the job market now appears fundamentally stable and the nightmare of high unemployment has receded. This may lead us all to believe that simply creating more jobs is the silver-bullet solution to any economic crisis. But in reality, millions of Americans, particularly those with a high school education, continue to struggle to provide for themselves and their families.

As the latest job reports show, job growth is indeed happening – just not for everyone. While the unemployment rate for people with bachelor’s degrees has dropped to 2.5 percent, that figure for people without a high school diploma is still at 7.5 percent. And for those with only a high school diploma the unemployment rate is 5 percent. That’s 25 percent higher than the 4 percent national average for those aged over 25.

By the numbers, earning power clearly correlates to education; a good education offers a better chance of a job with higher pay and all the benefits that job security can bring – better health, better housing, and a more prosperous future for one’s family.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a college degree can lead to a median yearly salary of $49,900, compared to just $30,000 for a high school graduate and $25,000 for those who do not complete high school. Additionally, 65 percent of children whose parents have no education beyond high school live in poverty and only 9 percent of low-income students go on to earn a bachelor’s degree, compared to some 77 percent of high-income students. The impact of this profound inequality leads to a cycle of poverty that can stretch across generations, perpetuating and compounding already growing wealth disparities. This lack of access to opportunity and economic mobility devastates individuals and communities.

Breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty is crucial for our economic future and for the future of our country.

We can disrupt this cycle by providing educational, social, and financial opportunities that level the playing field for our low-income students. We can no longer sit back and allow the more than 25 million public school students from low-income backgrounds to suffer from a disproportionate lack of social, emotional and academic resources. We cannot leave these students to languish with limited opportunities to fulfill their potential, secure successful careers, and uplift their communities. After all, the impact that a post-secondary degree can have on their lives is more dramatic and further reaching than for their high-income peers. So we need to ensure that all students, regardless of their circumstances, have access to a quality education and the same chance to graduate from college, provide for their families, and give back to their communities.

To achieve this, we need to engage students as early as kindergarten and provide them with consistent support, resources, and the long-term framework they need to graduate from college. This should include a year-round, long-term, and individualized engagement that provides academic enrichment, mentorship, internships, college application guidance, and tuition assistance. However, support can’t stop there. Once students get to college, we need to make sure they continue to succeed. The help we offer needs to reach beyond scholarships and financial aid. Particularly for those who are first-generation college students, guidance is needed in navigating the daunting collegiate experience.. Think about it: did you know what a bursar’s office was before going to college?

We know this type of comprehensive support works because we’ve done it.  Since 1981, the ‘I Have A Dream’ Foundation has succeeded in helping over 17,000 low-income and first-generation college students, our Dreamers, overcome tremendous personal challenges to achieve their goals of getting to and through college. As a result, our Dreamers are 3 times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than their low-income peers, and 90% complete high school, compared to 70% of their low-income peers.  Collectively, our Dreamers’ academic achievements will help them earn an additional $2.9 billion over their lifetimes.

We know that long-term, year-round, individualized engagement is what we need to truly turn around the educational inequities that exist in low-income communities. By transforming the lives of young people growing up in poverty, we can improve our economy and make our job opportunities truly equitable for all Americans.

We need to level the playing field. Achieving this takes a major commitment to individual students over a long period of time. It is no quick fix. But it does work. And when it does, it shows just how powerful education can be, not just in transforming individual lives, but in its ripple effects through whole communities and over multiple generations. The task at hand is not one of producing jobs and watching numbers grow. To enact permanent change, we must take action on the community, and personal, level by ensuring all young people have the opportunity to succeed in school and in life. We are not saying it will be easy, but if we put in the resources and time, the improved life outcomes for our most disadvantaged young people will more than compensate for the investment.

Lawrence, is the CEO of the “I Have A Dream” Foundation (IHDF), which offers support to low-income students who wish to attend college. Follow the foundation on Twitter @IHDFNational


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