Opinion | Healthcare

Education is the key to escaping a life of poverty and poor health

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

It's the time of the year when we celebrate those who have progressed in their educational endeavors. Pomp and circumstances are in full swing for many who have graduated from high school or college preparing to move on to their next chapter in life. For me, graduating with my baccalaureate degree in nursing remains my most significant achievement to date, especially because I had entered college very unprepared and still recovering from a horrific foster care experience. Not sure of what the future held, I persevered as if my life depended on it. Little did I know how right I was 

Everyday there are many others like me who have progressed against a number of odds. Their resilience and tenacity are something to be admired. Consider Tupac Mason, a homeless youth from Memphis, who recently scored three million dollars in scholarship money. Tupac's story is particularly inspiring given the increase in the number of the homeless students who may never finish school. According to Education Leads Home, a national campaign devoted to improving the outcomes of homeless children, 87 percent of homeless youth are more likely to drop out of school.

While information about homeless students varies across the country, the growing numbers of homeless students and related graduation rates is quite daunting. Findings from the report "Homeless Students In America's Public Schools" revealed a tremendous growth in the number of homeless students in Pre K to 12 in America's public schools. More than 1.3 million children were identified as being homeless during 2013 -2014, representing a 7 percent increase from the previous year and doubling the number of homeless students in 2006-2007.

Initially only five states collected high school graduation rates for homeless students. Graduation rates for homeless students in all of the reporting states lagged behind the graduation rates for all students, including low income students. Thankfully, federal legislation now requires all states to report the graduation and performance rates of homeless students commencing with data for the 2017-2018 school year.

Tupac's ability to complete his high school education in the midst of unimaginable odds may be one of the strongest predictors of his ability to escape from a life of homelessness and poverty. And while college is not for everyone, there is a strong correlation among education attainment, earning potential and even health. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, individuals with less than a high school diploma earn less and are more likely to be unemployed compared to individuals with a higher level of education.

In 2018, individuals with less than a high school diploma had a median weekly earnings of $553.00 and a 5.4 percent rate of unemployment. Individuals with a high school diploma and no college had a median weekly earnings of $730.00 and a 4.3 percent rate of unemployment. Median weekly earnings increase with the increase in educational attainment. Being employed is a critical first step to eliminating the gripping effects of homelessness and poverty. 

Education is also linked to health status and life expectancy. Increasingly experts have identified income and education as two of the most important factors influencing life expectancy and health status measures. Graduation from high school is now a leading health indicator for the nation as outlined in Healthy Pe ople 2020.

Individuals who drop out of high school are more likely to self-report poor health, engage in risky behaviors and experience a number of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, asthma, stroke and hypertension. Many individuals who do not complete high school have less access to resources needed to maintain their health and well-being. Limited employment options further reduce access to key resources including access to health care. While more needs to be known about the relationship between life expectancy and education, researchers surmise that education is one of the strongest predictors of life expectancy. 

Over the course of my life I have benefited from being able to complete my education and become a nurse. While I realize that college is not for everyone, completion of one's education provides one of the strongest pathways for escaping homelessness, finding employment and becoming a contributing member of society. All children deserve an opportunity to complete their education and move on to become productive citizens. Perhaps Tupac Mason's story will send a clarion call that more needs to be done to assist homeless students in achieving their dreams. 

There is an urgent need for the nation to move our homeless children out of hidden view and provide them with stable environments, resources and support that will enable them to complete their education. The adoption of social policies that integrate educational disparities along with health considerations has the potential to mitigate some of the immediate and long term negative effects of being homeless. Our ability to do so will not only impact the lives of homeless students, but our nation as a whole and generations to come.

Janice Phillips RN, is an associate professor at Rush University College of Nursing and the director of Nursing Research and Health Equity at the Rush University Medical Center and a Public Voices fellow of the OpEd Project.

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