The debate over what it takes to get low-income kids ready for college, and then to actually earn a degree, has long been polarized. Some argue that better schools alone can ensure that such students are ready to enter and finish college. Others see this view as naive, pointing to the many socioeconomic obstacles facing low-income kids along with the high costs of college.
Who's right in this debate? Both sides. Or at least that is the premise of one of the most ambitious experiments now under way in urban education.
From the 1970s through the mid-1990s, poverty policy was among the nastiest battlefields in the national culture war. Left and right slugged it out over why people were poor and how (or whether) to help them. Conservatives generally enjoyed the upper hand in these debates by focusing on individual-level causes of poverty, like family breakdown, drug addiction, and poor work habits -- pathologies said to be enabled by government largesse. This story line struck a chord with the American public, helping ensure the demise of the federal welfare entitlement and the introduction of strict work requirements in 1996.
During his 12 years as a U.S. Congressman from Colorado, David Skaggs did his best to listen to all his constituents. He held open office hours during which anyone could just walk in. He hosted town meetings around his district, which covered the northwest suburbs of Denver. He set up at supermarkets, talking to whoever stopped by.
One of the greatest successes of American social policy over the last few decades has been a dramatic reduction in poverty among the elderly. Even so, some 3.3 million seniors still live below the poverty line. Several million more scrape by just above the poverty line. For many of these people, poverty is the reward for adult lives spent continuously in the workforce or raising children and managing a family. Good housing and proper medical care are often out of reach for the poor elderlyor so expensive that little money is left over for other needs. Hundreds of thousands of elders go hungry every month.
Election day in New York City, November 4, 1997. A cold wind whips through the streets of East Harlem, but sun peeks through billowy clouds and rain is nowhere in sight. A chipper young campaign worker stands on the corner of 125th Street handing out flyers for a city council candidate. She's hopeful about turnout. "I think people are going to vote because the weather is nice," she predicts. A few blocks away, on 120th Street, dutiful citizensmost of them oldertrickle into a dilapidated elementary school that serves as a polling place.