After spending the past eight weeks assisting impoverished communities and individuals around the country, students in the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty internship program spent Tuesday morning, Aug. 6, listening to three national leaders in poverty education paint a picture that was equal parts hopeful, pessimistic and realistic.
The interns represent 17 of the 19 institutions that compose the consortium, which was established in 2011 and is an outgrowth of Washington and Lee University's Shepherd Poverty Program.
During their internships, students taught in classrooms from New York to St. Anne's Mission to the Navajo Nation in Arizona; helped clients obtain employment in Washington and Boston; worked in legal clinics in Helena, Ark., and Fredericksburg, Va.; and assisted in health-care facilities in Richmond, Va., and Camden, N.J., among many assignments.
Once they returned to Lexington for a three-day summing-up of the experience, each student described their experiences and what they had learned on Monday, Aug. 5, at the W&L School of Law.
Then the consortium staged its second annual teaching symposium on Tuesday in Virginia Military Institute's Gillis Theater. In addition to the interns, faculty and staff representatives of the member colleges also attended.
Kirsten Lodal, who is the CEO and co-founder of the innovative LIFT program, congratulated the interns on their accomplishments while acknowledging that they may not have come away from the experience feeling as if they had really made a dent.
"Even if you felt that you weren't able to see the big, concrete, marquee headline successes that you wanted to see — huge shifts in household incomes, huge employment gains, huge family stability gains — the fact that you treated people with dignity and respect is really the most important first step in powerfully combatting poverty and expanding opportunity in this country," Lodal said.
Lodal was a Yale University sophomore when she co-founded LIFT in 1998. She described how she and the volunteers in her young organization essentially stalked President Bill Clinton in order to get the program on his radar with the hope of gaining some funding.
LIFT now runs centers trained by volunteers in major U.S. cities, where the organization serves low-income individuals and families and plays a leadership role in numerous poverty-related policy initiatives. Three Shepherd interns worked for LIFT in Washington.
Lodal asked the interns about their primary takeaway from their experience.
"They said that the main thing they took away from their experience was that people are the solution. They said, 'Poverty isn't something we can solve by throwing money at it from afar. Poverty is best addressed with human interaction, compassion and consideration,' " she said. “That is not how most policy debates play out. We forget that we are talking about other human beings just like us.”
Lodal told the interns, "I think you all can be in the vanguard on the next wave of this movement. I am optimistic about the change that we could create, and I am totally optimistic about what you can do by rethinking the ways we can expand opportunities in this country."
Kathryn Edin, professor of public policy and management of the Harvard Kennedy School, told the audience that social policy can work, pointing to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) as proof. EITC is a federal tax credit for low- and moderate-income working people.
"There is a lot of evidence that welfare reform has been a smashing success," she said, "but it's also been a colossal failure."
EITC, Edin said, is why welfare reform works and has succeeded "beyond our wildest dreams." The most profound change, she added, hasn't been how much money individuals get, but how they feel about themselves, and how it reinforces the value of work.
EITC is not a safety net, however. Edin said, "At the same time EITC was lifting about 3.5 million children out of poverty in any given year, nearly an equal number are experiencing extreme poverty — families with children living on less than $2 per person per day."
Edin's most recent book, "Doing the Best I Can: Fathering in the Inner Center," co-written with Timothy Nelson, is based on in-depth interviews with more than 100 fathers. In thinking about how to combat poverty, Edin said that "we have to pay attention to the fathers."
Based on her study, Edin said that fathers are not "hit-and-run men who want to impregnate women and selfishly flee. Fathers wanted to be engaged." By ignoring fathers, she said, we are courting disaster. "If we don't connect men to families, they're not connected to any institution. And we know that people without any institutional ties get into trouble."
Both Edin and Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Institution Center on Children and Families, emphasized the importance of education as a way to effect meaningful change.
Said Edin: "Evidence is coalescing around the hypothesis that by doing better what we're already supposed to do — by creating excellent educational environments for children, the kind that every American child deserves — we can make headway. Imagine if we had great schools and decent jobs."
Haskins expanded on that issue in his remarks, offering data that show the value of education.
"If we were smart, we would really be focused like a laser on education," he said. "And so would town councils and school boards and mayors."
Haskins was pessimistic when it comes to the interaction between education and the economy — a "chicken-and-egg" relationship, as he described it. "The American education system is not producing people who are well educated," he said. "If we did, then they would be more likely to get a job, and then the economy would grow."
The problem, he said, is kids who come to school unprepared to take advantage of the education, combined with poor teaching and bad facilities.
"What really concerns me is that this is not going to change, except that it's going to get worse," said Haskins, author of "Work Over Welfare: The Inside Story of the 1996 Welfare Reform Law." "A higher and higher percentage of middle-class jobs are going to require education. And the kids are no better prepared, the schools are no more capable. If those things don't change, we're going to go on this way."
Haskins focused on personal responsibility, especially among young people, as a critical factor, noting that individual decisions have a major impact on opportunity, equality and poverty rates.
"Kids are making bad decisions," he said. "They don't study. They drop out of school. They don't work enough. They have babies outside marriage. When you add those things up, it has a huge impact on society and a huge impact on government spending. If we can learn to help people be more responsible, especially young people, and at the same time improve our government programs, we can do even more than we're doing now to reduce poverty and increase equality."
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs