Jim Tankersley (c) 2014, The Washington Post. FORT WORTH — Chelsey Stone had already escaped so many of the traps that keep poor children in poverty for life. She recalls begging neighbors for dinner when her mother sold their food stamps for drug money. She slept on the trampoline outside when the heroin showed up and her mom locked the door and the binges began. When she rebelled as a teenager, it was with poster board: She plastered her house with bright signs warning, “Do Not Throw Needles Away Here.”
Her teachers saw that spark. You can earn a college scholarship, they said. Land a good job, and don’t depend on the government or anyone else. She knew they were right. She was almost there.
Then she got pregnant. Then she was 17, working two jobs to feed herself and her daughter, Kiara. She started college and tried to carry a full load of classes, and it was too much. She dropped out. And there went her chance at the middle class, racing away across the plains.
“Where I was from, everyone was like, ‘She’s going to be like her mom.’ And I was like, ‘No, I’m not,’ ” Stone said. But when the baby came, “I couldn’t keep it up.”
The American economy has stopped working the way it used to for millions of Americans. The path from poverty to the middle class has changed — now, it runs through higher education.
In 1965, a typical man whose education stopped after four years of high school earned a salary 15 percent higher than the median male worker. By 2012, a high-school-only grad was earning 20 percent less than the median. The swing has been even more dramatic for women who stopped their education after high school: They earned almost 40 percent more than the median female salary in 1965 and 24 percent less in 2012.
College graduates, meanwhile, have widened their income advantage over high school grads, as several recent studies demonstrate — including one from MIT economist David Autor, who found that the annual income gap between a college-educated family and a high-school-educated one grew by $28,000 over the past 35 years, after adjusting for inflation. Nine out of 10 children who grow up at the bottom of the income ladder, but then graduate from college, move up to a higher economic bracket as adults, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Less than half of kids without a degree make the same leap.
That creates a paradox: Being poor is a big impediment to getting the education that lifts you out of poverty.
Study after study shows students from wealthier families are increasingly more likely to graduate from college than students from low-income families. Statistics from the Education Department show that high-income students who score poorly on standardized tests are more likely to earn degrees than low-income students who notch high test scores.
Low-income students struggle to earn even two-year degrees or professional certifications, which can lead to good-paying jobs. Thousands of low-paid, low-skilled Texans enroll in community college full time every year. Fewer than 1 in 9 of them earns an associate’s degree within three years. Nationally, it’s about 1 in 8.
Why is it so hard today for the children of poverty to finish the schooling they need to climb into the middle class? Researchers blame changes in society and the economy, which have made it easier for students to drop out or be discouraged from enrolling in the first place.
When you live on the margins, economists are discovering, even the smallest disruption can knock you off course and out of school. Things like your car breaking down, or your neighbor saying she can’t watch your child anymore, or your boss threatening to fire you if you don’t work more hours in your low-wage job.
Emerging research suggests there’s a broader social pull at work, too, linked to the nation’s faltering middle class and the widening gap between the very rich and everyone else. Dwindling economic opportunity, University of Maryland economist Melissa Kearney has found, compounds across generations to keep children poor.
If you are poor, growing up in a place where the income gap between you and the middle class is wide and seemingly insurmountable, Kearney discovered — if you don’t see a lot of people like you moving up in life — you’re much more likely to make choices that will keep you out of the middle class yourself. Choices like dropping out of high school or having a baby while young and unmarried. You don’t properly evaluate the risks of those choices, because what future do you have to risk, really?
Over the past 40 years the nation has seen a surge in children born to low-income single mothers. About 25 percent of American families are now headed by a single mom, according to Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, double the rate from 1970. Nearly half the children of single mothers live in poverty. Kearney’s research suggests that as they grow up, those children will make choices that will reduce their odds of reaching the middle class.
In South Texas, Stone saw that firsthand. “I see my cousins, and they’re trapped in the same cycle, and they don’t care,” she said — don’t care about being poor, or being on food stamps, or working part time for minimum wage. “They don’t care they don’t have nice things.”
Stone wanted nice things, so six years after her daughter was born she went back to school, clawing her way into community college. She moved out of her small town and in with an elderly friend in a suburban subdivision on a man-made lake south of Fort Worth, then later, in a duplex she rented with her boyfriend. She found a job as a preschool aide, at minimum wage, then worked her way up to become a teacher, at $10 an hour. She signed up for classes. She made a work schedule that allowed her to pick up Kiara from school.
But to keep from dropping out again this time, she needed help. That’s what so many low-income Americans need on their road to a better life: help with little things. Someone to watch the baby. Someone to help with the rent. Someone to ease the burden of being a mom and being a student and working to afford food and shelter and transportation.
And this time, for Stone, that someone was waiting.
Catholic Charities Fort Worth is a nonprofit, faith-based social service agency that occupies a sprawling campus on the outskirts of town. It runs on the scale of a small city. The group helped 120,000 low-income people in 2012. Its annual budget is $27.5 million, about half of which comes from government sources. It employs 350 people, and all of them, from the janitors on up, earn at least $13 an hour, which the group has determined is a living wage for the area. The charity doesn’t want its employees to be its customers.
“Customers” are what the group’s leaders call the people who fill their waiting room every day. The group’s new mission is to stop seeing as many of those folks as possible — by helping them go to school, gain skills and get hired in a living-wage job. In a pilot program that began in 2012, Catholic Charities Fort Worth selected 19 applicants and paired them with social workers. All of the participants enrolled in community-college programs that put them on a path to a high-demand job in the Fort Worth area that pays well, such as accounting or aviation mechanics.
The social workers coach the students through class sign-up, help them get government assistance when necessary, and are allowed to dispense up to $500 a year to the students to survive financial “shocks,” such as being forced to find a new apartment to rent or hire a new babysitter. (One man needed cash to get his car out of impoundment so that he could live in it.)
The program was so successful that the charity expanded it, in partnership with a team of economists — including Kearney, from the University of Maryland — who want to learn the most cost-effective ways to help poor people stay in school. They set up shop at Tarrant County College nearby.
Some students in the expanded program, called Stay the Course, got no social-work help but could apply for up to $500 per semester (capped at $1,5000 total) to survive a financial shock. That money alone didn’t seem to help very many students stay in school. Hardly anyone, the researchers are finding, has just one shock.
Other students were paired with Catholic Charities social workers. One of those students was Stone. Her social workers have paid a portion of her utility bills, gave her a refurbished laptop when hers contracted a virus — and provided a constant stream of logistical and emotional support.
Stone and her helpers have mapped out a plan for her schooling: First finish at Tarrant, then transfer to a four-year school, where she’ll study to be an elementary or middle school teacher. “It’ll double my salary,” Stone said, “so I can afford to live on my own.”
Only 12 percent of the students who received full social service help have dropped out, compared with 26 percent of comparable students who weren’t assigned to the program. Researchers say that preliminary finding is significant, and a sign that aggressive interventions could dramatically improve the community-college graduation rate.
But there’s no way one local charity could scale that aid for all its customers. So far, between its pilot programs and its partnerships with researchers, Catholic Charities has helped about 130 students like Stone stay on track for a degree — or about 0.1 percent of its total clients.
Even if Americans could marshal the money to help every working poor person in the country get that next bit of education, those new graduates would run smack into a bigger problem with the economy today: There aren’t enough good-paying job openings waiting on the other side of the diploma that pay a wage that can support a family.
This is the problem hanging over the people who fill the Catholic Charities waiting room in Fort Worth on a fall morning. Even if they all earned degrees, who would hire them? Where are the jobs that would take these customers away, for good?