The last word

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By A.J. Wagner

This will be my last week writing the “Law and Disorder” column for the Dayton City Paper. I’ve been in this spot since July 2011, but I want to do more writing and work on the issue of poverty. I believe poverty is at the heart of most of our social problems and our will to fight poverty has been lost in a sea of blame and fear that our laws have failed to overcome.

The recent report cards issued by the Ohio Department of Education should give a hint as to how much harm poverty causes. Look at the failed schools and you find a corresponding population of impoverished students who are not only falling behind academically, but will likely remain behind throughout their lives. Children born into poverty are more likely to drop out of school, they are more likely to end up in prison and they are more likely to require public assistance.

James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist from the University of Chicago, has shown that for every dollar invested in the early childhood of the poor, $7 will be saved at the other end of their lives. In a paper titled “The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children,” which he co-authored with Dimitriy Masterov, Heckman states:

“We argue that, on productivity grounds, it appears to make sound business sense to invest in young children from disadvantaged environments. Substantial evidence from economics, sociology and public policy studies suggests that children from disadvantaged families are more likely to commit crime, have out-of-wedlock births and drop out of school. Early interventions that partially remedy the effects of adverse early environments can reverse some of the damage done by disadvantaged families and have a high economic return relative to other policies. They will benefit not only the children themselves, but also their own children, as well as society at large.”

Our legislative process is severely handicapped by quick fixes and slogan solutions. After years of research, Heckman has written over a hundred papers and cannot encapsulate all he has learned into a slogan. The solutions to poverty are complex and, even though the solutions will save money in the long run, they cost money up front.

Thus, we have solutions that sound great in a 30-second sound bite, but ultimately harm children, people and our economy. Some examples:

Politicians were certain that if we created schools that were exempt from the ordinary standards, they would be innovative. We called them charter schools. Few have been innovative and most are doing no better than traditional schools.

To motivate improved performance, politicians suggested testing, which would be used to evaluate school and teacher performance. Now we test the heck out of kids. However, because the testing wasn’t used to improve student performance, we’ve seen no discernable gains.

As a motivational tactic, we punish children with expulsions if they misbehave. We do this even though every expulsion sets a child back on scholastic performance and, very often, results in further expulsion.

All of these sounded like good ideas when proposed, but haven’t resulted in any significant gains in student performance.

The same can be said for our crime solutions. Get-tough policies have caused young men and women with minor drug offenses to carry the stigma and lifelong punishments that create enduring poverty.

We created the “War on Poverty,” which has been an important safety net that saves lives but has not improved our schools and has only limited impact on student performance and continued poverty.

Betty Hart and Todd Risley present significant research in their book, “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.” These scholars have shown that, compared to their middle and upper class counterparts, children in poverty are exposed to 30,000,000 fewer words by the age of four. They also note the type of verbal exchanges between low-income parents and their children are much more likely to be negative. These differences have tremendous bearing on educational and social outcomes.

There are successful programs that address these issues, but they are not the norm and they are not sufficiently available. I hope to become an advocate for such programs, and I hope to do so with evidence-based practices and programs bolstered by sound research, not sound bites.

Then again, perhaps my own use of the terms “fight poverty” and “issues of poverty” is too simplistic.

Risley points out that middle and upper class parents who do not talk to and who are negative to their children can expect the same educational and social results faced by poor children. Conversely, poor children who are exposed to significant conversation and positive feedback can overcome their economic disadvantage.

I know I did. And, having overcome my disadvantaged childhood, I want to help others do the same.

Disclaimer: The content herein is for entertainment and information only. Do not use this as a legal consultation. Every situation has different nuances that can affect the outcome and laws change without notice. If you’re in a situation that calls for legal advice, get a lawyer. You represent yourself at your own risk. The author, the Dayton City Paper and its affiliates shall have no liability stemming from your use of the information contained herein. 

A.J. Wagner is an attorney with the law firm of Flanagan, Lieberman, Hoffman and Swaim at 15 W. Fourth St. in Dayton. A.J. and his firm would be glad to help you with all of your legal needs. You can reach A.J. at 937.223.5200 or at AJWagner@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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AJWagner
A.J. Wagner is an attorney with the law firm of Flanagan, Lieberman, Hoffman and Swaim at 15 W. Fourth Street in Dayton. A.J. and his firm would be glad to help you with all of your legal needs. You can reach A.J. at (937) 223-5200 or at AJWagner@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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