Americans who oppose “big government” usually oppose “handouts” to the poor. But here’s the thing: You may be comfortable. You may think you have all you need. And yet, if there’s poverty anywhere in your vicinity, you will not be immune to its pernicious effects.
This came home to me again – twice - in the past week. My adopted hometown, Athens, Ohio, is a lovely, liberal little college town tucked into the Appalachian foothills. The town itself looks reasonably prosperous, but it’s encircled the remains of a region that mined its coal and then hit an economic dead end. Some of the folks with no money and no future live right outside the edge of town in abject poverty, as I saw while canvassing for Obama in 2008. Within the city limits, the tax base isn’t so flush, either, since the 20,000 students and the university are essentially parasites on the permanent residents (whom they vastly outnumber). Just over half of Athens residents live below the poverty line, and not all of them are students.
Today’s instance of poverty splash-over: BOIL ORDER! Thanks to our weak tax base, the town’s infrastructure is crumbling. The water system is decrepit. Boil orders are issued as routinely as parking tickets. If you Google “boil order,” your second hit will be “City of Athens Boil Order Instructions.” Only the University of Missouri Extension Service outranks us. Sure, Boston had a boil order affecting 2 million people this spring, but Athens beats Boston on the Google! Boston! And its two million (2,000,000!!!!) water customers! If Boston can’t touch us, our title as the reigning champions of boil orders is virtually untouchable. (Yes, I realize most of the world should be under a boil order. Only my First-World privilege leads me to believe my family and I have a right to safe water from the tap. I’m not quite sure that Athens is located entirely in the First World.)
Today’s boil order alert went out via email at 3:30. (Email notification is still a novel service, implemented by our new-ish progressive city leadership.) I last checked my email at 3:25 before I picked up the kids. So I didn’t see it until 8:30, by which time we’d all swilled a glass or two of water and I’d washed our dinner veggies in it. Usually, boil orders affects other neighborhoods. Today, of all days, it hit my own.
So far no one is ill, and I think we’ll probably be fine. I suspect that the boil order is due to a hydrant that I saw spewing water this noon. (Hence the “splash-over” metaphor.) The likelihood of serious contamination is low. Still, I’m irked that we have to deal with the hassle until tomorrow evening. I’m uneasy as we wait and wonder if we’ll all come down with Athensitis indigestion.
Second case in point: the impact of poverty on local schools. I’ve written repeatedly about how often our kids miss school because there’s no money to clear the hilly county roads. (The city is rich in comparison to the county.) Now we’re seeing a decline in the elementary schools, which is having a ripple effect throughout the district.
At our back-to-school potluck, I learned that our little neighborhood school (let’s call it “International Elementary”) has 50% more kindergartners than in the past few years. At the last minute, they had to hire another teacher and carve out another classroom (which involved displacing disabled services to the poorest of our district’s five elementaries). There simply weren’t any open classrooms. Baby boom, you say? Unh-uh. They were all intradistrict transfers, most of them fleeing the second poorest elementary, whose test scores recently tanked. (You can see the data yourself at Greatschools.org under the listings for the “Athens, OH” district – and you can check out your own area schools as well.) I don’t know why their scores tumbled, though I’m loathe to blame the teachers. Much more likely, poor kids are suffering from hunger, which is rampant in our region, and can’t learn. Or their families are unable to be supportive because they received a crappy education, themselves. I’m guessing it’s the more affluent parents who are moving their kids, while the poorest children are staying put.
So the poverty in the county isn’t just hurting the two most vulnerable schools. It’s now spilling over into our excellent little school. I completely sympathize with the parents who are moving their sprouts; even it I didn’t, NCLB apparently gives them the legal right to switch out of a faltering school. In their place, I’d be attracted by International’s strong test scores and relatively diverse student body – which drew us to this neighborhood.
International Elementary will be fine for this year. But what about next year, when we’ll presumably need another first-grade room, too, and the years thereafter? What if we’ll permanently have three classrooms per grade instead of just two? The school is already in cramped quarters. The counselor and psychologist (who rotate through the district) share space with a skeleton in a closet. (Literally.) And you can’t extend the existing building. There’s just no space. I suppose you could just get rid of the playground … but even then, who’s going to fund the construction? The alternative – classes of 30 or more children – would just gut International’s strength, small classes with great teachers.
My point here isn’t just about “me me me,” though it sure feels good to vent. The larger point is that poverty can’t be contained. It spreads like a contagion – like a “miasma,” as nineteenth-century doctors would have said – and it ultimately affects us all.
So never mind altruism. It’s in everyone’s self-interest to ensure that the most vulnerable members of society have enough.