Lenten Series: Engaging Poverty Through Education
“The advantage of knowledge is that wisdom gives life to the one who possesses it.” Ecclesiastes 7:12b (NRSV)
Study after study in this country shows that poverty limits the chances of attaining a quality education, while at the same time we know that attaining a quality education is one of the prime mechanisms for escaping poverty. Children in chronically impoverished families have lower cognitive and academic performance and more behavior problems than children who are not exposed to poverty. 40% of children living in poverty are not prepared to begin primary school, and are 1.3 times more likely to have developmental delays or learning disabilities. Students who start school significantly behind their peers, who are not truly ready for the work before them, tend not to close the readiness gap. Rather, the gap tends to widen as they move through school. Further, children living in poverty have higher absentee rates and higher dropout rates, often because they have to care for family members or work to support the family income.
In 2012, 46.5 million people (15% of the population) lived in poverty in the United States. 20.4 million people lived in what is commonly called “deep” poverty; that is, earning an income 50% or more below the poverty line. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 a person with less than a high school education earned only 72% of what an average high school graduate earned, and was one and a half times more likely to be unemployed. Compare that same person who failed to complete high school to someone with a two year associates degree, and the earnings difference moves from 72% to only 50%, and the likelihood of unemployment is double.
Research suggests that high quality early childhood programs are one of the best tools for overcoming the current landscape. Additionally, smaller class sizes, improved social and economic diversity, and proper nutrition all contribute to better educational results among children. And better educational results go a long way towards breaking the cycle of poverty.
LARCUM: An Education Ministry
Bishops of Lutheran, Episcopal, Roman Catholic and United Methodists Churches (LARCUM) in South Carolina signed a Covenant in the 1990s affirming that “unity is a Gospel imperative,” pledging to strengthen the Body of Christ in South Carolina. They annually hosted a prayer service for unity and sponsored dialogue on critical issues. They rocked along.
In the twenty years since, the bishops who forged this covenant have retired, but the bishops currently holding these offices have determined to up their game. Through prayer and conversation, they decided to put the weight of their office and the strength of their voices behind the support of a single issue. After thoughtful consideration, they discerned that public education would be the focus of their work.
Because most of the bishops were newcomers to the state, they invited an expert to sharpen focus. South Carolina is blessed to be home to former United States Secretary of Education Dick Riley. He outlined the challenges for public education, with particular attention to the challenges shaped by poverty. The bishops concluded that prayerful and vocal support of public education and naming the scourge of poverty could change lives. The bishops fielded a panel and put down markers for their vision. Enthusiasm for this vision was tremendous.
In April 2014, the bishops published a joint pastoral letter calling the people they shepherd and all people of good will to join them in their support of “full flourishing public education.” This letter challenges South Carolinians to loosen the grip of poverty plaguing their schools. That summer, they hired Susan Heath, an Episcopal priest with a passion for public education, to coordinate the initiative.
In her role with LARCUM, Heath works to build relationships, an effort that takes various shapes. For example, she works with varied faith groups and school districts to place reading tutors in elementary schools serving children in poverty. The children matched with volunteer tutors are making progress. Without Heath’s nudge, these volunteers may never have gone into challenged schools, and now many call their time with students, the “best hour of their week,” and “life changing.”
Additionally, Heath suggested the planning and organization of community visits to underfunded schools in a neighboring county. The goal was to show support for an upcoming tax referendum. When participants in these “pilgrimages” took in the scope of work to be done, Heath encouraged them to speak about their experiences to the press. In the end, the referendum was passed by voters.
There are several other examples of partnership within the diocese and state that are helping LARCUM achieve its goals. Children that read below grade level will attend a diocesan reading camp this summer. This opportunity will allow LARCUM to couple the love of reading and the fun of camp for these students. Developing a love of reading will change the lives of these children.
LARCUM also partners with many civic education endeavors to advance its goals of attaining quality education for all children. Recently, Heath joined a State Department of Education committee designed to heighten community and family collaboration with the work of the Department.
Observers are encouraged by the positive changes occurring around them. With the commitment of these bishops and the enthusiasm from people of faith and no faith alike, LARCUM is working to bring excellent education to children living in poverty. This brings a spirit of hope and excitement to South Carolina.
Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom: Enlighten by your Holy Spirit those who teach and those who learn, that, rejoicing in the knowledge of your truth, they may worship you and serve you from generation to generation; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP, Collect for Education)
Share your ministry: Does your church engage in an education ministry? Share your experiences on Mission Centered here!
Learn more about LARCUM: On their website here.
The Rev. Susan Heath is a Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society Justice and Advocacy Fellow. Her work with LARCUM was recently featured in an article from Episcopal News Service.
This is the third installment of the Episcopal Public Policy Network's 2015 Lenten Series: "Engaging Poverty at Home and Around the World." To receive these reflections to your inbox each Wednesday of Lent, sign up here.