Senate Advisor Nikhil Goyal Urges Washington to Address Child Poverty

Growing up in the most impoverished area of Philadelphia, Corem Coreano became accustomed to living in mold-infested apartments managed by neglectful landlords, one of whom even sold their home without prior notice.

However, the situation took a distressing turn for Coreano and their family when they were jolted awake in the middle of the night by severe pain caused by rats biting them while they slept. Despite this, they went about their day at their Kensington school, putting on a facade as if nothing had occurred.

Author Nikhil Goyal captures the challenging lives of Corem, Ryan Rivera, and Giancarlos Rodriguez, three Puerto Rican students from Philadelphia, in his latest book Live to See the Day: Coming of Age in American Poverty.

The book follows the journey of Corem, Ryan, and Giancarlos as they navigate a childhood marked by over-policing and inadequate nourishment, with the backdrop of the system’s threat to close nearly 37 schools by the time they reached high school. Fortunately, after sustained protests from Giancarlos and other members of the school community, only 24 schools were shuttered.

In instances where Corem, Ryan, and Giancarlos had to walk long distances to school after being displaced due to evictions, their plight sheds light on the faces of underprivileged children and serves as a stark warning. The Census Bureau recently reported a doubling of the childhood poverty rate, signaling the imminent end of pandemic-era relief for families, schools, and childcare providers.

“If we aim for equitable, humane, and child-centered schools, we must advocate for policies that combat poverty,” emphasized Goyal, who served as a senior advisor to Senator Bernie Sanders on significant Senate committees for the past two years.

These narratives vividly demonstrate the detrimental effects of economic instability and punitive discipline practices on children’s educational safety, making a strong case for change, particularly as educators grapple with post-pandemic disruptions in supporting students academically.

Goyal suggested that making economic support measures like the Child Tax Credit permanent would significantly ease the burden on educators, school staff, and counselors.

Recognized as one of the top books of 2023 by the New Yorker, Live to See the Day highlights how school policies disproportionately affect students’ futures, especially students of color who face higher suspension and expulsion rates. Stringent zero-tolerance disciplinary measures led children like Ryan Rivera to juvenile incarceration and isolating schooling experiences after involvement in an incident at a young age.

In a conversation with The 74, Goyal delved into topics such as school closures, community schooling, chronic absenteeism, and policy changes needed to support the five million children living in poverty across the nation.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You frame childhood poverty as a crisis that needs immediate attention—why release this book now? What’s the current situation?

The Census Bureau’s recent report for 2022 revealed a staggering increase in child poverty, with more than 5 million children thrust into poverty. It marks the most significant surge in poverty recorded to date, necessitating urgent attention and a robust response from policymakers in Washington and beyond.

This upsurge in child poverty aligns with the termination of crucial support programs like the expanded Child Tax Credit, economic stimulus payments, and extended unemployment insurance, leaving many children and families without vital assistance such as food, housing, and healthcare.

There’s a growing concern as many school districts nationwide are experiencing declining enrollments and financial uncertainties with the conclusion of ESSER funds. People anticipate more consolidations and potential school closures akin to what occurred in Philadelphia. What lessons can school leaders learn from this?

In 2013, the Philadelphia school district proposed closing around thirty-plus schools, citing a substantial fiscal deficit. An independent report by the Boston Consulting Group recommended mass school closures and staff layoffs, urging a market-driven approach to public education. Despite opposition from students, parents, educators, and unions, the district adopted these recommendations, disrupting communities.

Studies, including those by Pew Research, have shown that school closures often fail to generate the expected cost savings, resulting in displacement and educational instability for affected students. These closures do not always lead to improved academic outcomes or equitable access for students.

Take the case of Fairhill School, located in Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhood—it provided crucial services to generations of working-class children despite being underfunded. While the school’s test scores may not match those of wealthier districts, it played a vital role as a community hub. Rather than closing such schools, equitable resource allocation and respect for public education could address many challenges in the system.

Goyal also emphasized the collaborative potential of charter schools and public schools, suggesting a model where charter schools innovate and share successful practices within the public education framework rather than compete against it.

What’s currently happening that might exacerbate existing challenges, particularly for Black and brown children?

There’s a notable surge in privatization efforts, with increased voucher programs and charter expansions posing a threat to traditional public education systems. In cities like Philadelphia, nearly 40% of children attend charter or cyber charter schools, and the encroachment of the private sector into public education is reshaping the landscape.

While these changes can lead to disinvestment in traditional public schools, there are ongoing advocacy and organizing efforts by teachers’ unions and community groups like Journey for Justice to counter these policies nationwide.

What are the implications if these trends persist at their current scale?

If the trend continues towards favoring charters over public schools and diverting resources through voucher programs, especially to religious institutions, it poses a severe threat to American democracy. Public education has historically served as a cornerstone of democracy, yet it’s now facing unprecedented challenges from market-driven influences.

Public schools are vital in preserving the democratic ethos, unlike other sectors like healthcare or housing that have seen increased privatization. While the pandemic exacerbated existing issues, including school closures, it also highlighted the essential role of public schools in society and parents’ trust in the system.

Are there any exceptions to this trend in the public education system?

The expansion of 3K and pre-K programs in many cities stands out as a positive development within the public education space. By investing in early childhood education, states and cities are not only doing the right thing morally but also benefiting the economy and society in the longer run.

Efforts to expand early childhood education, both in public and private settings, hold promise but require sustained federal support to ensure providers can deliver quality services without financial strain.

In the book, you characterize their experience as a story of survival, where turning 18 is not just a milestone but a rare triumph. In a society where many children face poverty, what strategies should schools adopt?

Goyal advocates for the transformation of every school into a community school, offering comprehensive services like health and social support, free meals, extended hours, restorative justice practices, well-compensated staff, and updated facilities.

He lauds examples like Cincinnati, where public schools have been converted into Community Learning Centers, providing dental, mental health, and medical services onsite for students. Recognizing and addressing the challenges students face outside school hours is crucial for their educational success and well-being.

Community schools have demonstrated positive outcomes in reducing absenteeism, truancy, and enhancing student engagement, highlighting the importance of meeting students’ basic needs to address broader societal issues.

One-third of students were chronically absent by the end of the last school year, underscoring the rising concern of school avoidance. How does Coram’s narrative shed light on this trend and its intersection with mental health, considered a primary influence?

Coram’s story reflects a crisis where basic needs are unmet, affecting their ability to attend school regularly. Housing and food insecurity, frequent relocations, and homelessness significantly impact their educational journey. These challenges often lead to absenteeism among homeless students, adding to the broader issue of housing affordability.

As emergency assistance wanes and families grapple with the aftermath of the eviction moratorium, children bear the brunt of housing instability. Coram’s experiences highlight the pervasive challenges faced by many children growing up in poverty, emphasizing the urgent need for comprehensive support services to ensure their academic and personal growth.

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