The Inequalities Are Still Savage

Twenty-five years ago, author and activist Jonathan Kozol published what remains one of the most important examinations of educational inequity ever printed, Savage InequalitiesThe book is a direct and searing look at how districts serving urban minority children suffered from segregation, inequitable funding, and crumbling facilities while serving student populations suffering the worst deprivations of poverty.  It is a story of malign neglect where school funding based upon the value of a community’s property compounds the economic and environmental violence inflicted upon helpless children.  Kozol criss-crossed the country from East St. Louis, Illinois to New York City, to Camden, New Jersey, to Washington, DC, examining schools and speaking with the students in them.  What he reported should have shaken America to its core.  Consider the following from East St. Louis:

East St. Louis – which the local press refers to as an “inner city without an outer city” – has some of the sickest children in America.  Of the 66 cities in Illinois, East St. Louis ranks first in fetal death, first in premature birth, and third in infant death. Among the negative factors listed by the city’s health director are the sewage running in streets, air that has been fouled by the local plants, the high lead levels noted in the soil, poverty, lack of education, crime, dilapidated housing, insufficient health care, unemployment.  Hospital care is deficient too.  There is no place to have a baby in East St. Louis….Although dental problems don’t command the instant fears associated with low birth weight, fetal death or cholera, they do have the consequence of wearing down the stamina of children and defeating their ambitions.  Bleeding gums, impacted teeth and rotting teeth are routine matters for the children I interviewed in the South Bronx. Children get used to feeling constant pain. They go to sleep with it.  They go to school with it.

Later in the chapter on East St. Louis, a 14 year-old girl spoke about the annual celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and startled Mr. Kozol by calling the reading of “I Have a Dream” perfunctory.  She explained her thinking: “We have a school in East St. Louis named for Dr. King.  The school is full of sewer water and the doors are locked with chains.  Every student in that school is black. It’s like a terrible joke on history.”

In the years since Jonathan Kozol wrote Savage Inequalities, great changes have happened in the U.S. economy.  Our Gross Domestic Product has grown, in chained 2009 dollars, from $8.9 trillion to $15.9 trillion.  Internet use has become almost universal as has mobile cellular use.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average opened 1990 at 2810.2, and it closed 2015 above 17,000. In 1987, Forbes magazine published a list of 140 international billionaires, 44 of whom lived in the U.S. By 2012, that list swelled to 1,226 – 425 of them living in America.  With such incredible increases in wealth and life changing technologies, one would assume that it would be hard to replicate Mr. Kozol’s exegesis on inequality in America.

But one would be wrong.

In the 2012-2013 school year, the federal government estimated that 53% of the nation’s school buildings needed repairs, renovations, or modernization at an estimated cost of $197 billion.  It has long been known that adverse building conditions have discernible impact on student achievement and on teacher morale and effectiveness.  60% of schools serving communities where 75% or more of students qualify for free and reduced price lunch needed such repairs compared with 48% of schools where 35% of students qualify.

Poverty in the United States dropped from a high of 22.4% of the population in the late 1950s to its lowest point of 11.1% in 1973, but in 1980 it began to rise again, reaching 15.3% in 1993 when it began to decline until the year 2000. Today, the Census Bureau reports that the poverty rate sits at 14.8% where it has stayed roughly unchanged since the end of the Great Recession. Poverty’s reach is not distributed evenly in society with African American and Hispanic citizens living below the poverty line at rates twice as high as White and Asian Americans.  21.1% of children aged 18 and younger live in poverty.  Of the 34 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States’ child poverty level is only surpassed by 5 nations.  In the time since the publication of Savage Inequalities and today, whatever progress that has been made in reducing poverty in the United States has regressed considerably.

Family income has lost ground it gained in the past 25 years as well.  In 1990, median household income was $52,623, and it rose to $57,843 in 1999; in 2014, it was $53,657. In 1986, the average starting wage for a person with BA was $44,770, but by 2013, it had only risen to $45,500 while average starting wages for workers with no college fell from $30,525 to only $28,000.  The stagnation and lost ground of large swaths of American families manifests in health outcomes.  While the top quintiles of income earners have gained years of life expectancy since 1980, the lowest quintiles have remained unchanged for men and have actually declined for poor women.  The United States has a staggering imprisonment rate of 698 per 100,000 population – outpacing Rwanda, Russia, and China – leaving millions of citizens with dismal employment prospects and no ability to vote.

These figures would be stunning enough in their stark detail, but recent, horrifying examples, make it clear that the tragic personal situations that were detailed a quarter of a century ago by Jonathan Kozol still haunt us.  Consider the unmitigated disaster still being uncovered in Flint, Michigan.  The city, after years of cutbacks, was placed under a state appointed emergency manager in 2011 who had the power to appeal local decisions and make cost cutting a primary goal.  That manager, Darnell Earley, blames the Flint City Council for switching from the Detroit water system, supplied by Lake Huron, to the Flint River (as a temporary source until a new system came online), but members of the council flatly deny this and local reporting cannot find reference to using Flint River water in council resolutions.  However the switch was made, the result has been a calamity. In order to use the heavily polluted river water, it had to be treated, but as soon as the water came on line, residents complained about the color, smell, and taste of the water despite assurances from Mr. Earley’s office that it was safe to drink.  For 18 months, Flint residents could see the problems with their water with their own eyes, but hidden from view was a worse danger: the treated water was corrosive and leaching metals, including lead, from the aging pipes in Flint.  It took a pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, to uncover the depth of the matter – with parents complaining about hair loss and rashes in their families, she pulled lead level records and found rates had doubled or tripled.

Lead poisoning’s impacts are life long .  There is no cure.

The circular firing squad of local and state officials blaming others for the crisis is on full display, but that does not change the fact that serious problems with Flint’s water were evident within months of the switch.  By October of 2014, General Motors reached an agreement to switch water sources because the water from the Flint River was too corrosive to use in their engine manufacturing facility.  GM’s water change came at a cost of $400,000 a year and had the approval of the emergency manager – even though the water continued to be piped into resident’s homes.  Flint officials and the state appointed manager knew in October, 2014 that the water every person in Flint was drinking, including all of its children, was unfit for use in a factoryBy summer, 2015, researchers from Virginia Tech University had confirmed that lead particulate levels in Flint drinking water was far beyond safe levels, some samples containing a mind-boggling 2000 parts per billion.  Despite this, the city was not reconnected to Lake Huron sourced water until October, and the now corroded pipes continue to leach toxic metals into the city’s drinking water.

Mr. Earley is now the emergency manager for Detroit Public Schools, and teachers there are staging a series of sick outs to protest deplorable conditions in many of their buildings.  Just how deplorable? Mushrooms have been found growing on walls in Vernor Elementary School:

DPS mushrooms

At Spain Elementary School, the gymnasium is unusable due to buckled floors, leaking ceilings, and mold growth:

DPS Decayed Floor

In a demonstration of supreme self unawareness, Mr. Earley held a press conference to denounce the teachers’ actions, and a Saginaw lawmaker called upon the state education authorities to sanction Detroit’s teachers.

The reality here is both frightening and harsh, but there is a simple truth at the heart of it.  If the citizens of Flint have been poisoned by their own water supply and if the children of Detroit attend schools that are decaying and full of mold and mushrooms it is because we have let it be so.  The United States of America has never been collectively wealthier at any time in its history, but our commitment to the well being of all of us has not been this low since before the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt – and the distribution of wealth has not been this unequal since before the Great Depression.  We look at the total money spent on education and declare that it is “a lot” of money without bothering to ask what needs to spent to make certain that every child comes from a safe and healthy community and has a safe and healthy school to attend.  That this question is not on the lips of every candidate for the Presidency is a stunning indictment of our current social order.

We must remember: our current situation is a choice, one made at the expense of our future.  A society that pumps $4.8 billion in corporate subsidies to oil companies alone does not have to poison its children.  A consumer culture that literally wastes $11.8 billion a year on bottled water can fund new school construction.  A nation that tolerates a weapon program that is 7 years behind schedule and $167 billion over budget does not have to tolerate a single child going to a school that jeopardizes her health.  Our politicians would prefer to blame teachers than to demand that their donors give a fraction more.

The inequalities are still savage.


Filed under Activism, Corruption, Funding, Media, politics, racism, schools, Social Justice

58 responses to “The Inequalities Are Still Savage

  1. Zorba

    Reblogged this on Politicians Are Poody Heads and commented:
    Thank you, Daniel Katz, for this excellent analysis.
    I am old enough that I did have children in my Special Ed classes who were damaged while they were young because of lead poisoning. It’s not at all pretty, let me just say that.
    No child deserves to be in crumbling, unhealthy schools or live in dangerous communities, without hope, without resources.
    A country that can afford to spend so much on the military, that is unwilling to tax the wealthy corporations and the obscenely rich to the extent that they should be, and that is unwilling to address the profound problems of poverty, is a country that has no moral or ethical basis, and that has sold its very soul to the 1% and their enablers.

  2. Jonathan Kozol is one of my heroes. I went to hear him speak at Wayne State University around ten years ago.

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  5. Every day we choose. Even those of us who think someone else is choosing, are making decisions along with them. If we don’t stand up against wrong, we are condoning it. At least…at the very least…write a letter or send an email to a gov’t rep…at the very least. In a personal situation, if you feel someone else is choosing things you don’t like, stand up and choose for yourself. It’s not that hard. In politics or in personal life.

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  11. People keep putting in charity money to help kids in Africa, but this is proof kids in the States also need help.
    If only a charity could get started to help these types of situations.

  12. Reblogged this on DawnDemps and commented:
    This is a wonderful analysis! I appreciate Dr. Katz beginning the work of connecting the dots and providing context for what we are witnessing today.

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  14. Ivy Willow

    Reblogged this on Through Ivy's Eyes and commented:
    This is absolutely insane. I knew things were bad, but even I didn’t realize just how bad…

  15. You are right and it is heart breaking

  16. American schools are very well funded, by international standards. Lack of money is not the problem. It should not surprise us that the districts where schoolchildren do worst are the assume districts that have the most incompetent local government. The administrators after all are parents of local children. No school system anywhere has ever been able to abolish inequalities in achievement – not even Finland. Accept it: there will always be “savage” inequalities in educational outcomes. Well, until someone figures out how to genetically engineer better brains.

    • “are assume” should be “are also”.

    • You need to be better informed on these matters. Apart from the obvious example that a community where the basic infrastructure is literally poisoning the children probably needs serious capital investment, the fact is that the salient question in school funding is not what amount of money is being spent but what amount of money needs to be spent based upon the needs of the children. In America, communities with appreciable numbers of poor families tend to have many such families because of income segregation and children raised in poverty tend to have greater needs in the school system for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the competence of local government or the level of care demonstrated by their parents. This is not about savage inequalities in outcomes – this about savage inequalities in meeting the basic needs required to have an actual equal opportunity.

      • You need to be better informed yourself. Kids who attend schools in tin-roofed sheds in polluted, crowded cities in provincial China do better than kids who attend lavishly equipped schools in some American cities. Money has nothing to do with it.

      • You have your cute quips very well prepared. Sadly, that does not substitute for analysis – nor does it paper over the not very subtle implications that poor children suffering in squalid schools are genetically inferior.

      • Oh, right, so to imply that there are genetic differences in IQ is somehow morally wrong? Even though it is factually correct? How about saying it outright: there are genetic differences in IQ. You cannot equalize educational performance by pouring money at the kids who do badly. Finland has tried it more than anyone, and it doesn’t work. The children of professional-managerial class parents are on average much more intelligent than the children of working class and underclass parents, and the main reason is genetic. Therefore, school performance in working class districts will always be worse than school performance in prosperous areas.

      • The implication of your statements about genetics points to believing that somehow, magically, most of the lowest “genetic” IQ populations just somehow clustered into the communities with the highest and most long lasting poverty effects. Which demonstrates the rather bankrupt assumptions that lie behind intelligence testing to begin with.

        The known and well studied impacts of poverty are not tied to genetics and the vast majority of intelligence testing is a fairly meaningless exercise in confirmation bias. You can start with the 1997 Princeton study on poverty and work your way forward if you are actually curious.

      • “Somehow”, you say, as if the mechanism is not obvious: There is no coincidence. The less intelligent people, as well as people with various personality problems, tend to end up living in the poor part of town, because they don’t qualify for, or can’t keep, well-paid jobs. Bright kids born in those areas usually escape (because they do qualify for and can keep those well-paid jobs). Thus, intelligence and character come to be geographically sorted, and it stays that way because these traits are to a large degree hereditary. Poverty has very little effect on academic performance. It merely correlates with academic performance, because (a) lack of academic ability tends to trap people in poverty, and (b) lack of academic ability is inherited genetically. Many sociologists stubbornly ignore this fact, because defies the socialist assumption that all people are born equal, as well as the Durkheimian doctrine that social phenomena always have social causes, so they keep producing studies that show a correlation, then pretending that they have demonstrated a causal link, when they have done nothing of the sort.

      • Look, you’ve obviously done a very good job memorizing bullet points from “The Bell Curve” but you also appear entirely unaware of the massive amounts of valid criticisms of the work and of the underlying assumptions of intelligence testing itself, especially the caliber of tests available for Murray and Hernstein’s analysis. For a good layperson’s explanation, you should start with Stephen Jay Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man”and then look at the work of Daniels, Devlin, and Roeder who used the same data set and came to radically different conclusions about how much of intelligence as measured by IQ tests is inherited.

      • You write as if only the The Bell Curve reports these facts. In fact, most of what it reports is facts that were already very well known, and can be checked by anyone with a decent grasp of statistics and a knowledge of how to get and use data from NLSY and other publicly accessible sources.

        Also, the fact that intellectual ability is an hereditary trait has been confirmed even more strongly than before by huge studies on a scale an order of magnitude larger than the studies that were available twenty-odd years ago when the Bell Curve was published. See the Twins Early Development Study, from Britain, that has produced numerous papers during the past few years.

        Gould’s attempt to cast doubt on this fact by disinterring 200-year-old anthropologists and accusing them (falsely) of publishing biased reports about cranium sizes (decades before intelligence tests were even invented), would be hilarious if it weren’t so tragic. To consider that so many intelligent people were deceived by Gould’s fraudulent, irrelevant nonsense is dismaying.

        Denying the heritability of IQ is pure, flat-out science denial. For one thing, human intelligence could never have evolved if it were not a genetic trait, and if there were not differences in that trait within populations among our ancestors. So, to deny hereditary IQ is not only to deny a vast amount of current evidence, but you’d be denying evolution itself – the most important theory in all of biology.

        Are you a creationist, then? Or maybe, like Stalin, Lysenko, George Bernard Shaw, and various other leftists in the 1940s, you’re a Lamarckian? If not, then just accept the obvious, solidly demonstrated truth that IQ is an hereditary trait, instead of trying to give some sort of contrary impression.

      • That you can treat such a contested area of study as settled speaks volumes about how thin your knowledge is. Congratulations on locating a source to poorly represent Gould’s argument — and for ignoring that the degree of inheritability of IQ that Murry and Hernstein claimed rests on highly contested ground. Your self assuredness is poorly founded.

      • “Contested”? It’s only contested in the way that evolution itself is contested – i.e., by people outside the field who object for ideological or religious, rather than scientific, reasons.

      • Right – this is you not knowing the research. It is contested and if you don’t like Gould (which I suspect you merely Googled for a quick and misrepresentative critique) you can locate plenty of other work, some of it within the last five years. This isn’t science denying – it’s knowing something is a dynamic area of study. You clearly don’t.

      • Peregrino Nuzkwamia

        It is you who clearly don’t know the research. Why, otherwise, would you place so much credence in a pop-sci book that (a) was published 35 years ago, (b) was written by a paleontologist with no specialized background either in psychometrics or in population genetics, but who had a strong ideological opposition to the findings of such research, demonstrated by his membership of the left-wing activist group, Science for the People, and (c) has been shown to be dishonest or incompetent in its misrepresentation of Morton’s skull measurement studies from the 1840s.

        The study of the genetics of cognitive ability is dynamic, but not in the way you appear to think. It is moving forward rapidly, with several ground-breaking papers being published each year. That intelligence is an hereditary trait is no longer in any sort of doubt. The questions now concern how.

      • Let’s be very clear:

        You began this exchange with a firm assertion that nothing can be done to erase inequalities short of changing genetics. You have placed that upon the heritability of IQ without the least bit of nuance when, in fact, the question of heritability is subject to tremendous debate and nearly all researchers in the field who are not enthusiasts of Charles Murray would balk at the idea that heritability is so fixed that it cannot be changed or strongly influenced. That research shows vastly different rates of heritability from infancy to late adolescence means that it cannot be as immutable as your statements have asserted. The reason I doubt your familiarity with this field at all and suspect you are regurgitating The Bell Curve is based upon your statements someone needs to “genetically engineer better brains” and that intelligence and character are “to a large degree hereditary” while failing to acknowledge the broad differences in findings about how much of intelligence as measured by IQ testing is attributable to heredity. Further, you seem entirely unaware of recent research demonstrating that culture, education, and experience have a much greater role in the development of general intelligence that has been assumed in research on heritability. Your entire series of comments have been premised on the idea that intelligence as measured on IQ tests is not changeable – which is in line with Murray. That is not what mainstream and recent research on heritability says.

      • You appear not to have noticed that I did not speak only of IQ. I spoke of intellectual ability, cognitive ability, etc. That’s because it’s not only IQ test scores that are heritable, but also exam grades and other markers of intelligence. At least you are admitting now that intelligence is heritable, though you seem to think that the fact that heritability is found to rise as children grow older somehow undermines the point. It does not. The filleting is a fact that you cannot nuance away: no education system anywhere in the world ever has been able to abolish the innate differences between children. None. Anywhere. Ever. And there is no evidence to indicate that it can be done. Here’s another fact that hi cannot nuance away: the genetic factor is by far the biggest factor in intelligence – nothing else comes close. In fact, all shared environment factors put together add up to less than the genetic. Short of sci-fi genetic engineering, you cannot trump genes. To pretend otherwise is nothing better than wilful self delusion.

      • And why are you still going on about Murray? You’re stuck in the past. Aside from the fact that Herrnstein was the IQ expert in that team, why no mention of Plomin?

      • I’m on Murray because your opening statements that you have not backed away from are pure Murray. You did it again just previously. Yes, I admit there is a factor in intelligence that is based on heritability (I never denied that except to point out how you are taking an extreme position on it), but your extrapolations about what cannot be done is not supported by the studies and your discounting of environment, education, and cultural factors is far in excess of what is warranted.

    • You are ignoring the fact that in the USA the infrastructure is ignored to a point that like in this city people get ill, children suffer from healthproblems coused by the failing infrastructure. A problem that is noticiable nation wide.

      You take the discussion to a sideway leaving the problem discussed as not the being the main road.

      Why you make such a fuzz about inequalities in achievement is not necessary at all. Everybody knows,in NORMAL circumstances, inequalities in achievements are a fact.

      The living conditions aren’t normal here!
      The adding componentis that those children are in bad health generally, their enviroment is poisioness in different ways.
      How can you expect to see the real potential of these children living in conditions that shouldn’teven be occurring in the US.

  17. The recent disasters happening in Flint and Detroit are ‘savage inequalities’; hopefully the media coverage for this state of emergency will get the nation’s attention, for these are only two of many American communities suffering from inadequate services. The loss of our middle class is growing the poverty class and squashing the American Dream. Enough is enough!

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  20. I am amazed at how low the human being has sunk. I guess its always been like that, where the privileged can do harm to the poor and its defended greatly. And we pretend that it is not based on hate towards those that are not like them; well-off and in control. The poor are not heard or seen. If they are, they are not worthy.

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  23. I am shocked at nothing after this. I would never have thought that the situation in Flint would be allowed to go on as long as it has in a country like America that boasts of rights and liberties yet continue to subject these communities to harm. Its disgusting!

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  26. Fantastic article and analysis! Really enjoyed the sober perspective that lacks sensationalism found in most political writing!

    It’s tiring to hear the neoliberal rhetoric proclaiming that everything is always improving thanks to capitalism and this is a welcome reality check! 🙂

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  28. This was amazing! A really great read! Please check out my first ever blog 🙂

  29. I am doing a paper in class on this stuff.

  30. ralph scott

    I am having my students from the Academy for Social Action read your blog. We are about to create our first blog. They will eventually make a blog about a social issue of their own choosing. We have talked a bit about the water crisis in Flint Michigan so this is quite topical. Thanks in advance.

  31. I greatly enjoyed reading this post; although, it left me feeling sad, small, and a little hopeless. The comments by administrators and actions against teachers is a symptom of the larger problem. It is an attempt to shift attention
    and blame by the people who are powerless to change the situation. Cognitive dissonance explains much of the dilemma that these people face. And, it helps us find a way towards a solution. Groupthink helps explain the failures of the political system, especially the administration of Governor Rick Snyder, in addressing the dire needs of these struggling failing communities. Detroit, Flint, and Camden are approaching failed state status, and we seem helpless to stop it these two blog posts of mine explain why. You might be interested. Fair warning, though, they are snarky and profane and leaning to the left. Not everyone’s cup of tea.

    Cognitive dissonance to explain endorsements, but it applies here. School administrators, state legislators, governors, and the federal government all are dancing around the issue of the structural deficits that are perpetuating most of the issues troubling America. Cognitive dissonance explains much of the reaction to facing these problems.

    Groupthink applied to America’s political woes and intransigence of the right.

    The blog is the Psy of Life: CalicoJacke Explains Life & Everything Using Psychology & Snark.

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