By John Giambalvo: Teacher at Information Technology High School and a member of MORE-UFT
Looking back from today’s perspective, it is hard to believe that America’s minimum wage -the smallest amount businesses are legally required to pay their employees- was once enough to support a whole family. Nevertheless, that useto be the truth in America. According to the Pew Research Center, that wage reached all time peak in terms of purchasing power in 1968 (here). That year, people who relied on it were able to buy and spend more than at any other time before or since.
The amount they earned per hour? $1.60 (here).
New York State’s minimum wage reached its peak two years later. The rate then was $1.85.
That was enough to allow a family of four to pay the rent, put food on the table and clothes on the back of their kids as they pursued upward social mobility or even just lived out their lives in relative dignity.
Historic purchasing power is tricky to understand. Essentially, it measures the amount that people are actually able to buy after factoring in for inflation. It is how we are able to discern the fact that workers today simply do not make as much as they did 45 years ago.
Since this peak in American History, year after year with little exception, the purchasing power for minimum wage workers -the amount they are actually able to buy after factoring in for inflation- has significantly fallen. New York’s 1970 minimum wage would equate to $11.34 an hour in today’s money (here). The federal amount would be $9.81. The actual minimum wage in New York State today is lower than that. It stands at just $8.25 ($7.25 for federal). That’s quite a slide -more than thirty seven percent lower than it once was.
This slide has pulled many minimum wage earners further past a very important line -that of poverty. In today’s reality, many who depend on minimum wage find themselves living way, way below the federal poverty level for a family of four (here). If that family lives in Massachusetts, the bread winner(s) will have to work one hundred and ten hours every week just to afford a two bedroom apartment (here). McDonald’s once suggested a budget for its employees that spent $150 per month for a car payment, nothing for gasoline and just $25 a day for spending money -and that was assuming a two income household (here). This Mcdonald’s employee relies almost as much on food stamps for her and four children to get by as her salary.
If you don’t find these facts disturbing, then that’s OK. I can accept that not everyone shares my opinion about increasing the wage. One thing you should consider , however, is that these realities have a great effect on public school teachers.
This is a really important concept to grasp here. Imagine your average class of, say, thirty students. Divide them in half -with fifteen students living below the poverty line and fifteen living above it. Now imagine how each half would succeed in school. If all of the research is correct, you’ll wind up seeing some stark differences in how they perform.
You will see it in test scores (Diane Ravitch):
… No matter what standardized test you look at, the results portray the influence of socioeconomic status on test scores .Despite outliers, the kids with the most advantages are at the top, the kids with the fewest advantages are at the bottom. This is true of international tests, state tests, federal tests, the ACT, the SAT…”
You will see it in graduation rates (the Federal Government):
“…About 68 percent of 12th-graders in high-poverty schools ..graduated with a diploma. Since 1999–2000, the average percentage of seniors in high-poverty schools who graduated with a diploma has declined by 18 percentage points, from 86 to 68 percent…”
(also the American Psychological Association):
“…In 2009, poor (bottom 20 percent of all family incomes) students were five times more likely to drop out of high school than high-income…”
And you will see it in college readiness rates (ACT):
“…only 20 percent of students from low-income families met at least three of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, compared to 62 percent of students from high-income families…”
Remember that class of thirty that was divided evenly among poor and non poor students? Imagine that it wasn’t so evenly divided. Imagine that the majority of the students in your class lived well above the poverty line. Under that scenario, chances are, your students would be more successful and you would be deemed a pretty good teacher. Sounds pretty rosy, doesn’t it?
In contrast, imagine that most of the students in your class lived below the poverty line. Imagine that twenty lived in poverty and just ten of your students didn’t. Imagine the same standards, the same indicators and the same zero sum results that I described in the several links and quotes above. Not so rosy anymore, is it?
Finally, try to understand the plain truth of it all: That most of the fifty percent of American students who live below the poverty line are clustered together in the same high-poverty schools and many of the students who live above it are similarly clustered in their own low-poverty schools. Whole classrooms -in fact whole schools and even districts- are populated with students who live only under the poverty line, while others are populated with those who do not. In this sense, New York City isn’t that much different from the rest of the state or the nation. Poor people and non-poor people do not, generally speaking, live near one another (here) so they don’t generally populate the same schools and classrooms.
Under this scenario, where most, or even all of your students lived below the poverty line, chances are they wouldn’t perform well in your class, or in school at all. And chances are you’d be universally deemed a bad teacher because of it.
You may be deemed bad by our friends over at StudentsFirst(here):
“…students in New York City’s highest poverty districts are more than twice as likely to be taught by teachers who aren’t effective than students in New York City’s wealthiest districts…”
Or by the Center for American Progress (here):
“…. high-poverty schools have greater proportions of chronically ineffective teachers …”
You may be deemed bad by Arne Duncan (here via Marci Kanstoroom):
“…many high schools that serve disadvantaged students and students of color lack highly effective teachers…”
Or by the New York Post (here)
“….Teachers who received bad performance ratings in the past school year were likelier to be teaching in high-poverty schools…”
Or by any one of the plethora of people and organizations who would like to point out that ‘the worst’ teachers are clustered in high-poverty schools.
Education reformers have become obsessed with the concept of poor educators. This bad teacher narrative has taken root in the US and has completely swept across our entire profession. It has become so profound that it is spoken about more than any other education related topic. It has fueled the growth of high stakes tests, ‘tougher accountability’ for teachers, the recent attack on tenure and has even helped lead to the rise of the charter school movement, as parents seek out alternatives for “bad schools”, filled with these “bad teachers” we keep hearing so much about. Reformers from Arne Duncan to Cami Anderson, from Michelle Rhee to John King have made entire careers by exploiting this narrative. It has been codified in comedy movie titles and news headlines ad nauseum. The narrative has become so ridiculous that movie stars and comedians have had to come to the rescue of the reputation of teachers all over the country. Forget a fair wage, forget improved living standards, forget poverty. Ineffective teachers, claims the narrative, have failed our students and are failing our schools.
Of course, they never mention that it’s only those schools located in poor areas and only those students living in poverty who are being failed.
I hope you see the point I’m making: Poverty doesn’t just matter for how well our students may perform in school. It also matters for how successful we are deemed as employees. It matters for our job. It matters for our career. It matters for whether or not we, as members of a well-respected and honorable profession, can do things like pay our rent, put food on our table and clothes on the backs of our kids. It doesn’t only guarantee a certain percentage of our students (half) will be inhibited from performing as well as others in school (here again) and beyond (and here again). Poverty fuels the entire ‘bad teacher’ narrative and has lead to policies whichhave eroded our job protections and have threatened our job security.
And if you’re a teacher in the suburbs who believes that concentrated poverty is relegated to the urban and rural areas of the New York, think again (and again and again and again and again). Poverty is growing in the suburbs as well -at some very alarming rates.
Nothing traps people in poverty more than low wages (see here or here or here or here or here for how it is in the UK or here for one perspective from Ireland). And nothing promises to be a quicker fix for low wages than increasing wages.
So if you’d like to see an end to the education wars or an end to the current regime of high stakes testing, or an end to an unfair teacher evaluation system that has somehow had to be change four times now in the last five years; if you’d like to see an end to the constant cycle of downward pressure exerted on you and your colleagues, it’s only common sense to support policy outside of education that addresses poverty in New York. Supporting a significant increase to the minimum wage will lift a lot of boats. It will allow the parents of many of our students to lift themselves back above the poverty line and will increase the chances that their children -our students- can be more successful in school.
So if you’re one of the many teachers who believe that it is just not moral to pay people $15 to ‘flip burgers’, or if, like teaching assistant Suzann Ritchel of East Northport, NY, the prospect of a 15% minimum wage leaves you openly wondering whether or not ‘fast-food workers [are] doing more important work than we are?’ (here), then consider one small possibility: Consider that an increased minimum wage may make all of our jobs a whole lot easier than they are now.