Opinion Extra

Thomas: Entrenched racism drives down SC child-well-being scores

It’s lunch time for middle school students in South Carolina’s Corridor of Shame. Poor students start out with a strike against them, poor black students with two.
It’s lunch time for middle school students in South Carolina’s Corridor of Shame. Poor students start out with a strike against them, poor black students with two.

Our state long has suffered in the bottom quartile of impoverished states, but South Carolina’s 2015 Kids Count profile reveals a particularly grim picture, with the state ranking 42nd in the nation in terms of child well-being:

▪ Children’s economic status mostly worsened from 2008 to 2013, with 290,000 children in poverty, 376,000 children with parents lacking secure employment and 349,000 children in households with burdensome housing costs.

▪ Children’s educational opportunities remain inequitable. The percentage of children attending preschool has fallen, and so-called proficiency levels in math and reading have mixed results while high school graduation remains, although improved overall, elusive to those young people most in need of education.

▪ Health care has improved, but 73,000 children remain without it.

▪ Children face harsh community challenges, with 420,000 living in single-parent homes and more, 161,000, living in high-poverty communities than a few years ago.

The summer of 2015 has brought an intense spotlight to South Carolina, with the racist shooting of nine black citizens gathered in their church. Despite the Legislature’s decision to respond to that tragedy by removing the Confederate flag from the State House grounds, we continue to struggle in our state and nation with entrenched racism and crippling economic inequity — both of which condemn our children’s destiny to their ZIP codes, not the content of their character.

In the United States, despite lingering and false stereotypes of “welfare queens,” 80 percent of people in poverty are from vulnerable populations: children, the elderly, the disabled, students and the working poor.

And despite educational attainment, racial inequity remains powerful. Even with the same level of education, whites earn more than Hispanics and blacks. And blacks with some college have the same probability of employment as white high school dropouts.

Congressman James E. Clyburn has called for South Carolina both to appreciate the symbolism of removing the Confederate flag and to commit to substantive policy by addressing the great weight of poverty and racism that our state still carries, a weight that is particularly harmful to our children.

He identifies health care and voting rights as policy South Carolina must address, but there are many additional commitments we should make to improve the lives of children:

▪ Ensure that all children have health care from conception until their early 20s.

▪ Seek public policy that supports all families with children, focusing on ensuring that having children doesn’t push any family into poverty.

▪ Abandon the fruitless education accountability process and replace our school reform efforts with a focus on equity of opportunity: equitable K-12 and higher education funding across the state, equitable teacher assignments for all students, access to high-quality courses for all students and high-quality alternatives for anyone to complete high school and college degrees, despite age or background, with substantial financial support.

▪ Create stable and well-paying work for South Carolinians that reinforces everyone’s access to health care and retirement/savings.

▪ Confront directly and comprehensively the reality that the state has enough money, but that our problem is the inequitable distribution of that capital. The infamous Corridor of Shame was not created by our school system, but the education inequity that it reveals is a reflection of the larger socioeconomic injustice across our state.

In confronting William Faulkner in the early years of the civil rights struggle for calling for patience among blacks in the South, novelist and public intellectual James Baldwin chose words that should resonate today in South Carolina: “There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”

Dr. Thomas is faculty director of first-year seminars at Furman University; contact him at paul.thomas@furman.edu.