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In College, I Learned How to End Poverty

Picture the streets of New York’s inner city. Now, how about Harvard’s campus? Are they anything alike? No? Well, they could be. And maybe they should be. 

As we speak, our most prestigious colleges are meticulously crafting their diversity ratios to properly appeal to a public who sees college as an opportunity to "expand their horizons"; they want to meet people of different socio-economic backgrounds as well as learn from others who have different life experiences, and be better for it. This idealistic diversity is, ironically, different from the “real life” situation where economic status and race can easily segregate. 

Why is it that, in the American “melting pot,” there are so many divided groups? It is because the recruiting policies tacitly present in every university, whether racial, socio-economic, or talent-based, do not exist in federal or state-level legislation. But, this may be what our society needs, especially when it comes to our neediest. This kind of control is exactly what we need to help bring low-income citizens out of their vicious cycles of poverty.

Consider the average life of your poverty-stricken citizen. Average Joe may be born in a government-subsidized house, which, while providing affordable roofs over the financially disadvantaged, also tends to herd the same financially disadvantaged people into one place, creating a “poverty culture.” These people share the same lifestyles, habits, and problems. 

This is an issue of government-provided options forcing people together, who could be exposed to healthier and more productive lifestyles if they were surrounded by people from all walks of life. Most importantly, it will allow children the chance to make the right "connections" with others, perhaps a step above them in income and standard of living, and thus move towards that same standard once they grow older. After all, studies have shown that you form the closest ties with those geographically close to you, and who is closer to you than your next door neighbor?

Once Joe reaches school age, things do not get much better. Unless his family is lucky enough to move to a different area, he will probably go to the neighborhood school with the same low-income kids he has always known. Once again, this is most prevalent among our low-income population, as they would be the ones tracked into schools with a uniform population; these schools do not encourage an upward mobile lifestyle, but a ‘staying exactly where you are’ one.     

But, it is all okay as long as Joe works hard enough and gets into a good college. That is when he will get his chance to interact with people of wealthier social status than his, make the right connections, and be on his way to the American dream; except, wait, not that many kids get that far. We are back at square one. 

If there is one place in America where you can find demographic policy implemented in its most unadulterated glory, it is the private college campus. The irony here, of course, is that students enter college thinking it is a chance to turn over a new leaf and meet new people they would not expect; encounter diversity and the eclectic mix of people that inhabit the “real world,” when in fact, the diversity they encounter is manufactured.

Of course, I am not proposing that ending the cycle of poverty is as simple as throwing people of different social classes together and seeing what happens. The Chicago Housing Authority tried this, and has run into several roadblocks. More successful plans will require more nuances, and we can find more starting points by looking at what works at the university level: Giving people a common interest. From a university standpoint, this could be just a general academic environment or core classes that everyone gets to complain about together. Likewise, bridging the culture gap will be the biggest challenge in truly integrating social classes.

Alleviating a problem that is both nebulous and concrete as poverty is, without a doubt, complex and multi-faceted. But, that does not mean these first steps have to be.  

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons

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