by Sean Eagan, corps member serving on the Walmart Team at Hart Middle School
It is no secret that there is a significant gap between the financial wellbeing of white Americans and black Americans, but it may surprise some to find that this disparity has widened during the last two decades. A recent Pew Research Center study found that the average white family has twenty times the wealth of the average black family. Economists define wealth as the sum of a household’s assets, which include big-ticket items like cars, homes, and 401ks. The Pew study found that one-third of black Americans have no assets at all.
Wealth has far-reaching effects that are sometimes hard to measure in terms of dollars and cents. While economists tell us about how wealth affects consumption choices, sociologists have found that people’s choices and expectations about their own futures are also significantly affected by wealth. Children are shaped by the environment that surrounds them; when children see poverty and failing schools in their community, they make judgments about their ability to achieve.
Stewart Butler of the Heritage Foundation states, “If somebody thinks they will not succeed, there is a high probability that they won’t succeed. Because if they don’t expect to go to college, if they don’t expect to be affluent, they start doing things with that in mind.”
City Year can do little to directly affect a household’s wealth, but through their service, corps members are working hard to change students’ attitudes towards their education and their future. Each morning, corps members chant greetings to wake students up and lift their spirits to prepare them for the school day. Throughout their service corps members paint murals, demonstrate proper behavior, and tutor math and reading afterschool.
The most valuable way corps members shape student expectations is by having high expectations for students themselves. Corps members don’t ask their students if they want to go to college but where they want to go. Corps members see the potential in children through little victories everyday at school, not through the lens of a labor economist or a statistician. It is the belief that every child has the potential to be great that gives corps members the drive to help students maximize their talents.
It may be true that in the near term the racial wealth gap is unlikely to narrow, but through the hard work of teachers, administrators, community leaders, and City Year, more economically disadvantaged students are changing their understandings of their futures. More kids believe they will go to college, that they will be successful in the field of their choice, that they are bound by nothing but their own determination. With that sort of resolve, today’s students have the power to turn racial inequality into a mere memory.
- Kochhar, Rakesh, Richard Fry, and Paul Taylor. “Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks and Hispanics.” Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, 26 July 2011. Web. 13 Oct. 2011. <http://pewresearch.org/pubs/2069/housing-bubble-subprime-mortgages-hispanics-blacks-household-wealth-disparity>.
- “Making It In the US: More than Just Hard Work.” NPR Economy. National Public Radio. Washington, DC, 16 Sept. 2011. NPR Topics: Economy Podcast. National Public Radio, 16 Sept. 2011. Web. 16 Sept. 2011.