“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” – Plutarch
To live in poverty is to live your life in pain. It is the pain that comes from being marginalized. It is the agony of being pushed into the shadows while those on the other side – the other side of town, the other side of the tracks, the other side of the highway – are pulled into the light. It is the torture of being robbed of the ability to do simple things, like buy groceries or travel to work, simply. It is the suffocating realization that your ZIP code is not so much of a garden in which to blossom as it is concrete to break through.
To live in poverty in one of the world‘s richest countries is to live in a toxic state of chronic stress. Per the American Psychological Association, chronic stress is a long-term form of stress, derived from unending feelings of despair and hopelessness, as a result of factors such as poverty or traumatic early childhood experiences.
Poverty increases the likelihood of almost every negative outcome in life. Children who grow up in scarcity are more likely to experience mental and cognitive developmental issues; exposure to violence; health challenges; and poor outcomes in school. Sadly, the impact of starting life in the clutches of economic scarcity extends into life as an adult. According to research performed by Cornell University, adults who were children of poverty experienced great difficulty regulating their emotions and were at a higher risk of mental health illness. Perhaps most concerning is the fact that, according to Cornell professor Gary Evans, “half of low-income children will wind up being in the bottom fifth of income as adults.”
The overwhelming majority of the students at Paul Quinn College live the lives that these researchers write about. When you read the Southern Education Foundation’s report stating that the majority of America’s public school students are from low-income backgrounds, you are reading about the places that produced my students. My students are the roses that grew from that concrete.
For the past 12 years, I have been a steward for these roses who are the progeny of scarcity. As the president of Paul Quinn College, I have had a front row seat to what life looks like for good people who are the children of other good people who have been forced to make every decision in their lives with no room for error. That front row seat has changed the way our college views higher education‘s place in the world.
At Paul Quinn, we believe that if Catholic students can have Notre Dame as their Holy Grail, Mormon academics can study at the shrine of Brigham Young University, and Black women can journey to the mecca that is Spelman College, then Paul Quinn College should be the City on the Hill for Pell Grant students and others who have spent their lives grappling with the pain of scarcity. This means doing more than just treating these scholars as students who need “special” programs or using them to help bolster diversity totals. Educating students from under-resourced communities means that we as institutions must understand how to be, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, repairers of the breach.
Repairing the breach means we must turn our schools outward and address the ne of the day. For Paul Quinn, and increasingly for every school in the country, the ne of the day start with poverty. Therefore, after more than a century of fighting the consequences of poverty – food deserts, environmental injustices, increased student loan indebtedness, etc. – we have decided to take the fight to the source of the problem. We have made the eradication of intergenerational poverty our institutional goal.
This was not a goal we selected for its perceived ease. Rather, we were called to it by our sense of justice and our faith. We simply do not believe that in one of the 15 richest countries in the world, 40 million people – including 51 percent of the state-educated pupils – should ever worry about where their next meal will come from or if the lights will be on when they come home after work or school. We believe that people deserve better. What do you believe?