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Ya gotta fix the ruts.

income inequalityAbout ten years ago, I planted a tree in my backyard. Unfortunately, the tree did not do well. I tried spraying the leaves with several products I had purchased at a home improvement store. The tree’s condition did not improve. I asked someone with experience what I should do. After I explained what I had done to improve the health of the tree, the man in the cowboy hat and huge belt buckle said, “Ya gotta fix the ruts.” (Translation: You have to fix the roots)

I was told that the tree’s issue was at the root level. No amount of treatment above ground was going to work. Despite some rather expensive treatments to the visible parts of the tree, the tree did not survive. I had waited too long to treat the roots.

When I think of conversations about income inequality, I can’t help but think that we need to fix the roots.

While federal programs provide some expensive and temporary programs, nothing seems to address the roots. We’ve heard the arguments about unemployment payments being so significant that a worker is financially better off not working. While this may be true, it’s tough to blame someone for taking the more lucrative option. This funding will eventually stop, and those people will be back to where they started. Even if income is slightly higher, increasing prices will offset that increase.

Another concept being floated is taxpayer-funded college. The stated intent is to allow people of lower socioeconomic brackets to attend college. Indeed, providing an avenue for higher education to academically qualified people but lack the financial means to do so is a good thing. Still, this is not at the root of the problem.

income inequalityI spoke to a long-time educator who has continually taught at the K-12 level and was informed a significant problem occurs in the early years. If a student gets behind in his or her education, that learning gap widens year after year. The earlier a student falls behind, the wider that gap will be in later years. While this can occur at all economic levels, it is more pervasive in more impoverished communities. There is a lack of resources at home to get these kids caught up. The widening academic gap experienced by some children causes students to be discouraged and directly leads to a higher dropout rate. So, while “free college” sounds good, it has no value to a student who does not graduate high school.

Supporting students with academic challenges may be easier than you think.

It will require an investment from all of us. You don’t need to write a check but rather invest your time. Many schools don’t do an efficient job of asking for community assistance, so you may need to inquire on your own. There are programs where you read to young children. Think of what skill sets you possess that you could use to help a student get on track. Act as a mentor to a student. The emphasis on the S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) has been increasing rapidly to meet a high demand for qualified workers in those fields.

income inequalityI encourage you to contact your local schools to inquire about volunteer opportunities. This suggestion seems simple because it is. However, it’s not easy. Many have professional and life experiences that can be invaluable to a student who may be struggling. Even when additional resources are available to help with learning, too often, parents are not aware of them or how to access them. You don’t need to have extraordinary skills in the S.T.E.M. subjects to assist a student in finding resources.

My wife mentored a student several years ago. The student is very intelligent, but her parents were not familiar with how to access resources due to a language barrier. Her mentee still keeps in touch and updates her on her college experience. Both the mentor and mentee frequently talk about how each benefited from the experience. There is no question this was an investment in time that continues to pay tremendous dividends.

July 2021

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