Call for universal prekindergarten to combat poverty

February 24, 2015

HOUSTON — Renowned sociologist Stephen Klineberg called for a universal prekindergarten ensuring that children in poverty have access to a quality education through 12th grade and go on to some form of higher education if Houston’s economy is to remain vibrant in the coming decades.

Speaking at the recent 2015 Poverty Summit, Klineberg said universal prekindergarten is vital for society, and that children in poverty shouldn’t be left out or they face an uphill battle keeping up with their “better-off” peers and are highly likely to drop out of school.

“We have a window of 10 years to ensure the poor have real opportunities to acquire the skills they need,” Klineberg said.

Klineberg, known for his annual Houston Area Survey conducted since 1982, illustrated how the city’s demographics have shifted since the 1982 recession and how Houston’s economy has diversified, the main factors that have allowed the city to grow and prosper. 

“Houston is the single-most ethnically diverse city in the country,” Klineberg said. “No city has transformed as fully as Houston. We also have a more even distribution of immigrants.”

However, a stain on Houston is the high poverty rate.

Klineberg, co-director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, said while the city’s economy is healthy, despite the recent drop in oil prices, more people than ever live in poverty — about 20 percent, and most of them are young African Americans and Latinos. 

He said the poor tend to be in worse health, lack health insurance, lack transportation, are isolated and are served by overcrowded or poor schools. He said those factors, if they aren’t addressed, have huge implications for the wider community in the future. 

“The only way to improve their lot is to invest in their skills,” Klineberg said. “They have to get an education.”

Klineberg also addressed immigration. He said if it wasn’t for the immigrants who have flooded into the city over the last few decades the city would have stagnated. But, he said there is a need to address the great disparity in education between groups of immigrants. Asian immigrants, he said, typically have a high level of education, while Latino immigrants come with stunning educational deficits. However, he said over time Latinos tend to work their way out of poverty, despite their level of education.

Klineberg said the city also needs to develop into a more appealing place, provide more alternative transportation and create a stable mixed income urban community so the poor aren’t displaced or isolated and can get to work more easily. 

Archbishop Emeritus Joseph A. Fiorenza, who welcomed participants, most of whom worked for nonprofits, governmental agencies, schools and other institutions, said with all the resources and opportunities the Houston community has to offer, there is no excuse for the high rate of poverty.

He said everyone needs to understand what poverty means. He defined it as a societal condition reflecting a lack of basic resources, including food, affordable housing, health care, clothing, access to work and access to a good education. 

Like Klineberg, Archbishop Fiorenza placed an emphasis on education as a means to lift people out of poverty and ultimately ensure a healthy and stable society in the future. 

“Poverty is a societal disease, but it is curable if there is a national will,” Archbishop Fiorenza said. “I don’t think we’ve had that across the board.”