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Craig A. Thompson: Renewed opposition to poverty needed

A number of recent reports remind us of the need to diligently and consistently strive to restore the modest but important gains made during the Great Society campaign of the 1960s.

Programs developed during that time — focusing on poverty and racial justice — helped to set the stage for transformative changes that have benefitted our country in many ways. Fueled by the collective power of the civil rights movement and dramatic shifts in societal beliefs, the enactment of major reforms in transportation, housing, education, consumer protection and health care were timely and necessary.

Unfortunately, many of these programs have been challenged, modified or destroyed over the years. As a result, the Great Society envisioned several decades ago has become more difficult to picture. Although some could interpret this reality as a major hurdle, it should be viewed as a source of motivation to go “back to the future” and revive our commitment to fulfilling our greatest promises and achieving our full potential.

A new study published by the Pew Research Center reveals that the wealth gaps between whites and minorities have grown to their widest levels in a quarter-century, with whites on average possessing 20 times the net worth of blacks and 18 times that of Hispanics. Using newly available government data from 2009, these gaps are the largest since the government started publishing such data.

According to the study — titled “Twenty-to-One: Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks and Hispanics” — the median wealth of white U.S. households in 2009 was $113,149, compared with $6,325 for Hispanics and $5,677 for blacks. Those ratios exceed the mark of seven-to-one for both groups, the lowest figure, reached in 1995.

To revive the spirit of the Great Society, it is critical that we focus on ways to bridge the enormous wealth gap, and generate realistic and creative ways to foster discussions surrounding the challenges faced by families across the demographic plane.

The U.S. Department of Education recently released important data that shed light on the vast disparities in educational resources and opportunities for students throughout the country. With a nagging and persistent educational achievement gap in our country, the information provides various stakeholders tools to tackle the problem. The data also help to make real the stark challenges that continue to plague many of our neighborhoods and districts.

The study, a survey covering more than 7,000 school districts and over 72,000 schools, is the first part of a two-part project, with the second portion expected to be released this fall.

Among the findings:

-3,000 schools serving nearly 500,000 high school students offer no Algebra 2 classes, and more than 2 million students in about 7,300 schools had no access to calculus classes.

-Schools serving mostly African-American students are twice as likely to have teachers with only one or two years of experience than are schools within the same district that serve mostly white students.

-Only 2 percent of the students with disabilities are taking at least one Advanced Placement class.

-Students with limited English proficiency make up 6 percent of the high school population (in grades 9–12), but are 15 percent of the students for whom algebra is the highest-level math course taken by the final year of their high school career.

-Only 22 percent of local education agencies reported that they operated pre-k programs targeting children from low-income families.

-Girls are underrepresented in physics, while boys are underrepresented in Algebra II.

These findings represent the proverbial tip of the iceberg, and do not adequately address the many names and faces of those in this country who will be woefully unprepared to make America as strong and competitive as she can and should be in this fast-moving global economy.

In addition to the studies identified above, many organizations, corporations, associations and others are grappling with the “diversity dilemma” and working to reconcile their increasing needs for greater diversity in their respective areas of influence with a perceived decreasing pool of candidates.

For example, the American Bar Association is once again considering raising the minimum bar-passage rate requirement for law schools to maintain accreditation. As this is discussed, many scholars question the prudence of doing so in light of the impact such a change might have on students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Many businesses and organizations are dealing with similar issues in terms of accountability and standards. In light of the findings identified above in the discussed studies, it will clearly be difficult to navigate.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? It has always been difficult to navigate. But as stated eloquently by President Johnson in the quote above, key requirements in meeting these challenges are courage, compassion and desire.

Our challenge locally and nationally is to dig deep, search for find the courage, compassion and desire necessary to bring about the transformative changes created decades ago. When our collective will is focused on doing the right thing and working to fulfill the promise of a better future, the only result will be success.

Craig A. Thompson, who writes a monthly column for The Daily Record, is a partner at Venable LLP, and represents clients in the areas of commercial litigation, products liability, and personal injury. He is the chair of the firm’s diversity committee. He is also the host of a weekly two-way talk radio show, and the author of a series of children’s books on African-American history. His email address is CAThompson@Venable.com.