07/24/2013 02:32 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2013

A Majority in Poverty

I lead a double life. I spend my working hours with students from one of the most impoverished gateway cities in the country. Then I spend my home hours in a gentrified neighborhood of Boston, talking to other people with graduate degrees about politics and policy. I used to feel a greater tension, a sense of guilt with this duality, but I've come to accept it as part of being successful and providing a life for yourself.

But when I read the latest report from the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, I despair. In 1989, three years after I was born, 31.4 percent of children qualified for free and reduced lunch in the United States. Now that percentage has surged to 53.3 percent. A majority. To qualify for free and reduced lunch, a family of four today has to make less than my starting salary as a teacher. The Pell Institute reports that based on the trends of the past decade, this number will rise to 73.6 percent by 2030.

We are a nation in denial. We live in a country where a majority of families exist in poverty or a part-time paycheck away from it. A generation from now, will good grades be enough to get you a good life? Is that already a fiction? Will you merely re-live the struggles of your working or lower or middle-class family, and never, ever get ahead?

More than half of our families are not part of some "struggling middle class" -- they are struggling to get by at all. Children in these families are more likely than ever before to remain mired in poverty or almost-poverty. The lucky ones will take on huge debts with huge interest rates to attend college, then spend their 20s and 30s and 40s and 50s paying back these massive student loans. And we cannot even blame this on the big banks, since we have centralized the process. The money flows right back to Congress, which will be more than happy to take credit for reducing the deficit off the backs of people who haven't even begun to work. The current "compromise" proposal could allow interest rates to soar as high as 8.25 percent for undergraduates.

Meanwhile the United States is poised for a system-wide crash of its educational system because we are expecting educators to solve poverty all by themselves. It costs more than $20,000 to live at and attend a state college in many places, yet we continue to hold them up as beacons of opportunity. With employment figures dropping, they are becoming factories for debt. I came out of graduate school thinking that if I could simply motivate my high school students to work hard enough, they could overcome anything. It's a youthful optimism that I still value and instill.

But the hard reality is that, as a whole, our generation of educators has been used. Duped. Programs like Teach for America coupled with misguided reforms, which accelerate teacher turnover, have so de-professionalized and demoralized teachers in our neediest districts that they either leave or accept a revolving door of well-intentioned Ivy League incompetence. Tenure-track positions at universities are being eliminated. True Teaching Fellows programs -- such as the one in which I participated for my entire college experience, and which paid my tuition -- have been cut and replaced with corrosive stopgaps. As a society we expect our 20- and 30-somethings to bounce around from one unstable job to another, saving nothing, while middle-aged pensioners wait to reap the benefits and retire comfortably. Our youth are being exploited by an irresponsible, reckless and selfish class of politicians, plutocrats and pensioners. We are not regenerating a nation with innovation and idealism; we are entrenching a generation in debt and poverty.

Perhaps most depressing is how little others seem to care. Except for a few brave voices, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren, our leaders have accepted inequity. Unable to affect policy in the Republican House, President Obama is about to do another round of vague campaign-style speeches about the middle class -- the same reheated rhetoric we've been hearing since 2007. There are few, if any, great champions against poverty who hold a national presence, who command attention, who sway political opinion. We spend millions of dollars and devote front pages to rich white people who no longer have to pay estate taxes, while millions don't make enough to be taxed. The impoverished majority rarely gets the front page story. Median household income is down 7.3 percent since the start of the recession. How can we indict more than half of Americans as lazy, entitled and unmotivated?

Perhaps you think I'm seeing history through a rosy lens, imagining a time of compassion before I was even born. But numbers are not nostalgic. The Pell Institute reports, "During a period of economic recovery from the Great Recession, the share of K-12 school children living in families with incomes below 185% of the federal poverty is growing faster than it ever has." Those of us with the most advantages get to recover quickly, while the majority limps along with less and less.

We can't accept this new "normal" as an unavoidable consequence of the free market. It's not inevitable economics; it's our society's great moral failing.