Conversations with Alan Aja: NYC’s pandemic education policies and the Culture of Poverty.

During the peak of the Omnicron wave in New York City, parents of children enrolled in the city’s public schools experienced a combination of consternation, confusion, and helplessness. During the last days of November, the first Omnicron cases started as a trickle amidst the lingering detritus of the Delta variant. By December, the pace had picked up considerably. All the while, Mayor Bill DeBlasio with less than a month remaining in his term refused to entertain the idea of returning students to remote learning. No doubt, he had his eyes focused on the Christmas/Hannukah break at the end of the month. Meanwhile, the entire city’s rate of infection ballooned well into double digits.

January not only ushered in a new year but also a new mayoral administration, that of Eric Adams. Many parents, having watched community infections pick up steam over the week off, hoped for a return to remote learning. Other parents assumed the opposite position, stating firmly that they opposed a return to remote learning. (The New York City Board of Education being the au pair service par excellence.)

Like the mayor preceding him, Adams refused to entertain the idea of closing schools, even for a fortnight till the wave passed its peak. As if by rote, he insisted that schools are the safest places for children to be. (Someone should check the veracity of that statement since many of the sources of the CDC document cited by politicians carries an important caveat: As long as community spread is under control, their data holds true. All bets were off during times of high rates of transmission.)

Needless to say, many parents belonging to disenfranchised communities felt even more disenfranchised as their concerns were dismissed out of hand by the mayor-with-swag. Amidst the blizzard of dissatisfied tweets bemoaning the Eric Adams’ intransigence, Alan Aja, a professor from the City University of New York, Brooklyn College, provided context for what was occurring.

We caught up with Prof. Aja over email to dig a little deeper into culture of poverty theory and how it explains the Adams Administration’s pandemic school policy.

It’s been quite clear since the very first days of the Covid-19 pandemic in the U.S. that people from different socio-economic groups would experience the crisis in different ways. What have you observed?

There’s a clear overlap between those we’ve deemed as “essential workers” and majority of public school families in New York City. The aggregate of Black, Latinx and Asian students make up the larger demographics of the school system, and they disproportionately come from working class backgrounds. The pandemic, if anything, further exposed already deep-rooted inter-group wealth inequality, and local labor market, housing, health, immigration-related and transportation inequities. 

In one of your tweets, you suggest that the school opening policies of the New York City Board of Education is an example of the perpetuation of culture of poverty theory. What is the culture of poverty?

For a critique and explainer, see here: Essentially, the long time theory posits that economic disparities are a result of inter-generational values passed down through generations, rather than focusing on the structural factors that empirically explain poverty.  I was reacting to the claim that schools are safer than homes, which fell in line with a larger narrative that families of color (majority of NYC public school composition) don’t know what’s best for their children. This is how the culture of poverty is tied to social policy – where we seek to reform the poor (have them adjust their behaviors) rather than changing the social circumstances (wealth inequality, disinvestment in public goods/safety net) they experience. Colleagues and I also wrote about it here: 

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How are the NYC BoE’s policy decisions an example of culture of poverty theory?

It’s omnipresent in the system. From racially segregated curricula (re: gifted and talented programs and creation of screened schools have been not-so-subtle ways of getting around long-time desegregation mandates), to punitive attendance policies, to culturally irrelevant pedagogical approaches – it can sometimes be overt or covert, but ultimately the general current design of schooling is about changing individual behavior (see “schooling as form of social control” theories) rather than changing unequal structures long-cemented in the public school system.

New York City’s new mayor has basically made the case that closing schools and returning to remote learning will ultimately end up increasing inequality. He cites how some children rely on other services like meals programs. He also mentions the digital divide and how it makes remote learning untenable for some families. Is this line of thinking off the mark? How is he measuring inequality?

Essentially he is pitting some artificial measure of learning (see “learning loss”) against health equity, when both were not mutually exclusive (medically vulnerable families were simply asking for a temporary remote option so their children can keep up with class material). And yes, the digital divide is well-documented, but this can also be used a distraction/evasion by policymakers to avoid implementing universal broadband and assure a public good, rather than a private good that more increasingly can’t afford. 

What would an equitable school policy look like?

Many models around the world and country, but I generally think these are the goals, and then some: Eliminating property tax base as the source of local school funding, given persistent racialized wealth/housing inequities, per typical public policy around the US, is a start.

Does access to affordable healthcare play a role in the problems facing NYC schools?

It isn’t access to affordable that is the solution, but free, public provision (as in a single-payer system) that is the solution. The current market-based, employer-situated model is inequitable and unsustainable. The popularity of public programs such as Medicare speaks to government’s ability to be simultaneously equitable and efficient, even if there are some imperfections. 


IMAGE CREDIT: Eastern Pkwy-Brooklyn Now ADA Accessible Museum.

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