By Brandyn Murillo
With his decision to open a school geared to serve low-income students, Mark Zuckerberg, our “Social Network” protagonist and Facebook magnate, has been the topic of this week’s political and educational conversations.
Called “The Primary School”, the non-profit facility will serve low-income students in Palo-Alto, where 18% of the population sit underneath the poverty line (compared to a national average of 14%). “The Primary School” is scheduled to open in August 2016 and will become home to about 700 students from kindergarten to eighth grade.
However, this institution is unique. In addition to being tuition free, the school will provide free healthcare services to the students and their entire families.
“Health and education are closely related,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post. “When children aren’t healthy, they can’t learn as easily.”
And he has a point.
However, we need to first attribute the problem of lack of healthcare to a bigger dilemma: poverty. By 2012 census numbers, nearly 45 million Americans are currently living in poverty. In itself, poverty impedes the pursuit of education.
Education isn’t simply the only factor affected by poverty. There was a study conducted tracking a cohort of students from 2002 to 2012 by the Department of Education. It was found that only 23% of economically-disadvantaged kids in the second highest tier of math scores go on to attain a Bachelor’s degree. Compare this to 63% of high-income students who go on to attain one. Despite being in the lowest tier, 21% of kids from high-income backgrounds will still attain a bachelor’s degree; roughly the same amount as higher-scoring and intelligent, but lower-income students.
So why choose health care as a medium to “level out the playing field?” Zuckerberg could be making a comment on the distribution of wealth and basic services, but he is backed by real data.
According to the Department of Labor Statistics, the cost of healthcare has risen faster than general inflation from 2005 through 2015 (2009 being the exception). This places a huge burden on families not only budget wise, but emotionally. Per the 2009 Journal of Marriage and Family, children in a household with an income of $15,000 or less are 22 times more likely to be victims of abuse, as opposed to children living in households with an income of $30,000 or more.
This creates an unhealthy environment that prevents intellectual growth. In terms of budgeting, households incapable of purchasing adequate health care are almost certainly unable to fund things like SAT prep or provide in other ways that would improve the general well-being of the child. Even if the potential to be academically bright is innate, it can easily be hindered by factors beyond a child’s control.
Sadly, it’s possible to be disadvantaged as early as your birth-hour. According to 2001 studies by George Kaplan, founder of the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan, poor babies are more likely to be born underweight or with illness. Poverty transcends generations, becoming a self-perpetuating and crippling cycle. Lacking the means to afford health care at birth not only impacts the quality of life in youth, but could potentially go on to have a negative impact even into old age.
However, healthcare is not the biggest target in Zuckerberg’s sight, as demonstrated by the limited lives he is touching: a small percentage of the 46.5 million living under the 2012 poverty line, according to US Census data. Instead, Zuckerberg is commenting on the economic state of the country: one that allows illness and poverty to perpetuate through generations, without a clear means to an end.
Zuckerberg’s school is only treating the symptom to a larger dilemma. As a society, we need to ensure everyone has access to a level playing field. This is not a predicament concerning the ambition of the individual, but one that pertains to the very structure of our society at large.
Brandyn Murillo is a first-year undeclared major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.