Education: An Antidote to Poverty
During the 1960s, the decade of change, AAUW was in the midst of change, too. We overhauled our old program structure and began offering a new program style called “topics,” designed to address the pressing social issues of the day.
It was an exciting, fresh new approach for AAUW. Each topic remained a focus for two years. The first year was study oriented; the second year was for action. The topics were self-directed and flexible enough to be adapted for the various AAUW branches and members.
In 1965, AAUW introduced the topic, “Education: An Antidote to Poverty.” It had only been two years since poverty had first been quantifiably measured, and the results were grim. The poverty rate was nearly 20 percent of the total population of the United States. By the time the topic was introduced to membership, an AAUW report estimated that between 35 and 50 million Americans (including 15 million children) were living in poverty, close to one-fifth of the population.
In response to this alarming trend, AAUW members first studied the many ways in which education could be a possible solution to the problem of poverty with the goal of finding ways to lessen the barriers to quality education. By the end of the first year, AAUW members became more aware of how poverty can cause inequality in education and how it had become a vicious, unbreakable cycle for many American families.
(But truth be told, many states and branches were already studying the issue of educational inequality as it related to poverty. In fact, many states and branches had been studying this issue for years.)
During the second year, states and branches sprang into action. AAUW of Virginia, recognizing the importance of early childhood education, pushed the state legislature for mandatory public kindergarten in all schools and sponsored workshops throughout the state on “The Role of Education in the Struggle against Poverty.”
AAUW of Tennessee’s members advocated for legislation to make kindergarten a legal part of the educational system in their state. In keeping with the push for early childhood education, the AAUW Joliet (IL) and AAUW Elgin (IL) Branches initiated Head Start programs. And the AAUW Jonesboro (AR) Branch created a Head Start of its own, called the Northeast Arkansas Child Development Association.
AAUW of California conducted a study to identify schools with high numbers of students leaving school permanently. Members then set up and supervised study centers in schools to retain students. The AAUW Walnut Creek (CA) Branch created a counseling and tutoring support center for students thinking of leaving school; the AAUW Concord (CA) Branch took a different approach with an emphasis on pre-employment counseling, involving local business leaders who showed students the link between their educational progress and their future work opportunities.
Other branches examined the problems of adult literacy in their communities and offered adult literacy tutoring. Others conducted studies examining whether state standardized tests discriminated against the economically and culturally disadvantaged. Nationwide, an impressive array of initiatives, projects, and programs were introduced.
In the 1960s, no one assumed that the efforts of AAUW states and branches would completely eliminate the problem of poverty. But these efforts demonstrated the force and power of organized groups of women. These groups of women had a unique ability to identify and address social problems and then implement workable, community-specific solutions. It was AAUW’s very own War on Poverty, fought entirely by women.