A disappearing American Dream
For those from here, the phrase “Dirty Dodge” means scrappy underdogs who overcome adversity despite our disadvantages. We wear it as a badge of honor. Others across the state use it as an insult and assume that anyone wearing “Dodgers” across their jersey is dangerous. I remember once while lined up to run a relay, the guy from Waukee in the lane next to me asked if I was hiding a knife in my sock before the race.
While it is a sign of the resiliency of our community that we have taken this slander as a point of pride, we must also confront the reality of our reputation. Webster County is faced with vastly higher poverty and crime rates than the majority of Iowa. This not due to a high concentration of violent people as our nickname suggests. We must address the problems that created this reputation.
Let’s examine the issues plaguing rural Iowa through the lens of the American Dream: the promise that our freedom means any American has an equal chance to achieve prosperity through hard work. Over time, this idea has become an urban legend fueled by the occasional story of an individual rising out of poverty and into prosperity. We must recognize this is not the norm and that there are external factors needlessly making it more difficult to achieve this mythological prosperity. A significant factor contributing to the crime which plagues Fort Dodge the amount of people living in poverty.
The link between poverty and crime is undeniable. Children from families in the lowest 10 percent income bracket are 20 times more likely to end up incarcerated by age 30. Not only are people in poverty more likely to be arrested for crimes, but those living in high poverty areas are more likely to be the victims of crime as well. Those in poor households have a victimization rate of nearly double those in high income areas for violent crime.
Getting out of the poverty cycle is a challenge which disproportionately impacts our minority communities. A child born into the bottom income bracket has a 43 percent chance of remaining in that same bracket as an adult. Considering that the poverty rate for Black children in Webster County is 87 percent, it exemplifies one example of the struggle the Black community faces on the road to prosperity.
Systemic racial inequality creates disadvantages which perpetuate the poverty cycle for minority Iowans. As we discuss police reform and ways to address heightened tensions between law enforcement and minority communities, education and economic reform is necessary to help lift these communities out of poverty.
We know the importance of a quality education on the road to prosperity. Early literacy proficiency is one of the best indicators of future success. Students who cannot read at grade level at the start of 4th grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than those who are proficient. What is even scarier, is that for students who are not on grade level and live in low-income areas their dropout rate increases to six times higher than those who are proficient.
If we analyze Fort Dodge: only 55 percent of students could read proficiently by the end of their third grade year. In a class of 250 third graders where 50 percent of them qualify for free and reduced lunch, that means 112 students are at a four times greater risk and 56 are at a six times greater risk of not graduating. It is a testament to the hard work of our teachers that our graduation rate is as high as it was last year at 82 percent. Imagine the success our staff would have if given full funding for scientifically supported improvements in education. While politicians boast of having the No. 1 graduation rate in America — that isn’t seen here.
Those students that do graduate are often left unprepared for what is next. It wasn’t until I started collegiate classes that I realized the disadvantage FDSH students face. I utilized every educational advancement opportunity available in high school and yet my classmates from across the nation, and even from other parts of the state, were significantly better prepared.
High wage jobs in northwest Iowa are often in the agriculture, renewable energy, and technology industries. Our curriculum is lacking the necessary resources to provide students the classes they need to prepare themselves. FDSH offers one Advanced Placement course in the sciences. They have just recently begun offering a minimal agricultural education. Students in rural areas have better access to agriculture classes. Students in Des Moines have better access to advanced courses. Leaving our students with neither makes them less competitive in the most important employment industries.
With education comes higher wages. High school graduates make $8,000 more in average annual salary than those who do not graduate. A person with a bachelor’s degree earns $26,000 more annually. We must guarantee every student has access to quality, affordable education beginning in preschool, continuing through high school, and into college and vocational schools. Our issues stem from state leaders’ deliberate choice to let schools in this region fail.
Failing schools are a symptom of a much larger problem. Allowing schools to fail means denying Iowans a chance at higher earning potential, and thus accepting poverty as inevitable instead of preventable. When we allow poverty to exist, we’re also accepting the desperation it creates for families, and the crime that follows.
The solution starts with our schools. We need more mental and behavioral health professionals in schools. We need incentives to keep good teachers. We need to raise pay and increase the number of teachers we have. We need initiatives to raise early literacy and ensure proficiency. We need to better allocate the funding we do have instead of allowing abuse of taxpayer dollars. These aren’t radical ideas. Our students deserve better. Our community can do better. This is not the American Dream that we deserve.
Keegan Jones is a 2013 graduate of Fort Dodge Senior High and currently works as a financial analyst and consultant.