Education can break vicious poverty cycle
Statistics, they say, conceal more than they reveal. Not always, though.
On September 8, the International Literacy Day, China announced it still has 85 million illiterate people. Most of them are clustered in the country's less developed rural areas of the landlocked western regions.
Earlier, Liu Xiaoyun, a scholar with China Agricultural University, disclosed that there are the same number of people in China still in the grip of poverty. Again, they are rural residents or migrant "floating" groups from rural areas.
The announcements may have been mutually exclusive but the figure of 85 million is more than a coincidence.
Official explanations are difficult to find but it is common knowledge that the illiterate are more likely to remain poor, and the poor are more likely to be illiterate (or uneducated and unskilled). It is a vicious cycle. The poor cannot afford education, and the illiterate cannot hope to earn enough to overcome poverty.
Those caught in the cycle tend to remain poor throughout their life and, in many cases, down the generations. And almost always, the children are the worst sufferers in this transgenerational poverty.
So how does one get out of the rut?
China enforced a nine-year compulsory education system in 1986; and the Ministry of Education reported a 90-per-cent attendance rate for compulsory education last year.
It is a reasonable postulation that the 10 per cent who didn't attend schools were children of the disadvantaged groups.
For the poorest group of children, poverty is both a cause and a result of inaccessibility to education. Poor children are less likely to be enrolled in schools or to complete the basic level of education. For, even if schooling is free (a goal of the Chinese Government), uniforms, stationery and transport are not. And these may still be well beyond the means of a poor family.
So what does a family with more than one school-going kid do? It may decide to pull out one or more of its children from school. Unfortunately, in most of the cases it is the girl child that falls victim to the hand of fate.
Xiao Mei, a senior secondary school student, is the daughter of one such poor family in Yuzhong County of Gansu Province. Since the rural household depends on income from agriculture, her father said he could no longer afford education for both children, Xiao and her brother.
But he did not want to be unfair to either of them. So on August 24, he decided to choose the "school-goer" by drawing lots. The boy won.
Unable to bear the pain of having to stay away from school, Xiao Mei tried to commit suicide. Fortunately, she did not succeed. That is how difficult and painful education for a poor family can be.
There is another reason why poor parents are forced to keep their wards out of school: family income. If the child is old enough to work and drops out of school, he/she can contribute, however little, to the family instead of making it pay for his/her education.
In 2003, China spent 3.28 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on education - well below the world's average of 4.1 per cent for developing countries and merely half that of the developed ones.
Governments at the lowest levels - in townships and counties - shouldered the bulk of the financial burden to provide education for children, most of them in the rural areas.
Unlike central and provincial governments that have a diverse source of revenue, the grass-roots authorities' income is heavily reliant on agricultural taxes and fees, thus putting them in a real Catch-22 situation as far as rural education is concerned.
The rural poor have to pay more so that grass-roots authorities will be better off financially to provide for their children's education. But the more they pay, the more impoverished their condition becomes. And the less they pay, the more difficult it is for the authorities to raise education funds.
But worse than that is the choice a poor family has to make: falling deeper into poverty to educate a child, or maintaining the status quo without any real future for the children.
We know the cycle of poverty can be broken through education. So let the central and provincial governments shoulder a bigger share of the financial burden needed to make education truly free, starting with the poorest 10 per cent of school-age kids.
Such a move will help bridge the "education gap," or inequities in education - giving equal access to all children and relieving the poor of the pinch of education cost.
We all know that if our children's future remains unpromising, so would be that of the nation.
(China Daily 09/23/2005 page4)
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