Written by: Emily Westergaard

CEO of By Degrees Foundation

What’s the biggest predictor of whether a student will succeed in school and beyond? Is it their hard work, their dedication, their “grit?” Is long-term success based on how smart a student is? Does having the best teachers or the most resourced schools have a significant impact on the economic prosperity students go on to achieve?

It turns out that the most reliable indicator for long-term success is actually very simple. It’s a student’s zip code.

Low-income, historically under-resourced neighborhoods experience lower educational outcomes, lower quality health, a lack of safe, affordable housing and skilled jobs, and lower school funding and resources. This translates to low high school graduation and postsecondary attainment rates, creating a generational cycle of poverty.

Children living in poverty are much more likely to enter school less ready than their higher income peers, and the achievement gap likely continues to grow each year. Many factors influence differences in language development, literacy, and noncognitive skills between children living in poverty and those not living in poverty. Lack of access to quality childcare and pre-K programs; fewer financial resources available to purchase books or other learning materials for the home; less time spent on educational activities; higher levels of stress resulting in poorer mental and physical health; all of these barriers create a cumulative effect of making students living in poverty less likely to succeed in K-12 school and beyond.

That’s where we come in.

Since 1990, the By Degrees Foundation (formerly called the Des Moines I Have a Dream Foundation) has been supporting Des Moines students facing barriers to success. We work to ensure more kids graduate from high school ready for college, careers, and our community by helping students and their families explore options for post-secondary education. Our programs at Findley Elementary, Harding Middle, and North High School support over 2,500 students. By starting conversations in kindergarten about what students might pursue after high school, we demystify the educational process and work with students and their families to explore all sorts of different options from 2- or 4-year colleges to trade programs to registered apprenticeships and military service.

In addition to ongoing programs starting in kindergarten, we open 529 savings accounts for all students at Findley Elementary. Students can earn up to $200 annually by completing various personal and academic milestones. Funds can be used at trade schools and for 2-year, 4-year colleges, and advanced degrees.

The opportunity to earn follows students into Harding and North. This means that a kindergartener can earn $2,600 into their account by high school graduation.

We developed this program to address long-term poverty and to provide students with the financial resources necessary to pursue postsecondary education. We know that these accounts may not pay for all costs, but we recognize their powerful impact.

Combined with our future-focused programing, these accounts reduce the wealth gap, increase engagement, and strengthen overall financial health.

Helping families build savings is one factor in reducing poverty. Another key tool showing powerful results is providing families living in poverty with a basic income. Providing households with an unrestricted cash payment has an exponential effect. Overwhelmingly, basic income studies have shown that the additional income is spent on essentials such as food, improving living conditions, transportation, or paying down debt. For some, basic income allows the adults in the household to spend a little less time working and a little more time with their children. Basic income payments are shown to reduce stress for parents and caregivers, which has a measurable effect on everyone in the household’s mental health.

While education can provide opportunities to break the cycle of poverty, basic income payments make investments in education more effective. There is no single solution to reducing poverty and creating equitable opportunities for all in our community. Programs like the By Degrees Foundation and UpLift – The Central Iowa Basic Income Pilot are each creating systems to support more families rising out of poverty. If you also believe that a student’s zip code shouldn’t influence their opportunities in life, consider ways that you can support our work.