Poverty is a word that evokes strong emotions in most. To some, the word elicits an automatic disdain and blame for those living in poverty. To others, the word evokes an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness and anxiety because poverty is complex and deeply-rooted in American culture. Although many professionals, particularly educators, are directly impacted by the product of poverty in their daily work, most post-secondary and graduate level programs lack formal training regarding the history of poverty in the United States, the models to address poverty, and they lack a true understanding of the real impact of poverty (Goodwin, 2000). Our society tends to believe that if one works hard enough, they will do well. However, according to the recent census, two-thirds of people living in poverty are working 1.7 jobs. Many people work hard and are still not making it, not even for basic needs.
It is helpful for anyone who works in human service fields (education, law, politics, mental health, medicine) to explore personal views about poverty because most views of poverty includes personal bias.
Statistics (Slocumb & Payne, 2000)
- More than 15% of the population, roughly 43.2 million Americans (mainly children) live in poverty
- 1-in-4 working households in America spend more than half of their pre-tax income on housing, which is impossible to sustain
- Government assistance often falls short of meeting basic needs
- 46 million people suffer food insecurity. The average person who receives assistance receives about $3.00 per day; however, food costs are constantly rising, particularly for healthy food
- Types of Poverty (Slocumb & Payne, 2000)
- Generational Poverty is the type of poverty most people think of. It usually occurs when there is no emphasis on the importance of education and the family does not personally anyone who has benefited from education. In addition, families in this category are highly mobile with a primary focus of just making it day to day. There is a high percentage of illiteracy in this category and the family has little hope and even less resources.
- Working-Class Poverty is when a family works; however, there is rarely any money for extras. These families live paycheck to paycheck and are often exploited financially by things like “payday advance loans”. Few of these families have adequate healthcare and often are impacted by poor nutrition. These families see poverty as a personal deficiency and feel the pressure of surviving bi-weekly or monthly. They are also described as “the working poor”.
- Immigrant Poverty generally occurs when there are persistent language and cultural barriers combined with little to no resources. For these families, poverty is viewed as a system problem, not a personal deficiency. Families of immigrant poverty seem to have a stronger sense of self and often have better outcomes than those born into poverty in America
- Situational Poverty occurs when a family is originally in the middle-class status, but a crisis occurs which impacts them financially. These families are often harsh towards those born into poverty and often have thoughts such as “I worked hard and got through this tough time, so why can’t they do it?” Those in situational poverty have not internalized poverty as a personal problem and do not recognize the hidden advantages of growing up in middle-class.
Students and their families living in the crisis of poverty receive messages from our society that they do not belong or that something is wrong with them. They receive the message that they are unworthy, incapable, and that they deserve the predicament they are in. Media outlets tend to be the number one teacher of poverty (Slocumb & Payne, 2000). The problem is that the media tends to present extremes, sensationalize and dramatize stories whereas true poverty has a more familiar and humane look.
The Impact on Students
Education is the primary way to break the cycle of poverty, therefore, it is imperative that educators not only have a full understanding of poverty and their own beliefs, but also how poverty directly impacts their students. Poverty is complex in so many ways, however, if educators can recognize and master even one barrier, the overall learning experience for the student can be greatly improved (Bandura, 2001). Below are a few barriers that educators must consider when trying to find innovative ways to build a lesson plan particularly when there is a lack of readiness to learn.
Mobility-high mobility is a primary symptom of poverty. Children of poverty may live in places that rent by the day or by the week. They may move about frequently while their parent searches for work or runs from problems (eviction, owed utility bills, problematic family members, crime). They may also be homeless and live in a shelter, in a vehicle, or on the streets. The conditions these children live in have a significant impact on their education and achievement (Garbarino, 1997). School attendance is often irregular and transfer to a new school becomes the norm. Often when there is frequent mobility, school records don’t follow the child, which creates an even more difficult transition. Moving for children also impacts their social skills and their ability to maintain relationships. They may be standoffish and resist building any bonds due to knowing that they will soon move again.
Emotional Trauma-many children in poverty have been exposed to events or situations high in threat. The research on adverse childhood experiences indicates that the brain impacted by trauma is both structurally and functionally different from a neurotypical brain (Garbarino, 1997). Trauma interferes with attention, concentration, and the ability to retain information. In addition, these children are often in a hyper aroused state and are unable to focus on anything outside of what is linked to direct survival. Therefore, school becomes a burden because the brain will have a difficult time downshifting to a less threatening mode.
Hunger/Lack of Nutrition-children in poverty often have limited access to food. School meals may be the only meal the child has during the day. It is quite difficult to concentrate and get through the day when a child is hungry. If there are meals at home, they are likely to lack nutrition due to the high cost of healthy food. Many people take for granted the impact that hunger can have on the mind, body, and spirit
Lack of exposure- children in poverty have minimal to no exposure to anything outside of their immediate living environment. Many children have never left their own neighborhood. Life experiences and contribute to learning and the ability to think on a higher level. Without exposure, vocabulary can be limited and thinking will be concrete (Bassey, 1996). In addition, children in poverty may not have exposure to experiences as simple as a family dinner, or a bedtime routine. The school day might be the most consistent thing in their life and depending on their individual experiences, the teacher may be the only reliable and trustworthy adult they have had contact with (Bassey, 1996). Because of this, teachers are in a powerful position where they can either make or break the self-esteem of their students.
How to Break the Barrier of Poverty
Although the cycle of poverty is quite complex, there are things that educators can do to help students move out of poverty. These theories are research based and also considered to be best practices for connecting with families and students (Stover, 2000).
Strength Based Perspective- every individual has strengths. Students and families can be empowered by focusing on what is good about them, what they do know, and what skills they presently have. Approaching families with empathy (not sympathy) and making families feel wanted, important, and connected will foster an environment of trust and safety.
Resiliency Theory-people can develop resiliency when they are surrounded by others who tell them what is good about them. It is also important to emphasize that each individual is special and has a purpose.
Asset Theory- the more assets as student has the more likely they will succeed (Goodwin, 2000).
Assets include community resources and connections such as sports, after school clubs, community centers, church youth groups, or other extracurricular activities. These assets allow children in poverty to see a different world and interact with others who will see them outside of their usual environment.
Faulty Attribution Theory- when motives are attributed to someone else’s behavior without discovering the “why” behind their actions. It is common amongst professionals who have not taken the time to truly understand the cycle of poverty to use faulty attributions (Goodwin, 2000). For example, a child who falls asleep in class may be thought to be disrespectful or disinterested in the subject, where in actuality they may simply be sleepy due to factors beyond their control such as chaos in the home, or the stress of homelessness.
The issue of poverty can be overwhelming and as a result may be easier to avoid and ignore than to try tackling the issue. However, poverty cannot be ignored especially by educators and others in helping and serving professions. Although one person cannot solve such a complex issue, every person can make a difference in the life of a child in poverty, and perhaps be the catalyst to change by showing the child that they can strive to escape the vicious cycle of poverty.
Bandura, A. 2001. Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 1-26. WilsonWeb July 11, 2001.
Bassey, M. 1996. Teachers for a changing society: Helping neglected children cope with schooling. The Educational Forum, 61, 58-62. WilsonWeb June 30, 2001.
Garbarino, J. 1997. Educating children in a socially toxic environment. Educational Leadership, 54, 12-16. WilsonWeb July 10, 2001.
Goodwin, B. 2000. Raising the achievement of low-performing students. Policy brief retrieved from website www.mcrel.org
Slocumb, P. & Payne, R. 2000. Identifying and nurturing the gifted poor. Principal, 79, 5, 28-32. WilsonWeb July 10, 2001.
Stover, D. 2000. The mobility mess of students who move. The Education Digest, 66, 3, 61-4. WilsonWeb July 18, 2001.