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Poverty Undermines Intelligence

By Walt Gardner — September 09, 2013 1 min read
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So much has been written about the connection between poverty and performance that it seemed nothing materially new could emerge about the subject. Except this time, researchers explained in detail how and why being poor undermines even high innate intelligence (“Poverty can sap brainpower, research shows,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 31).

When students come from impoverished backgrounds, their need for the basic requirements of life monopolizes their attention to the point that their brainpower suffers. I had a black student in my first period Senior Composition class who was extraordinarily bright. Yet he had a hard time writing essays on time. He explained that he worked on the docks at night to bring in much needed income. As a result, he was physically and mentally exhausted. I used to let him go to the library to take a nap. He graduated on time and went on to become a successful professional photographer for a major newspaper.

Nevertheless, there are those who point to poor Asian and Jewish students as proof that poverty is overemphasized. The usual explanation is that their culture reveres learning, which trumps their impoverished backgrounds. But the evidence does not totally support this view. Irving Howe wrote that poor Jewish immigrant students in New York City schools in 1905 were hardly a monolith in terms of their academic performance (World of Our Fathers, Simon and Schuster, 1976). " ... a summary conclusion would be that the New York school system did rather well in helping immigrant children who wanted help, fairly well in helping those who needed help, and quite badly in helping those who resisted help.”

The point is that poverty affects just about every aspect of a student’s life. The things that other students take for granted are denied to these students. I don’t know how they manage to get through a school day in light of their chaotic backgrounds. I urge those who claim that excuses are being made for the underperformance of poor students to read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed (Metropolitan Books, 2001). She engaged in what is known as immersion journalism by joining the ranks of millions of Americans who work for poverty-level wages. Her experiences across the country have direct relevance to public schools populated by disadvantaged students.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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