Education Opinion

Thinking About Poverty

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — December 19, 2013 3 min read
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Have you seen television holiday specials that take place in the inner city? Probably not. Holiday shows are about white families and happy endings. Commercials bombard us with expectations for abundant giving and receiving. Even cars are suggested Christmas presents! Tables are filled with food, presents abound under the tree, and happiness and awe appear on faces. One just has to search on YouTube for Christmas commercials or watch an evening of television to see what is missing.

In their report on poverty based on 2012 findings, the United States Census Bureau shows an alarming number of children in poverty. 22.3% of girls and 21.3% of boys under the age of 18 live in poverty. Children from Black (27.2%) and Hispanic (25.6%) households are twice as likely to live in poverty than those from white households (12.7%). The lives of this youth population are not reflected in the media. They are keenly aware of what they do not have and whom they are not like. Eric Jensen writes:

Although childhood is generally considered a time to be joyful, carefree exploration, children living in poverty tend to spend less time finding out about the world around them and more time struggling to survive within it” (p.8).

These children are more likely to be less able to handle the challenges they face because of an inherent lack of resilient behavior. “Chronic socioeconomic deprivation can create environments that undermine the development of self and the capacity for self-determination and self-efficacy” (pp.8-9).

So when we think about resilience and the need to develop those skills in our students, this time of year can offer a one-two punch to our children living in poverty. It is not unusual for schools to be bubbling with expectant excitement during this time of year. A break from the routine is coming, some are planning vacations, faculty and staff share gifts, and so do some students. It is not unusual, especially in the younger grades, for parents to send gifts into the school with their child for delivery to their teacher. Even in schools that refrain from holiday decorations or celebrations....there is an air of happiness and excitement.

What must it be like for those students who already feel marginalized? They already suffer the consequences of deficit living. In many inner city schools, they are a majority. Their shared experience does little to combat its impact. And during this season, their differences are highlighted in their schools, the media, and the shopping malls. We already know that children living in poverty have challenges that we continue to learn about and need to combat. Achievement gap? This season offers an identity gap. It exaggerates the differences between the poor and the rest of us. And for children, this is particularly gruesome.

No matter the depth of our understanding of how poverty affects our students, this season invites us to commit to learning more about how to reach and teach our children who live in poverty. If we were to deeply investigate the multiple types of achievement gaps - the graduation rates, the percentage of students meeting growth targets, attendance rates, reading and math levels, engagement in learning and school activities...what would we find about the students who are on the lower end? What percentage of those students lives in poverty? And what do we, each of us, truly know and understand about the effects of poverty on learning and social behaviors? Do we have the sensitivity and empathy it takes to open the doors of engagement for them? Surely some reading this are deeply knowledgeable and are having success in their work with these children. But the numbers reveal there are those of us who are not yet making a difference in the learning lives of these students.

In these last days before the holiday break, perhaps a recommitment to attention would help. Let’s lead and teach with alert awareness of our students, especially those whose lives don’t match the media models. They are not going home to piles of presents, or books, or overflowing family dinners. They very well may not be going home to happiness or not to a home at all. Let this time serve to help us open our hearts and minds to this gap...the one in which children in poverty suffer not only a lack of money and things, but suffer a lack of models, the building blocks of social/emotional resilience, self-efficacy, confidence and a sense of belonging. This is a time of exaggeration. And if that exaggeration can help us become more sensitized when looking into the eyes of these children, who did not choose to be poor, then this season can be a new beginning.

Jensen, Eric. Teaching With Poverty In Mind (2009). Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.