Poverty doesn’t matter! Really?



“Homelessness and poverty up close is hard. It smells, actually in my room this year, it takes from the very fiber of a being, it is destructive to those that stand in uselessness looking as well as those suffering it. I’m dealing with a woman and her child suffering terribly now — she should never be alone in this, her faculties are not good enough to deal. She can’t go grow food on some family place, she’s like a forgotten being. And so are the supports that should exist, dysfunctional. But my concern is a child, one not washing, that can’t get into a shelter til after 9 at night that’s out by 5AM, that hasn’t had a real bath in a month. No costume for him. And I need to go buy him a pair of pants or two really, couple shirts and get his clothes and wash them. Among the realities in my teaching work I think I’m beginning to understand what I really need to articulate is what poverty is like to a learner. A child that didn’t pick, nor make any of this. And who is so sweet.”

Sarah Puglisi: 3rd grade teacher in California

I heard two people the other day say that poverty doesn’t matter when it comes to the ability of a child to learn.

It seems that the only people who say poverty doesn’t matter when it comes to a child being ready and able to learn are people who have money, want to keep their money, or want to make money off of these children using unproven curriculum standards, teaching methods and tests and have no idea what poverty really looks or feels like or even care about these children, our children.

As Bill Gates said:

“It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.”

Poverty means that you’re hungry, that you’re cold because you don’t have adequate clothing or heat. It means that you don’t go on vacations or to summer camp, it’s the reality of never having enough of anything, that there is no safe place to be after school or a welcoming home to return to at the end of the day.

It means that your parents aren’t able to help you with your homework because either they don’t know the subject or are working their second job. It means that you don’t have a pencil or a notebook or enough money to buy a uniform so you can join a team or pay for an instrument to play in a band.

It might even mean that you are homeless and live in a shelter or are sick and your parent can’t afford the medicine or x-rays and tests that are needed.

That’s what poverty is.

To say that poverty doesn’t matter is criminal. It means that you are not willing to help the least of us, that you would rather willfully ignore the fact that there are people, particularly children, in need, while you sit in the comfort of your home.

If a child is hungry, sick, worried about where they might sleep the next night or don’t have a quiet and safe place to read or do their homework, they are not able to focus and they are not ready to learn.

It’s that simple.

For more on children and poverty, read:

For some statistics on poverty and children, see Empire.

single mother

Single mothers and their children are joining the swelling ranks of those needing food assistance.

An excerpt from:

Women Are Swelling the Ranks of People Living in Extreme Poverty in America

Poor women are often ignored or regarded with contempt in the U.S.

In all this discussion, the real face of poverty — single mothers — has strangely disappeared. Welfare policy in America has always favored mothers and children. In a country that values self-sufficiency and glorifies individualism, Americans have viewed men — except war veterans — as capable of caring for themselves, or part of the undeserving poor. Women, by contrast, were always viewed as mothers with dependents, people to be cared for and protected precisely because they are vulnerable and raise the next generation.

As I read dozens of think tank and government reports, and newspaper stories however, I am surprised to notice that even strong opponents of the cuts describe SNAP’s recipients as children, teenagers, seniors or the disabled. Why have single mothers disappeared from such accounts about the poor? There are plenty of “needy families,” “households,” and “poor Americans,” but the real face of poverty and the actual recipients of food assistance are single mothers…

And from Bill Moyers: The Faces of America’s Hungry

More than 16 million children in the United States – 22% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level – $23,550 a year for a family of four. Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 45% of children live in low-income families.

Most of these children have parents who work, but low wages and unstable employment leave their families struggling to make ends meet. Poverty can impede children’s ability to learn and contribute to social, emotional, and behavioral problems. Poverty also can contribute to poor health and mental health. Risks are greatest for children who experience poverty when they are young and/or experience deep and persistent poverty.

You can view the entire program at Moyers and Company.

I will leave you with another Bill Moyers’ episode Taming capitalism run wild.

Economist Richard Wolff joins Bill to shine light on the disaster left behind in capitalism’s wake, and discusses how to battle for economic justice.

Also on the broadcast, activist and author Saru Jayaraman marches on Washington with restaurant workers struggling to make ends meet, and talks about how we can best support their right to a fair wage.

Submitted by Dora Taylor

8 thoughts on “Poverty doesn’t matter! Really?

  1. Great post. If students are struggling to meet basic safety and physiological needs it is impossible to overstate how challenging it is for those individuals consider higher level hierarchy needs like learning and achievement (esteem needs).

  2. Posted this yesterday, in response to your opening lines.

    Excuse or Scientific Fact?

    Poverty and the dysfunction that accompanies it produces quite a lot of stress in people. Children who are subjected to poverty and stress have trouble learning. But many still believe that’s not true and that homeless children and children of poverty should be able to learn just as well as anyone else. Perhaps this discussion will help clear up the matter somewhat.

    Stress produces many reactions in people, not the least of which is the production of adrenalin and cortisol by the body. Cortisol is released in response to stress, sparing available glucose for the brain, generating new energy from stored reserves, and diverting energy from low-priority activities in order to survive immediate threats or prepare for the exertion of rising to a new day. However, prolonged cortisol secretion (which may be due to chronic stress or the excessive secretion seen in Cushing’s syndrome) results in significant physiological changes. However, long-term exposure to cortisol damages cells in the hippocampus; this damage results in impaired learning. Furthermore, it has been shown that cortisol inhibits memory retrieval of already stored information.
    (de Quervain DJ, Roozendaal B, McGaugh JL (August 1998). “Stress and glucocorticoids impair retrieval of long-term spatial memory”. Nature 394 (6695): 787–90.)
    (de Quervain DJ, Roozendaal B, Nitsch RM, McGaugh JL, Hock C (April 2000). “Acute cortisone administration impairs retrieval of long-term declarative memory in humans”. Nat. Neurosci. 3(4):313-4.)

    Two conditions that cause increasing cortisol levels are (1) Severe trauma or stressful events can elevate cortisol levels in the blood for prolonged periods; (2) Severe calorie restriction causes elevated baseline levels of cortisol.
    (Smith JL, Gropper SAS, Groff JL (2009). Advanced nutrition and humanmetabolism. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. p. 247. & Moberg GP, Mench JA (2000). The biology of animal stress: basic principles and implications for animal welfare. Wallingford, Oxon, UK: CABI Pub. p. 377.)
    (Fichter MM, Pirke KM, Holsboer F (January 1986). “Weight loss causes neuroendocrine disturbances: experimental study in healthy starving subjects”. Psychiatry Res 17 (1): 61–72.)

    So, we’re no longer talking about some claim of dysfunction made by educators, looking for an “excuse for poor student performance”, as many have claimed. We’re talking about a bodily reaction to the stress of poverty and homelessness that cause increased levels of a chemical that inhibits learning.

    Can we stop accusing educators of making excuses now?

    1. I would also add that these same people who profess that poverty doesn’t matter try not eating for a day, getting a few hours of interrupted sleep, as in a homeless shelter, and then try to focus on their work for just 8 to 10 hours.

      See how that feels.


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