2013 Runner-Up - Nonfiction
The First Step: Poverty 101
Poverty is the dirt and dust Society conceals with its brand new area rug. In this case, dirt and dust are defined as, “the state of having little or no money, goods, or means of support; the condition of being poor”("Poverty"). Similarly, in Society’s gigantic walk-in closet, tiny skeletons are piling up. This act of pushing child penury into the dark, untouched corners of people’s minds is creating a gap in academic achievement between high and low- income students. The only plausible first step toward narrowing this divide is eliminating the country’s vast unfamiliarity with destitution. To minimize this ignorance of certain socioeconomic classes, the Poverty 101 program needs to be a requirement in which all high school seniors are obliged to participate, in order to graduate. In addition, it should be a prerequisite for all educators to partake in the variation of this program, Child Poverty 101, before becoming a certified teacher.
Many people in America believe that poverty is a figment of the imagination. If any person works hard enough, they can defy their low-income situation and change their socioeconomic status. Rags-to-riches stories that feed these presumptions are a part of America’s culture and have continually eased the minds of the upper classes. They establish an “us versus them” mindset, causing the privileged to feel like their help is not needed. As a student states in Liza Featherstone’s article, "Out of Reach: Is College Only for the Rich?”, "People feel the need to say, 'This isn't me; it doesn't affect me’" (Featherstone). Richard Rothstein further analyzes these beliefs in his book, Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap. He says that this "perspective is misleading and dangerous. It ignores how social class characteristics in a stratified society like ours may actually influence learning in school” (Rothstein 2). This lack of awareness of the hardships low-income people and their children have to overcome is what leads to the misunderstanding of where the educational gap originates.
One factor that has a huge impact on that gap is the perception and self-contempt that accompanies poverty, and nothing is more difficult to understand for people from higher classes. To explore low-income experiences, one journalist, Barbara Ehrenreich, went undercover in Florida and attempted to live off of minimum wage. She reports in her article, an excerpt from her book, Nickel-and-Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America about some of her coworker’s situations. One woman lives in her truck:
But you can't live in a truck in the summer, since you need to have the windows down, which means anything can get in, from mosquitoes on up… But guess what? She reports to me excitedly later that evening: Phillip has given her permission to park overnight in the hotel parking lot, as long as she keeps out of sight, and the parking lot should be totally safe, since it's patrolled by a hotel security guard! With the Hearthside offering benefits like that, how could anyone think of leaving? (Ehrenreich)
This friend shows the enormous difference between what is important for the privileged and what is important for the impoverished; where higher-class people would want benefits such as paid vacations and health insurance, and lower-class individuals would want a safe place to live, or anything at all to eat. After Ehrenreich’s second job, she remembers, “I am enormously relieved when Carla announces a half-hour meal break, but my appetite fades when I see that the bag of hot-dog rolls she has been carrying around on our cart is not trash salvaged from a checkout but what she has brought for her lunch” (Ehrenreich). This image reveals the horrible measures members of the working-class go to in order to refrain from being hungry. Another elderly person living in poverty tells her story in, "Old and Hungry”:
I've had no income and I've paid no rent for many months. My landlord let me stay. He felt sorry for me because I had no money. The Friday before Christmas he gave me ten dollars. For days I had nothing but water. I knew I needed food; I tried to go out but I was too weak to walk to the store. I felt as if I was dying. I saw the mailman and told him I thought I was starving. He brought me food and then he made some phone calls and that's when they began delivering these lunches. But I had already lost so much weight that five meals a week are not enough to keep me going. I just pray to God I can survive. I keep praying I can have the will to save some of my food so I can divide it up and make it last. It's hard to save because I am so hungry that I want to eat it right away. On Friday, I held over two peas from the lunch. I ate one pea on Saturday morning. Then I got into bed with the taste of food in my mouth and I waited as long as I could. Later on in the day I ate the other pea. Today I saved the container that the mashed potatoes were in and tonight, before bed, I'll lick the sides of the container. When there are bones I keep them. I know this is going to be hard for you to believe and I am almost ashamed to tell you, but these days I boil the bones till they're soft and then I eat them. Today there were no bones. ("Old and Hungry")
Her story is particularly effective in portraying the horrifying conditions people in poverty must endure. Most importantly, anyone can find themselves in these terrifying situations. From "Rising Out of Homelessness" a man reports:
‘Spare any change,' asked this 39 year-old man. 'Sorry, I'm homeless too!' I said. 'But look how you’re dressed, I know you have money,' he said. I walk on. Looks may be deceiving, for the cloths I have on cost me no more than $5. My slender body isn't sexy. It's malnourished. I've suffered. I've suffered more than the so-called average 30 year-old person has. I'm only 16 and you probably wouldn't think 3 years is a long time being homeless. Well if you were under 18 and cannot get a job because you have no guardian, it's a long time! And all I hear from adults is go and do something with your life. ("Rising out of Homelessness")
This teenager’s story depicts how sometimes it is not possible to change one’s socioeconomic status simply with willpower. Many people cannot say they accurately realize what life is like for these individuals or how deeply it affects them. Even though these stories describe some difficult moments for the impoverished, their hardships and the threat of those obstacles apply to low-income people as well. More importantly, however, is how these situations influence children, and how it begins the academic gap in the country’s educational system.
The individual repercussions depend on the specific situations of children coming from low-income households. With the right circumstances, some do have the ability to rise in class, though others do not. For instance, a young student is given homework. When she arrives home, however, her single mother is working and she finds herself left alone to care for her five younger siblings. Their house has no heat and their mother has not had time to go to the grocery store. The student has to somehow find a way to feed her family and keep them warm through the night. Survival, not homework, is going to be her first priority.
A factor even more out of the individual’s control is genetics. In Rothstein’s book he writes that, "this has been confirmed by 'adoption studies,' in which children brought up in different socioeconomic environments from their biological parents are more similar in their academic achievement to their biological parents than to their adoptive parents” (Rothstein 17). Right away people from low-income backgrounds, even if they moved to a higher class, have less of a chance for academic success than ones born into higher-income families, because of their genetics.
Adding to this initial setback, other factors regarding how the students are raised contribute to their scholarly performance. Studies show that parents who are from a higher class surround their children with more books, are more open to understanding why they do something wrong when punishing them, speak more words on average to them, and are more likely to ask critical thinking questions when reading to them. All of these beneficial differences in how privileged students are raised stimulate their minds at an early age and have an impact on their future abilities in school.
This future can also be tainted by health problems that go undiagnosed because of unaffordable health insurance. Rothstein reports that fetal alcohol syndrome, “is 10 times more frequent for low-income than for middle class children, and 30% of poor women smoke, compared to 22% of non-poor women" (Rothstein 42-43). This environment affects the success of the student. Other health factors include malnutrition, vision problems, Attention Deficit Disorder, lead poisoning, hearing issues, and larger medical conditions that could require prescriptions for which low-income families may not be able to pay.
Financial difficulties also have an effect on where the children grow up, which further adds to the academic gap. In an interview, Dr. Yvette Jackson reports that she used to work in a dangerous part of Chicago. She found that for every homicide in that neighborhood, a student lost a week of learning. In that particular location there was at least one murder a month, which lead to about two months worth of education to be erased during the school year (Jackson). Parents will also move to a different town to protect their kids from this violence. Rothstein writes, "a 1994 government report found that 30% of the poorest children (those from families with annual incomes of less than $10,000) had attended at least three different schools by third grade, while only 10% of middle-class children (from families with annual income of over $25,000) did so" (Rothstein 46). Moving to a new neighborhood interrupts the student’s studies, both by having to deal with the stress of making new friends and by breaking up their courses. This instability causes them to achieve less than they would have if they stayed at the same institution. Depending on their location, as well, these individuals may not easily be able to get to after school activities or programs in the summer, further hindering how much their brain is stimulated and therefore their ability to be as successful as their privileged peers.
Lastly, some situations within these institutions themselves can hinder the student’s academic performance. As Stephen J. McNamee, and Robert K. Miller, Jr. report in their book, The Meritocracy Myth, “teacher expectations build upon these initial advantages [or disadvantages]: Teachers expect more of children from higher-class backgrounds” (McNamee and Miller 104). These presumptions either build up the student’s confidence, or deteriorate it, affecting their performance academically. Furthermore, Azua Echevarria, a working poor mother says the most difficult aspect of being low-income is, “perception. I would have to say that people think that financial difficulties look a certain way"(Echevarria). Educators have unfortunately been shown to subconsciously play into this stereotype. One example is recounted in Sue Books’ book Poverty and Schooling in the U.S.: Contexts and Consequences. She tells the story of a girl named Heather whose shirt was too small and shoes too big. Heather would also steal food from the cafeteria every Friday because she could not get free lunch from school on the weekends and would be hungry. Therefore, her teacher thought there was a problem with her and sent her to get special help during the math lessons. The teacher was not helping, but instead making her even more behind in math (Books 110-111). The ignorance of educators is one of the many obstacles low-income students face. Even with all of these setbacks, people are trying to come up with ways to eliminate this academic divide.
A group of solutions that have been proposed to narrow this gap involve programs in these educational institutions. One of these suggestions is a preschool for low-income students. There they would be able to learn what privileged children already do from their parents, but in an artificial setting. This simulation would allow them to enter kindergarten on the same level as their higher-class peers. Another similar recommendation is an after school program for children living in low-income households to receive extra help. Furthermore, it has been proposed that these institutions implement free clinics for students and their families who cannot afford health insurance and programs that provide them with food. Lastly, separate educational institutions for lower-class students have been suggested. For instance, "The Education Trust lists what it calls 'high-flying' schools: 1,320 schools, at least half of whose students were both poor and minority, and whose test scores in math or reading were in the top third of their states.” These ratings, however, were only in one grade and on one topic, which is less than impressive (Rothstein 75). Segregating students based on class would be unbeneficial. Rothstein reports that, "a striking finding of the Coleman report was that who sits next to whom does matter. Ambitions are contagious; if children sit next to others from higher social classes, their ambitions grow”(Rothstein 130). All of these proposals have been applied to some degree across the nation. The gap, however, has yet to narrow. In addition, the main problem with all of these solutions is the resources it would take in order to make them a reality. One of the most important being transportation. Poor people are less likely to own cars, and therefore cannot get to the programs without assistance. Bus systems also cost more money than many individuals can afford, and do not always stop at convenient locations. Therefore, the program would need to provide transportation, and other costly recourses, to the students involved. They would also have to be implemented in every school across the nation because poverty “exists in every county in America” ("FeedingAmerica"). Furthermore, each of these possible answers would not be a full resolution on their own. All together they may be, but individually they each address only a specific hardship that people living in poverty have to overcome.
Other solutions have been suggested concerning the atmosphere that surrounds children in schools. As stated before, tracking, which groups students by academic ability from an early age, is not beneficial because if the ones who do poorly are surrounded by ones that do well they are more likely to succeed than if they are segregated. This process, however, is an important part of the educational system, having the purpose of benefiting the students who do thrive academically and cannot easily be eliminated. People have also recommended classes for low-income parents that focus on how to raise their children in the best possible way, but it is likely that the parents will not have time to take the course, be able to get to it, or pay for it. Furthermore, people have suggested tests that assess non-cognitive abilities, such as interpersonal and communication skills, which are arguably just as, if not more important, than cognitive abilities, such as memory and hand-eye coordination. The problem with this answer is that non-cognitive skills are a lot harder to evaluate and standardize than cognitive ones. Lastly, changing the way teachers teach is also a proposed solution. Dr. Yvette Jackson, who focuses on this topic, emphasizes in her book, Pedagogy of Confidence: Inspiring High Intellectual Performance in Urban Schools, that educators need to find out what the individual’s specific culture and interests are in order to encourage those and in the process build up the areas where the person lacks ability, while having them acquire critical thinking skills. This technique would then better prepare them for college and beyond, rather than focusing on their negative aspects and attempting to improve upon them (Jackson). Schools in low-income areas, however, have a harder time retaining their skilled teachers because they cannot afford to pay educators as much as privileged institutions can. More money would therefore need to be spent in order to train these individuals to teach this way and keep them in the educational systems that need them. To enforce this resolution, there was “a bill that demanded every school in the nation abolish social class differences in achievement within 12 years. It was enacted as the 'No Child Left Behind' law" (Rothstein 21). It created a Band-Aid over the problem instead of addressing its core issue: the ignorance of the upper classes.
Even though all of these suggestions have the potential to eventually help end poverty, at this point they are not resolutions. Only discontinuing ignorance is a plausible first step. The Atlanta Community Food Bank had this idea as well when they created Hunger 101. “The Hunger 101 Curriculum materials were developed in the early 90s with the help of Emory University’s School of Public Health and recently updated with the help of Georgia State University’s School of Social Work” ("Hunger 101"). The program creates a simulation of the various hardships that low-income people must overcome. In this article, however, the name has been changed to Poverty 101 and some of the discussion points have been altered in order to make the topic more broad and applicable to poverty in general.
In the program, each participant is given an envelope with various items. One component is an information card. For example, a person gets a card with the name Maria Alveraz. Under their new name they read the description: ‘You are a 45-year-old widow. You are now a single mother of two. You are also an immigrant from Columbia and do not speak English well. You currently earn $1,300 a month from a waitressing job, with $80 dollars taken out for taxes. You pay $185 a month for daycare. Rent is $610 a month, with $70 a month for electricity and heat. You also pay $200 a month for gas, and $35 a month for a cell phone. You have no health insurance’. Other hardships could include health problems and unemployment. Using this information, Maria fills out a budget form, finding that she only has $4 to collect from the bank for that day’s food for the family. Also in her envelope is a card that tells her what help she is eligible for, such as welfare from the Department of Social Services. Slips of paper are included as well, which show her what is already in her refrigerator. She then continues on to the Department of Social Services to fill out the 31-page application for help, in a language she does not understand. Lastly, she goes to the food pantry and grocery store to try and make the $4 enough for the three of them that day. Through this exercise, the participants learn what it is like to live day-by-day with low-income and they experience how difficult and stressful it really is.
A discussion then follows the activity. The leader of the program will explore each station, asking where the food pantry is in their area, and what the Department of Social Services does. The guide will also ask questions such as the following: What is poverty? What does it feel like? How would being impoverished affect your everyday life? How many of you were able to get enough nutritious food for your family? How did the activity make you feel? Do people really experience poverty like you did? What elements are missing? The leader will give real life examples of destitution as well, similar to the ones shared above. Every high school student should be required to participate in this simulation in order to graduate. If every person becomes aware of what life is like living in penury, then people will be more inclined to break their overemphasized idea of independence and help others, taking the first step towards ending poverty.
The version that teachers would be required to participate in would be called Child Poverty 101. This simulation would address obstacles that hinder children academically because of their low-income situations, such as undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder, educator’s bias because of the student appearing to be poor, vision problems, homicides in their neighborhood, the inability to do homework, and dyslexia. The simulation would take place in a classroom setting, with the leader of the program as the teacher. It would be taught over an hour-long period, with half of the time dedicated to learning basic math, and the second, basic history. Each person in the class would get an envelope that has various items in it depending on their particular situations. The student would receive a hat if they had undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder, and therefore would periodically be yelled at by the instructor for being disruptive and sent out of the room for five minutes. Another item that could be in the envelope would be a collar to represent the student looking as if they were poor, because of which, they would always raise their hand to answer questions, but the teacher would never call on them. They could also acquire glasses that make it hard for them to see, replicating vision problems. Lastly, they could receive earplugs, which simulate experiencing a homicide in their neighborhood, where they would put in their earplugs for ten minutes of each subject. The participants would all start out with five stars, while the people who were unable to do homework at home start with two. The pupils could each earn up to three stars in each section for answering questions, depending on the number of people involved in the activity. A test would be given following each subject, where the students could earn up to ten stars. The dyslexic child, however, would receive a test that is illegible. At the end of the activity the students would count up their stars out of twenty-six.
A discussion then follows where the director asks the following questions: What did it feel like to be in this situation? How did these hardships affect you academically? What other factors influence the children’s performance in school? Do you feel like you have a better idea of what life is like for students coming from low-income households? Does this activity change your perception of meritocracy? The leader will also discuss all problems that these children could experience based on their situations. Every educator in the United States should be required to participate in this program before becoming a state certified teacher. It would help them understand what life is like for their students that come from low-income households and how it affects them academically so they can cater to their pupils’ needs and therefore begin to shorten the educational gap in schools.
In order to carry out this program effectively, the leaders need to be certified to run them. They need to be able to answer any questions about poverty that may arise, as well as direct the simulations accurately. They will be able to become accredited online, where there are videos of what the simulations are supposed to look like, all the facts they will need to answer any questions, and the printable materials required for the activities. In order to become fully certified, however, they would need to contact the creator of the Poverty 101 website and go through a thirty minute certification process, which consists of answering questions as well as a description of how to carry out the exercises. Only one adult within the school system or in the town needs to become accredited as well, and only needs a couple of other helpers to administer it successfully. They would also need a place to run the simulations; any large space for Poverty 101 and a classroom for Child Poverty 101. Most importantly, no money would be required of the people participating or leading the activity. All that is needed is time and space, such as a community building, or school. Therefore, the Poverty 101 and Child Poverty 101 programs should be implemented in order to uncover this secret Society is hiding, and take the first step toward ending poverty.
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