In my previous article, I discussed a phenomenon that is often overlooked by policymakers and pundits: how the experience of poverty produces its own psychology. Living in constant poverty, for example, is detrimental to both the decision-making process and to overall memory function.
Clinically, I often describe the experience of poverty as being similar to that of trauma, in that the experience of either produces significant psychological, physiological and neurological effects.
While many are fond of discounting poverty at the systemic level, perhaps the most unfortunate area where poverty has been overlooked is within education.
Amidst all of the buzzwords and soundbites that dominate popular and public discourse on education reform – the call for dismantling teachers’ unions, the drive to create charter schools, the fervor for standardized testing that accompanied the disastrous No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 – not many have been very interested in discussing the most powerful predictor of educational achievement: systemic poverty.
But as the research has consistently shown, the consequences of poverty for school-age children are both sobering and alarming.
For example, according to the American Psychological Association, children who live in poverty experience a lack of quality nutrition and access to quality foods, which has a direct and significant impact on neurodevelopment. Additionally, children in poverty also have a lack of adequate healthcare, above and beyond their most basic healthcare needs. They therefore tend to get sick more frequently, stay sick longer, and hence, miss more days of school.
Moreover, to simply make ends meet, parents living in poverty tend to have to work a greater amount of hours, and in many cases, more than one job. As a result, the parents of children in poverty cannot always be around to help continue the learning process at home, such as by helping with homework or processing the lessons of the day. These parents themselves also tend to be less educated than their more affluent peers, further complicating their ability to assist with the learning process.
Ironically, these parents are often vilified for “working so hard” and spending less time at home, in spite of a near-impossible choice.
Children in poverty experience a greater amount of pressure to enter the workforce at an earlier age in order to help their families alleviate financial stress. This is especially prevalent in Latino males, who face an equal pressure to assume the “man of the house” role at an early age.
Perhaps the most tragic – and ironic – result of the absence of poverty from the narrative on education reform is that the schools in the poorest communities tend to be the most underfunded, especially in the wake of the punitive measures outlined in the NCLB Act. These narratives have largely viewed poverty as a mere “excuse,” focusing instead on models of reform similar to those of big business.
We have done our children a disservice by maintaining these false narratives. The time for regurgitated platitudes is over. The time for getting serious about poverty is now.