Sunday, November 9, 2014

Poverty--Overcoming the Feelings of Helplessness

The effect of poverty on children's behavior and academic performance makes for fascinating study and discussion, but the topic is somewhat overwhelming to me as an individual, when I contemplate how we have long struggled to address this problem in American society.  To some extent, the research reported in Eric Jensen's book, "Teaching with Poverty in Mind,"  is encouraging as it shows how individual teachers can make a difference in the lives of children if they update their skills and learn all they can about creating rich, positive learning environments to support children coming from
these homes.
I have been interested in generational poverty for quite some time.  My husband and I recently moved back from Pittsburgh where we spent four years living and working on the north side of the city, which was the poorest socioeconomic sector of the city having the lowest performing schools.  We went there to work with some friends who had started a non-profit organization called CARE-Ownership--a mentoring/training program designed to help lift disadvantaged and low-skilled minority adults and their families out of poverty. Few families living in generational poverty own their own homes, and in fact, they don't see home ownership as a realistic option for their lives. Rod and I worked with apprentices in the program and taught them life skills that would allow them to pursue the acquisition of a home, and then also taught them home maintenance and repair, as well as many other skills that would assist them as they pursued home ownership as a goal.  In most cases this involved everything from teaching basic math skills to teaching a young man to hold his head up, use formal register, and look a bank officer in the eye confidently when asking for a real estate loan.  As a coalition group we had read Ruby Payne's book on poverty together and found it helpful, though it was challenging to connect with the candidates we worked with and to see the world through their eyes. They had lived a different existence-- growing up in poverty and experiencing life as part of a minority culture. Many young men started the program, only to find after 6 or 8 months that it was too challenging--that they didn't have the confidence or tenacity to stick it out. 

At the time, working with people in poverty often left me with more questions than answers  as we tried to address what I saw as insurmountable problems.  I remember one afternoon spending time in an after school tutoring program for low achieving children that had been organized by our small community church in North Pittsburgh.  I heard there that the largest high school in our district had trouble daily with teachers not showing up to teach--and then the problem was intensified when due to a lack of subs, scores of students would be sent daily to the gymnasium where they spent their time in the bleachers with no meaningful work to engage them.  When I called the school to ask about subbing I was told they were looking for African American teachers, preferably young teachers under the age of 50, and preferably men, --as these candidates would be more likely to be able to handle the students and be able to relate to their needs and issues.  "...But thanks for your interest, Maa'm..."
I was in fact, "helpless" when it came to contributing in any way to solving the problem. 

But if I and others like myself, saw ourselves as helpless and deficient in having something to contribute in addressing these issues, where were the people who were better equipped?   Where was the vision and leadership that would make a difference in addressing this local poverty, or better yet...poverty in America?

I think some of the same feelings of helplessness surface for me as I think of our reservations in the Dakotas.  For some of our reservation families, the poverty has been described as "third-world."  It is not unusual to find homes that are overcrowded, and that lack running water and sewer. Alcoholism and unemployment rates both run as high as 80% among adults.  How do we address this kind of poverty as a society when there is such a chasm of mistrust and anger between those in need and those who might be able to offer assistance and answers?

Jensen's book "Teaching with Poverty in Mind" provides a tremendous amount of research and statistical data showing how poverty affects the ability of children to learn. I like what he has to say, though I don't need convincing when it comes to the effects of poverty.  On a personal note, I found Ruby Payne's book, "A Framework for Understanding Poverty'" to be thought-provoking and insightful as well, though it has been criticized for lacking a research base.  Perhaps this book and others by Payne accomplished the purpose of encouraging debate and highlighted the need for further research on the topic of poverty.

I do recognize that in our own school setting, we deal every day with children who live in poverty and are affected by the stressors that accompany those conditions.  We have a significant number of families that are on free and reduced lunch, and it is a concern that these numbers seem to be growing over time. The challenge in my heart is to interact with those young people and encourage them in face of their struggles, giving them confidence and hope as they break out of old patterns of thinking and embrace a more promising future.