Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Poverty Sucks

I have been thinking about poverty a lot this school year -- even more than I usually do. Things have been so crazy at school, and we've had all these shootings in Chicago, and the mayor and the media harp on guns as the cause. Which completely misses the point. If people weren't poor and hopeless, they probably wouldn't rely on guns so much to get their point across.

No one really talks about poverty -- we want to ignore poor people. Unless you are directly impacted by it (indirect impact via taxes and health costs don't seem to make a difference to people), you tend to not give it much thought. I never thought about poor people until I started working in CPS.

And poor people seem not to think they are poor. It's really interesting. Most Americans believe they are middle class.

My sophomores are in a unit right now entitled "Welcome to America. Is It Worth the Trip?" We read some of The Jungle, which did not go over very well. But the point of the unit is about what America is supposed to represent versus what actually happens to people once they get here. I'm trying to explain things like social justice, exploitation of the least educated, et cetera.

One of my coworkers recommended an article that is in our anthology that discusses the role of social class in determining one's chances of success. The data is pretty straightforward -- the more money you have, the better your chance of economic and educational opportunity.

So I had the kids go around the room and tell me what social class they belonged to. Almost every kid (except maybe 3) said they were middle class. Then I said that at this school, 90% of our students receive free or reduced lunch, so how could it be that so many of you are middle class? The kids wanted to know what middle class meant. I explained that basically if you could make it through the month, pay all your bills, and did not have to rely on any form of public assistance, then you could probably assume you are middle class.

Then my kids started trying to justify that they were middle class. And many of them seem like they are. Some of the kids talked about the money their parents made in the underground economy (selling drugs), but a lot of the students said their parents had regular jobs.

I wondered why so many of them are on free lunch or have Link cards, then. My kids said that why should they pay for that food? They want to keep their cash -- so they'll use their cash for shoes and whatnot, but they want to keep their Link cards for food and necessities. One kid told me that no matter how much money he might make in his future, he still always wanted a Link card and a Section 8 housing voucher.

Then another student told me that her mom purposely only works 10 hours a week so that she can spend more time with her children. She's lucky that she gets her Section 8 voucher and Link card so she can do that.

I said that that was stealing. Why should her mom get to make that choice? I get to see my child for maybe 3 hours per day. She said there is no way her mom would accept that. I said -- it's not a choice. I knew that when I chose to have a baby, that I would have to work. That's the decision I made. Why should your mom get to make a different choice? That's completely unfair.

Then she and some other students said that I should cheat the government. They argued about how expensive the war in Iraq was, and how much money the government wastes. Which is all well and good, but it's not the government that is being cheated -- it's people like me. I try to explain to my kids that it's middle class taxpayers who pay for the brunt of those social programs.

And one of the major reasons why so many of those assistance programs have been gutted is because many people think they people take advantage. My students seemed to be confirming what lots of people believe.

I said that there are people who legitimately need help, and when you scam the system, you are taking that assistance away from people who really need it.

They didn't seem bothered by this at all.

This is what concerns me about poverty -- it's not just a matter of giving people better access to educational opportunity, better housing, job training. It's also a matter of changing this mindset. So many of my students believe that they are owed something. And they are, to an extent. It's not their fault that they were born to poor parents. No one should have to live in a public housing apartment in Chicago. And they are sent to substandard schools, and that sucks. But at some point some personal responsibility has to set in, and I don't know how to influence that.

The student whose mom cheats to stay home with her kids was trying to explain it to me more. She said -- It's hard to pay rent and buy groceries and pay for gas -- gas is so high. You have to have some help! I replied -- Yeah, it's hard. I do it everyday. But I guess I don't understand why your mom gets to decide she's not going to follow these rules, while I can't imagine doing anything else.

I was starting to get mad, which is not the appropriate response. The bell was about to ring anyway, so I tried to wrap up the discussion. It's hard not to take these things personally.

I want my students to have better opportunities. I want them to have better lives than their parents or grandparents. But I want them to understand that to have these opportunities, they are going to have to work really, really hard to try to catch up with middle class students.

Then I look around, and every one of my students has an iPod. Everyone is wearing Air Force Ones or Jordans (shoes that cost more than $100 per pair). Most wear expensive clothes. They make fun of my shoes. As mentioned in the article, America has the best dressed poor people in the world. My girls get their hair done a couple times per month. They get their nails done each week. It just seems like their priorities are out of whack.

When asked, they just say that just because they are poor, doesn't mean they don't deserve nice things. I said that I didn't disagree, but when I want nice things, I save my money for them. And I wouldn't take free lunch and then go buy fancy shoes -- that just doesn't make sense to me. I'd rather do without fancy shoes and save enough money to be able to buy my own lunch.

I know this is a long post -- it's just been really bothering me. I applaud Elizabeth and John Edwards and their goal of reducing poverty. I actually emailed Elizabeth Edwards with my concerns about poverty. I have not heard back from her.

Anyway, it's not going away, and I don't think I can make myself feel better about it. If anyone has any suggestions for ways to tackle this topic, please let me know.
I just needed to vent about it a little.


foxxychica said...

I feel your pain. It is really sad that many of the students will never know what life is truly like if they continue to cheat. I am reading bits and pieces of The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class are Undermining the American Dream by Sheryll Cashin. She discusses a variety of things, but one point that stands out in my mind is The Cost of the Ghetto. She tells how America doesn't know what to do with her poor black boys. It is really sad and unfortunate that the minority boys are the ones who will suffer the most.

Many of my students don't realize that if you are white and poor, the opportunities afforded to you are greater. Most poor white people live in middle class areas. The students don't get it.

It is unfortunate that these are the people who will make the future decisions for us.

A W. Bolden said...

and the devastating trend continues. I see their behavior at grocery store checkout, in school where children are rocking brand new phones while mine was barely working. My current school - been here since 2008 - is no different. Better for me since closer to home. Poverty situation is rampant.