While there is widespread agreement that family poverty is highly correlated with low achievement at school, it is a difficult issue to discuss because people immediately become defensive. “Don’t tell me poor kids can’t learn,” people say. Many children living in poor families do thrive at school. But life circumstances present challenges that too often interfere. Here is long-time education researcher David Berlinerexplaining that, in the aggregate, poverty lowers school attainment: “For reasons that are hard to fathom, too many people believe that in education the exceptions are the rule… These stories of triumph by individuals who were born poor, or success by educators who changed the lives of their students, are widely believed narratives… But in fact, these are simply myths that help us feel good to be American… But the general case is that poor people stay poor and that teachers and schools serving impoverished youth do not often succeed in changing the life chances for their students.” There is much to read this week that elucidates the kind of crisis poverty imposes on poor families and explains how families’ circumstances affect children in school.
What would it be like to raise children while living in extreme poverty? In their new book $2.00 A Day, Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer follow some of the 1.5 million American households (including roughly 3 million children) living without any cash income—only food stamps. (This blog covered Edin and Shaefer’s book in January when it was published.) Too often families in extreme poverty cannot find anywhere they can afford the rent: “Every family whose story is told in this book has doubled up with kin or friends at some point, because their earnings haven’t been sufficient to maintain a place of their own. While living with relatives sometimes offers strength and uplift, it can also prove toxic for the most vulnerable in our society, ending in sexual, physical, or verbal abuse. The trauma from this abuse is sometimes a precipitating factor in a family’s fall into $2-a-day poverty, or the calamity that keeps them in such a state for far too long.” (p. 73)