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Not Your Father’s Poverty

We were poor but we didn’t know it.

How often have you heard that comment from someone who has “made it” to describe their childhood?  Among my generation, my parents, and their parents, it was a standard comment when asked about the conditions of their youth.

It’s different today.  Please read our series The Burden of Poverty:  A Backpack of Heartache if you don’t think that’s the case.  Please read it in any event, but, if you’re among the many who believe poverty is somehow self-inflicted or that anyone who works hard can extricate themselves from poverty, please read it now. 

Let’s start with the “we didn’t know it” part of that statement.  In today’s culture, driven by conspicuous consumption to demonstrate status, it’s hard to imagine anyone who doesn’t recognize the differences between their plight and those with greater resources.  It’s everywhere.  Shoes. Clothing. Toys. Smart phones. Tablets. Vehicles. Television. Movies. Restaurants. Fitness clubs. Health care. Travel. Vacations.

If you don’t have resources, it means facing Food deserts. Juvenile diabetes. Gangs. Guns. No health care. No travel – even to local recreation venues.  It goes on and on.

The young adults of the Greatest Generation, and their parents, had a different scenario.  The parents of the Greatest Generation were among the first to migrate to cities from the farm.  Most lost everything in the Great Depression.  Everyone had something in common – almost all were poor and all were trying to work their way out of it.  The Greatest Generation’s common bond was World War II.  They had shared experiences and they shared a desire to work hard at whatever jobs were available.

For both of those generations, and for much of mine, education level had little to do with employment.  Certainly, you couldn’t be an attorney, a doctor or the head of a major corporation without an education, but you could certainly find a good job that would, if you managed well, afford you the opportunity to join America’s middle class.  You were accepted into those jobs because of the shared experience with those in management positions – they suffered in the Depression, they fought in WWII, and they were willing to give you a chance.

Today, there are very few middle class jobs available to those without an education.  Low-wage, low-skill jobs are available but none pay a living wage, so many in poverty work two or more.  This is why the focus comes down to education.  Everyone knows education is the pathway to a better life. 

Even with an education, upward mobility is difficult.  Poverty researcher Ruby Payne writes of all the cues the poor miss in the “Hidden Rules of Class at Work,” which begin with the evaluation of your job application or resume (if you have one or even know you should have one) and your ability to navigate a job interview.  If you should persevere through those challenges, there are many more class cues and clues you must decipher to keep your job – cues and clues you likely don’t know and aren’t familiar among your family or neighbors.           

About 24 percent of Michigan’s students live in poverty and an almost equal amount live in homes that are so near to poverty, their families qualify for free and reduced lunch food assistance.  Free and reduced lunch is the poverty line in our schools, and more than 48 percent of the students in our state qualify.

It all comes down to this. 

We certainly can educate children in poverty, but they start far behind their middle class peers and require more direct instruction from adults to catch up.  It requires resources.  Lots of resources.

High-achieving states like Massachusetts and Minnesota provide resources based on student need, to help districts overcome poverty, language differences and other barriers.  In Michigan, most students are funded equally. Those few programs designed to provide additional resources for students with greater need were dramatically reduced in the years after the recession.

Before the election, the governor suggested he would be willing to review the school aid funding formula.  After the election, he has talked about digging into the career and technical education system to better prepare young people for the good jobs that may not require a four-year degree but do provide a living wage for those who have the requisite skills and certifications.

Let’s hope he does look at education funding and recognizes those who are not in his socioeconomic status require additional resources to be successful.  Let’s also hope the focus on careers inspires students to pursue technical employment and the skilled trades. Let’s hope it doesn’t create a two-track system that would exacerbate the gulf between the haves and have -nots.

Let’s hope that we can work together to create a world in which today’s students living in poverty will say this of their childhood:  ‘We were poor, we knew it, and our schools and communities did something about it.’ 

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Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler is the Kent ISD Superintendent and offers his commentary on issues in education.


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