Chapter 2. How Poverty Affects Behavior and Academic Performance
In Chapter 1, we were introduced to history teacher Chris Hawkins. The
family Mr. Hawkins grew up in was far from poor: his father was a colonel in
the U.S. Air Force, and his mother was a store manager. He had no clue what
growing up in poverty was like, and he was shocked to learn about what
typically goes on (and doesn't go on) in the homes of his kids. He has learned
that there's far more behind the apathetic or aggressive behaviors, commonly
attributed to a lack of politeness or dismissed as "lower-class”
issues, than he had assumed. What he's learned about his students has
depressed and discouraged him. The mantra that gets him through the year is
the thought that retirement is only six years away.
The Risk Factors of Poverty
There is no shortage of theories explaining behavior differences among
children. The prevailing theory among psychologists and child development
specialists is that behavior stems from a combination of genes and
environment. Genes begin the process: behavioral geneticists commonly claim
that DNA accounts for 30–50 percent of our behaviors (Saudino, 2005), an
estimate that leaves 50–70 percent explained by environment.
This tidy division of influencing factors may be somewhat misleading,
however. First, the effects of the nine months a child spends in utero are far
from negligible, especially on IQ (Devlin, Daniels, & Roeder, 1997).
Factors such as quality of prenatal care, exposure to toxins, and stress have
a strong influence on the developing child. In addition, the relatively new
field of epigenetics—the study of heritable changes in gene function
that occur without a change in primary DNA sequence—blurs the line between
nature and nurture. Environment affects the receptors on our cells, which send
messages to genes, which turn various functional switches on or off. It's like
this: like light switches, genes can be turned on or off. When they're
switched on, they send signals that can affect the processes or structures in
individual cells. For example, lifting weights tells the genes to "turn
on” the signal to build muscle tissue. Genes can be either activated or shut
off by a host of other environmental factors, such as stress and nutrition.
These switches can either strengthen or impair aggression, immune function,
learning, and memory (Rutter, Moffitt, & Caspi, 2006).
Recent evidence (Harris, 2006) suggests that the complex web of social
relationships students experience—with peers, adults in the school, and
family members—exerts a much greater influence on their behavior than
researchers had previously assumed. This process starts with students' core
relationships with parents or primary caregivers in their lives, which form a
personality that is either secure and attached or insecure and unattached.
Securely attached children typically behave better in school (Blair et al.,
2008). Once students are in school, the dual factors of socialization and
social status contribute significantly to behavior. The school socialization
process typically pressures students to be like their peers or risk social
rejection, whereas the quest for high social status drives students to attempt
to differentiate themselves in some areas—sports, personal style, sense of
humor, or street skills, for example.
Socioeconomic status forms a huge part of this equation. Children raised in
poverty rarely choose to behave differently, but they are faced daily with
overwhelming challenges that affluent children never have to confront, and
their brains have adapted to suboptimal conditions in ways that undermine good
school performance. Let's revisit the most significant risk factors affecting
children raised in poverty, which I discussed in Chapter 1 (the word EACH
is a handy mnemonic):
Emotional and Social Challenges.
Acute and Chronic Stressors.
Health and Safety Issues.
Combined, these factors present an extraordinary challenge to academic and
social success. This reality does not mean that success in school or life is
impossible. On the contrary, a better understanding of these challenges points
to actions educators can take to help their less-advantaged students succeed.
Emotional and Social Challenges
Many low-SES children face emotional and social instability. Typically, the
weak or anxious attachments formed by infants in poverty become the basis for
full-blown insecurity during the early childhood years. Very young children
require healthy learning and exploration for optimal brain development.
Unfortunately, in impoverished families there tends to be a higher prevalence
of such adverse factors as teen motherhood, depression, and inadequate health
care, all of which lead to decreased sensitivity toward the infant (van
Ijzendoorn et al., 2004) and, later, poor school performance and behavior on
the child's part.
Theory and Research
Beginning at birth, the attachment formed between parent and child predicts
the quality of future relationships with teachers and peers (Szewczyk-Sokolowski,
Bost, & Wainwright, 2005) and plays a leading role in the development of
such social functions as curiosity, arousal, emotional regulation,
independence, and social competence (Sroufe, 2005). The brains of infants are
hardwired for only six emotions: joy, anger, surprise, disgust, sadness, and
fear (Ekman, 2003). To grow up emotionally healthy, children under 3 need
A strong, reliable primary caregiver who provides consistent and
unconditional love, guidance, and support.
Safe, predictable, stable environments.
Ten to 20 hours each week of harmonious, reciprocal interactions. This
process, known as attunement, is most crucial during the first
6–24 months of infants' lives and helps them develop a wider range of
healthy emotions, including gratitude, forgiveness, and empathy.
Enrichment through personalized, increasingly complex activities.
Children raised in poverty are much less likely to have these crucial needs
met than their more affluent peers are and, as a result, are subject to some
grave consequences. Deficits in these areas inhibit the production of new
brain cells, alter the path of maturation, and rework the healthy neural
circuitry in children's brains, thereby undermining emotional and social
development and predisposing them to emotional dysfunction (Gunnar, Frenn,
Wewerka, & Van Ryzin, 2009; Miller, Seifer, Stroud, Sheinkopf, &
The need for human contact and warmth is well established. A study of
infants in Irish foundling homes in the early 1900s found that of the 10,272
infants admitted to homes with minimal or absent maternal nurturing over a
25-year period, only 45 survived. Most of the survivors grew into
pathologically unstable and socially problem-ridden adults (Joseph, 1999).
In many poor households, parental education is substandard, time is short,
and warm emotions are at a premium—all factors that put the attunement
process at risk (Feldman & Eidelman, 2009; Kearney, 1997; Segawa, 2008).
Caregivers tend to be overworked, overstressed, and authoritarian with
children, using the same harsh disciplinary strategies used by their own
parents. They often lack warmth and sensitivity (Evans, 2004) and fail to form
solid, healthy relationships with their children (Ahnert, Pinquart, &
In addition, low-income caregivers are typically half as likely as
higher-income parents are to be able to track down where their children are in
the neighborhood (Evans, 2004), and frequently they do not know the names of
their children's teachers or friends. One study found that only 36 percent of
low-income parents were involved in three or more school activities on a
regular basis, compared with 59 percent of parents above the poverty line
(U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000).
Low-SES children are often left home to fend for themselves and their
younger siblings while their caregivers work long hours; compared with their
well-off peers, they spend less time playing outdoors and more time watching
television and are less likely to participate in after-school activities (U.S.
Census Bureau, 2000). Unfortunately, children won't get the model for how to
develop proper emotions or respond appropriately to others from watching
cartoons; they need warm, person-to-person interactions. The failure to form
positive relationships with peers inflicts long-term socioemotional
consequences (Szewczyk-Sokolowski et al., 2005).
The human brain "downloads” the environment indiscriminately in an
attempt to understand and absorb the surrounding world, whether that world is
positive or negative. When children gain a sense of mastery of their
environments, they are more likely to develop feelings of self-worth,
confidence, and independence, which play heavily into the formation of
children's personalities (Sroufe, 2005) and ultimately predict their success
and happiness in relationships and in life in general. Economic hardship makes
it more difficult for caregivers to create the trusting environments that
build children's secure attachments. Behavior research shows that children
from impoverished homes develop psychiatric disturbances and maladaptive
social functioning at a greater rate than their affluent counterparts do
(McCoy, Firck, Loney, & Ellis, 1999). In addition, low-SES children are
more likely to have social conduct problems, as rated by both teachers and
peers over a period of four years (Dodge, Pettit, & Bates, 1994).
Unfortunately, a study of negative emotionality and maternal support found
that low-income parents were less able than were well-off parents to adjust
their parenting to the demands of higher-needs children (Paulussen-Hoogeboom,
Stams, Hermanns, & Peetsma, 2007).
Low-income parents are often overwhelmed by diminished self-esteem,
depression, and a sense of powerlessness and inability to cope—feelings that
may get passed along to their children in the form of insufficient nurturing,
negativity, and a general failure to focus on children's needs. In a study of
emotional problems of children of single mothers, Keegan-Eamon and Zuehl
(2001) found that the stress of poverty increases depression rates among
mothers, which results in an increased use of physical punishment. Children
themselves are also susceptible to depression: research shows that poverty is
a major predictor of teenage depression (Denny, Clark, Fleming, & Wall,
Effects on School Behavior and Performance
Strong, secure relationships help stabilize children's behavior and provide
the core guidance needed to build lifelong social skills. Children who grow up
with such relationships learn healthy, appropriate emotional responses to
everyday situations. But children raised in poor households often fail to
learn these responses, to the detriment of their school performance. For
example, students with emotional dysregulation may get so easily frustrated
that they give up on a task when success was just moments away. And social
dysfunction may inhibit students' ability to work well in cooperative groups,
quite possibly leading to their exclusion by group members who believe they
aren't "doing their part” or "pulling their share of the load.”
This exclusion and the accompanying decrease in collaboration and exchange of
information exacerbate at-risk students' already shaky academic performance
Some teachers may interpret students' emotional and social deficits as a
lack of respect or manners, but it is more accurate and helpful to understand
that the students come to school with a narrower range of appropriate
emotional responses than we expect. The truth is that many children simply
don't have the repertoire of necessary responses. It is as though their
brains' "emotional keyboards” play only a few notes (see Figure 2.1).
Figure 2.1. The Emotional Keyboard
The proper way to deal with such a deficit is first to understand students'
behavior and then to lay out clear behavioral expectations without sarcasm or
resentment. Understand that children raised in poverty are more likely to
Impatience and impulsivity.
Gaps in politeness and social graces.
A more limited range of behavioral responses.
Inappropriate emotional responses.
Less empathy for others' misfortunes.
These behaviors will likely puzzle, frustrate, or irritate teachers who
have less experience teaching students raised in poverty, but it's important
to avoid labeling, demeaning, or blaming students. It is much easier to
condemn a student's behavior and demand that he or she change it than it is to
help the student change it. Every proper response that you don't see at
your school is one that you need to be teaching. Rather than telling kids to
"be respectful,” demonstrate appropriate emotional responses and the
circumstances in which to use them, and allow students to practice applying
them. To shift your own responses to inappropriate behavior, reframe your
thinking: expect students to be impulsive, to blurt inappropriate
language, and to act "disrespectful” until you teach them stronger
social and emotional skills and until the social conditions at your school
make it attractive not to do those things.
It's impossible to overemphasize this: every emotional response other than
the six hardwired emotions of joy, anger, surprise, disgust, sadness, and fear
must be taught. Cooperation, patience, embarrassment, empathy,
gratitude, and forgiveness are crucial to a smoothly running complex social
environment (like a classroom). When students lack these learned responses,
teachers who expect humility or penitence may get a smirk instead, a response
that may lead teachers to believe the student has an "attitude.” It's
the primary caregiver's job to teach the child when and how to display these
emotional responses, but when students do not bring these necessary behaviors
to school, the school must teach them.
What all students do bring to school are three strong
"relational” forces that drive their school behaviors (Harris, 2006):
The drive for reliable relationships. Students want the safety of
a primary safe and reliable relationship. Students would prefer parents,
positive friends, and teachers, but they'd take an "iffy” friend if
no one else were available. The relationships that teachers build with
students form the single strongest access to student goals, socialization,
motivation, and academic performance. For your school to foster high
achievement, every student will need a reliable partner or mentor.
The strengthening of peer socialization. Socialization is the
drive for acceptance that encourages students to imitate their peers and
join groups, from clubs to cliques to gangs. Students want to belong somewhere.
Evidence suggests that it is peers, not parents, who have the greatest
influence on school-age students (Harris, 1998). If your school aims to
improve student achievement, academic success must be culturally
acceptable among your students.
The quest for importance and social status. This is the quest to
feel special. Students compete for attention and social elevation by
choosing roles that will distinguish them (e.g., athlete, comedian,
storyteller, gang leader, scholar, or style maverick). Kids are very
interested in what other kids do, whether others like them, and how they
rate on the social scale (Harris, 2006). Every student will need to feel
like the "status hunt” can just as well lead to better grades as
Each of these forces shapes behaviors in significant ways. Schools that
succeed use a combination of formal and informal strategies to influence these
three domains. Informally, teachers can incorporate classroom strategies that
build relationships and strengthen peer acceptance and social skills in class.
This is a fair warning to all administrators: do not dismiss the so-called
"soft side” of students' lives, the social side. It runs their brains,
their feelings, and their behaviors—and those three run cognition! There is
a complex interplay between cognition and emotions. When students feel
socialized and accepted, they perform better academically. However, pushing
students harder and harder into performing well academically may conflict with
social/relational success. You will hit a test score ceiling until you include
students' emotional and social lives in your school "makeover.”
Accordingly, throughout the remainder of this book, I offer specific
strategies that address all three of the relational forces.
Embody respect. You can't change what's in your students'
bank account, but you can change what's in their emotional account. It
may require a considerable shift in your thinking. It is fruitless simply to
demand respect from students; many just don't have the context, background, or
skills to show it. Instead,
Give respect to students first, even when they seem least to deserve it.
Share the decision making in class. For example, ask students whether
they would prefer to do a quick review of what they have learned to
consolidate and strengthen their learning or move on to new material.
Avoid such directives as "Do this right now!” Instead, maintain
expectations while offering choice and soliciting input (e.g., "Would
you rather do your rough draft now or gather some more ideas first?”).
Avoid demeaning sarcasm (e.g., "How about you actually do your
assignment quietly for a change?”).
Model the process of adult thinking. For example, say, "We have to
get this done first because we have only enough time for these three
things today.” Keep your voice calm and avoid labeling actions.
Discipline through positive relationships, not by exerting power or
authority. Avoid such negative directives as "Don't be a wise guy!”
or "Sit down immediately!” Instead say, "We've got lots to do
in class today. When you're ready to learn, please have a seat.”
Embed social skills. At every grade level, use a variety of
classroom strategies that strengthen social and emotional skills. For example,
Teach basic but crucial meet-and-greet skills. Early in the year, when
students introduce themselves to other classmates, teach students to face
one another, make eye contact, smile, and shake hands.
Embed turn-taking skills in class, even at the secondary level. You can
introduce and embed these skills using such strategies as learning
stations, partner work, and cooperative learning.
Remind students to thank their classmates after completing collaborative
Implement social-emotional skill-building programs in the early years.
Programs like the PATHS program, Conscious Discipline, and Love and Logic
embed social skills into a classroom management framework.
Be inclusive. Create a familial atmosphere by using inclusive
and affiliative language. For example,
Always refer to the school as "our school” and the class as
"our class”; avoid using a me-and-you model that reinforces power
Acknowledge students who make it to class, and thank them for small
Celebrate effort as well as achievement; praise students for reaching
milestones as well as for fulfilling end goals. Pack acknowledgments and
celebrations into every single class.
Acute and Chronic Stressors
Stress can be defined as the physiological response to the perception of
loss of control resulting from an adverse situation or person. Occasional or
"roller-coaster” stress is healthy for all of us; it supports our
immune function and helps develop resiliency. However, the acute and chronic
stress that children raised in poverty experience leaves a devastating imprint
on their lives. Acute stress refers to severe stress resulting from
exposure to such trauma as abuse or violence, whereas chronic stress
refers to high stress sustained over time. Low-SES children are more subject
to both of these types of stress than are their more affluent peers, but
chronic stress is more common and exerts a more relentless influence on
children's day-today lives. Children living in poverty experience
significantly greater chronic stress than do their more affluent counterparts
(Almeida, Neupert, Banks, & Serido, 2005) (see Figure 2.2). This kind of
stress exerts a devastating, insidious influence on children's physical,
psychological, emotional, and cognitive functioning—areas that affect brain
development, academic success, and social competence. Students subjected to
such stress may lack crucial coping skills and experience significant
behavioral and academic problems in school.
Figure 2.2. Number of Stressors for Poor vs. Nonpoor Children
Source: Adapted from "Cumulative Risk, Maternal
Responsiveness, and Allostatic Load Among Young Adolescents,” by G.
W. Evans, P. Kim, A. H. Ting, H. B. Tesher, and D. Shannis, 2007, Developmental
Psychology, 43(2), pp. 341–351.
Theory and Research
The biology of stress is simple in some ways and complex in others. On a
basic level, every one of the 30–50 trillion cells in your body is
experiencing either healthy or unhealthy growth. Cells cannot grow and
deteriorate at the same time. Ideally, the body is in homeostatic balance: a
state in which the vital measures of human function—heart rate, blood
pressure, blood sugar, and so on—are in their optimal ranges. A stressor is
anything that threatens to disrupt homeostasis—for example, criticism,
neglect, social exclusion, lack of enrichment, malnutrition, drug use,
exposure to toxins, abuse, or trauma. When cells aren't growing, they're in a
"hunker down” mode that conserves resources for a threatened future.
When billions or trillions of cells are under siege in this manner, you get
Although the body is well adapted to deal with short-term threats to
homeostasis, chronic or acute stressors challenge the body differently. Among
low-income families, stressors may include living in overcrowded, substandard
housing or unsafe neighborhoods; enduring community or domestic violence,
separation or divorce, or the loss of family members; and experiencing
financial strain, forced mobility, or material deprivation (Evans &
English, 2002). The frequency and intensity of both stressful life events and
daily hassles are greater among low-SES children (Attar, Guerra, & Tolan,
1994). For example, in any given year, more than half of all poor children
deal with evictions, utility disconnections, overcrowding, or lack of a stove
or refrigerator, compared with only 13 percent of well-off children (Lichter,
1997). In addition, such factors as lack of proper supervision, physical
neglect or abuse, inadequate day care and schools, difficulties in forming
healthy friendships, and vulnerability to depression combine to exert
inordinate and debilitating stress upon the developing child.
More often than not, low-income parents are overstressed in trying to meet
the daily needs of their families. The resulting depression and negativity
often lead to insufficient nurturing, disengaged parenting, and a difficulty
in focusing on the needs of children. Compared with middle-income children,
low-SES children are exposed to higher levels of familial violence,
disruption, and separation (Emery & Laumann-Billings, 1998). Lower levels
of parental education and occupation also correlate with greater incidence of
neighborhood crimes (Sampson, Raudenbush, & Earls, 1997). And compared
with their well-off peers, 2- to 4-year-olds from low-income families interact
with aggressive peers 40 percent more often in their neighborhoods and 25
percent more often in child care settings (Sinclair, Pettit, Harrist, Dodge,
& Bates, 1994).
Abuse is a major stressor to children raised in poverty. Numerous studies (Gershoff,
2002; Slack, Holl, McDaniel, Yoo, & Bolger, 2004) document that
caregivers' disciplinary strategies grow harsher as income decreases.
Lower-income parents are, on average, more authoritarian with their children,
tending to issue harsh demands and inflict physical punishment such as
spanking (Bradley, Corwyn, Burchinal, McAdoo, & Coll, 2001; Bradley,
Corwyn, McAdoo, & Coll, 2001). One study found that blue-collar parents
were twice as likely to use physical punishment with their 7-year-olds as
white-collar parents were (Evans, 2004). Hussey, Chang, and Kotch (2006) found
that poor children were 1.52 times more likely to report physical neglect and
1.83 times more likely to report sexual abuse than were well-off children.
Abuse occurs with much higher frequency when the parents use alcohol or drugs,
experience an array of stressful life events (Emery & Laumann-Billings,
1998), or live in decrepit, crime-ridden neighborhoods with limited social
support networks (Jack & Jordan, 1999).
The cost of these constant stressors is hard to quantify. Exposure to
chronic or acute stress is hardwired into children's developing brains,
creating a devastating, cumulative effect (Coplan et al., 1996). Compared with
a healthy neuron, a stressed neuron generates a weaker signal, handles less
blood flow, processes less oxygen, and extends fewer connective branches to
nearby cells. The prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, crucial for learning,
cognition, and working memory, are the areas of the brain most affected by cortisol,
the so-called "stress hormone.” Experiments have demonstrated that
exposure to chronic or acute stress actually shrinks neurons in the brain's
frontal lobes—an area that includes the prefrontal cortex and is responsible
for such functions as making judgments, planning, and regulating impulsivity
(Cook & Wellman, 2004)—and can modify and impair the hippocampus in ways
that reduce learning capacity (Vythilingam et al., 2002).
Unpredictable stressors severely impair the brain's capacity to learn and
remember (Yang et al., 2003). Child abuse, for example, is highly disruptive
to such developmental processes as the formation of healthy attachments,
emotional regulation, and temperament formation, and leads to a wide array of
social-emotional and psychological disturbances in adulthood (Emery &
Laumann-Billings, 1998). Neurobiological studies have shown considerable
alterations in the brain development of neglected or abused children. The
production of "fight-or-flight” stress hormones in these children
atrophies the areas that control emotional regulation, empathy, social
functioning, and other skills imperative to healthy emotional development
Chronic stress not only diminishes the complexity of neurons in the frontal
lobe and the hippocampus but also increases the complexity of neurons in the
amygdala, the brain's emotion center (Conrad, 2006). This increased complexity
may make the stressed brain's neurons far more sensitive to memory modulation
than neurons in nonstressed brains. In chronically stressed kids, the combined
effects on the hippocampus and the amygdala may be precisely what facilitates emotional
memory (the aspect of memory that encompasses highly salient memories of
events such as divorce, abuse, trauma, death, or abandonment) and reduces declarative
memory (the aspect of memory that stores standard knowledge and learning).
Chronic, unmediated stress often results in a condition known as an allostatic
load. Allostatic load is "carryover” stress. Instead of returning
to a healthy baseline of homeostasis, the growing brain adapts to negative
life experiences so that it becomes either hyper-responsive or
hypo-responsive. Szanton, Gill, and Allen (2005) found higher rates of chronic
stress and allostatic load among low-income populations than among high-income
Effects on School Behavior and Performance
Kids coming to your school don't wear signs that say "Caution! Chronic
Stressors Live Here.” But stress has an insidious effect on learning and
behavior, and you should recognize the symptoms in the classroom. Chronic
Is linked to over 50 percent of all absences (Johnston-Brooks, Lewis,
Evans, & Whalen, 1998).
Impairs attention and concentration (Erickson, Drevets, & Schulkin,
Diminishes social skills and social judgment (Wommack & Delville,
Reduces motivation, determination, and effort (Johnson, 1981).
Increases the likelihood of depression (Hammack, Robinson, Crawford,
& Li, 2004).
Reduces neurogenesis (growth of new brain cells) (De Bellis et al.,
A child who comes from a stressful home environment tends to channel that
stress into disruptive behavior at school and be less able to develop a
healthy social and academic life (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002). Impulsivity,
for example, is a common disruptive classroom behavior among low-SES students.
But it's actually an exaggerated response to stress that serves as a survival
mechanism: in conditions of poverty, those most likely to survive are those
who have an exaggerated stress response. Each risk factor in a student's life
increases impulsivity and diminishes his or her capacity to defer
gratification (see Figure 2.3) (Evans, 2003).
Figure 2.3. Cumulative Risk Factors: More Stress = Less Delayed
Gratification = More Impulsivity
Source: Adapted from "A Multimethodological Analysis of
Cumulative Risk and Allostatic Load Among Rural Children,” by G. W.
Evans, 2003, Developmental Psychology, 39(5), pp. 924–933.
Students raised in poverty are especially subject to stressors that
undermine school behavior and performance. For example, girls exposed to abuse
tend to experience mood swings in school, while boys experience impairments in
curiosity, learning, and memory (Zuena et al., 2008). And the stress resulting
from transience—frequent short-distance, poverty-related moves (Schafft,
2006)—also impairs students' ability to succeed in school and engage in
positive social interactions. Whereas middle-class families usually move for
social or economic improvement, the moves of low-income households are
typically not voluntary. In addition to increasing children's uncertainty
about the future, these moves compound their stress load by disrupting their
social interactions both within the community and in academic environments (Schafft,
Students who have to worry over safety concerns also tend to underperform
academically (Pratt, Tallis, & Eysenck, 1997). Exposure to community
violence—an unsafe home neighborhood or a dangerous path to school—
contributes to lower academic performance (Schwartz & Gorman, 2003). In
addition, stress resulting from bullying and school violence impairs test
scores, diminishes attention spans, and increases absenteeism and tardiness
(Hoffman, 1996). It is discouraging, but many high school students either stay
home or skip classes due to fear of violence.
Socioeconomic status correlates positively with good parenting, which,
research has found, improves academic achievement (DeGarmo, Forgatch, &
Martinez, 1999). Unfortunately, the converse is also true: the chronic stress
of poverty impairs parenting skills, and disengaged or negative parenting in
turn impairs children's school performance. Parents who are struggling just to
stay afloat tend to work extra hours, odd shifts, or multiple jobs and are
less able to provide attention and affection and to devote their time, energy,
and resources to their children. These deficits have been associated with
higher levels of externalizing behaviors and poor academic performance on
children's part (Hsuch & Yoshikawa, 2007).
Fishbein and colleagues (2006) found that adolescence, a period accompanied
by dramatic brain changes, is a particularly vulnerable time for children to
be exposed to chronic stress. They found that risky decision making (such as
alcohol or drug use) and poor social competency correlated with adolescents'
previous exposure to highly stressful life events.
In addition, stress adversely affects cognition. One randomized,
doubleblind, placebo-controlled study tested the effects of oral doses of
cortisol (the stress chemical) on subjects (Newcomer et al., 1999). Cortisol
treatment at the higher dose produced reversible decreases in verbal
declarative memory in otherwise healthy individuals (Newcomer et al., 1999).
Exposure to chronic or acute stress is debilitating. The most common
adaptive behaviors include increased anxiety (as manifested in generalized
anxiety disorders or posttraumatic stress disorder) and an increased sense of
detachment and helplessness. Students from low-income families who experience
disruptive or traumatic events or who lack a measure of connectedness—to
family, to the community, or to a religious affiliation—demonstrate
increased hopelessness over time (Bolland, Lian, & Formichella, 2005).
Nearly half (47 percent) of low-SES African American adolescents reported
clinically significant levels of depressive symptoms (Hammack et al., 2004).
Low-SES students are more likely to give up or become passive and uninterested
in school (Johnson, 1981). This giving-up process is known as learned
helplessness. It's not genetic; it's an adaptive response to life
conditions. And sadly, it frequently takes hold as early as 1st grade. Many
kids with learned helplessness become fatalistic about their lives and are
more likely to drop out of school or become pregnant while in their teens.
It is well documented that the effect of stressors is cumulative (Astone,
Misra, & Lynch, 2007; Evans, 2004; Evans & English, 2002; Evans, Kim,
Ting, Tesher, & Shannis, 2007; Geronimus, Hicken, Keene, & Bound,
2006; Lucey, 2007). Children who have had greater exposure to abuse, neglect,
danger, loss, or other poverty-related experiences are more reactive to
stressors. Each stressor builds on and exacerbates other stressors and slowly
changes the student. It is the cumulative effect of all the stressors that
often makes life miserable for poor students.
When researchers provided classes in appropriate coping skills and
stress-relieving techniques, subjects demonstrated a decrease in hostility
(Wadsworth, Raviv, Compas, & Connor-Smith, 2005) or depressive symptoms (Peden,
Rayens, Hall, & Grant, 2005). Unfortunately, these interventions, along
with stress-relieving recreational activities, are largely unavailable to
those living in poverty. For example, neighborhood parks and recreational
facilities tend to be scarcer, in hazardous areas, or in disrepair (Evans,
2004). Poor children are half as likely as well-off children are to be taken
to museums, theaters, or the library, and they are less likely to go on
vacations or on other fun or culturally enriching outings (Bradley &
Recognize the signs. Behavior that comes off as apathetic or
rude may actually indicate feelings of hopelessness or despair. It is crucial
for teachers to recognize the signs of chronic stress in students. Students
who are at risk for a stress-related disorder tend to
Believe that they have minimal control over stressors.
Have no idea how long the stressors will last, or how intense they will
Have few outlets through which they can release the frustration caused
by the stressors.
Interpret stressors as evidence of circumstances worsening or becoming
Lack social support for the duress caused by the stressors.
Share with other staff members why it's so important to avoid criticizing
student impulsivity and "me first” behaviors. Whenever you and your
colleagues witness a behavior you consider inappropriate, ask yourselves
whether the discipline process is positive and therefore increases the chances
for better future behavior, or whether it's punitive and therefore reduces the
chances for better future behavior.
Alter the environment. Change the school environment to
mitigate stress and resolve potential compliance issues with students who do
not want to change:
Reduce the parallels with prison. For example, consider eliminating
bells and instead playing songs for class transitions.
Reduce homework stress by incorporating time for homework in class or
right after class.
Use cooperative structures; avoid a top-down authoritarian approach.
Help students blow off steam by incorporating celebrations, role-plays,
and physical activities (e.g., walks, relays, or games) into your classes.
Incorporate kinesthetic arts (e.g., drama or charades), creative
projects (e.g., drawing or playing instruments), and hands-on activities
(e.g., building or fixing) into your classes.
Empower students. Help students increase their perception of
control over their environment by showing them how to better manage their own
stress levels. Instead of telling students to act differently, take the time
to teach them how to act differently by
Introducing conflict resolution skills. For example, teach students a
multistep process for handling upsets, starting with step 1: "Take a
deep breath and count to five.”
Teaching students how to deal with anger and frustration (e.g., counting
to 10 and taking slow, deep breaths).
Introducing responsibilities and the value of giving restitution. In
schools that embrace restitution, students understand that if they disrupt
class, they need to "make it right” by doing something positive for
the class. For example, a student who throws objects in the classroom may
be assigned a cleaning or beautification project for the room.
Teaching students to set goals to focus on what they want.
Role-modeling how to solve real-world problems. Share an actual or
hypothetical situation, such as your car running out of gas. You could
explain that you tried to stretch the tank of gas too far and reveal how
you dealt with the problem (e.g., calling a friend to bring some gas).
Such examples show students how to take responsibility for and resolve the
challenges they face in life.
Giving students a weekly life problem to solve collectively.
Teaching social skills. For example, before each social interaction
(e.g., pair-share or buddy teaching), ask students to make eye contact,
shake hands, and give a greeting. At the end of each interaction, have
students thank their partners.
Introducing stress reduction techniques, both physical (e.g., dance or
yoga) and mental (e.g., guided periods of relaxation or meditation).
Cognitive ability is highly complex. It can be measured in many different
ways and is affected by numerous factors, not least of which is socioeconomic
status. Socioeconomic status is strongly associated with a number of indices
of children's cognitive ability, including IQ, achievement tests, grade
retention rates, and literacy (Baydar, Brooks-Gunn, & Furstenberg, 1993;
Brooks-Gunn, Guo, & Furstenberg, 1993; Liaw & Brooks-Gunn, 1994;
Smith, Brooks-Gunn, & Klebanov, 1997). There is a gulf between poor and
well-off children's performance on just about every measure of cognitive
development, from the Bayley Infant Behavior Scales to standardized
achievement tests. The correlations between socioeconomic status and cognitive
ability and performance are typically quite significant (Gottfried, Gottfried,
Bathurst, Guerin, & Parramore, 2003) and persist throughout the stages of
development, from infancy through adolescence and into adulthood (see Figure
2.4). But these are data, not destiny. The good news is that brains are
designed to change.
Figure 2.4. How Experience Affects Cognitive Development
Source: Adapted from "Environmental Risk Factors in
Infancy,” by A. Sameroff, 1998, Pediatrics, 102(5), pp.
Theory and Research
To function at school, the brain uses an overarching "operating
system” that comprises a collection of neurocognitive systems enabling
students to pay attention, work hard, process and sequence content, and think
critically (see Figure 2.5). Five key systems are
The prefrontal/executive system. This system, which engages the
prefrontal cortex, includes our capacity to defer gratification, create
plans, make decisions, and hold thoughts in mind. It also allows us to
"reset” our brains' rules for how to behave. For example, we might
have one set of rules for how to behave to our families and another set of
rules for how to respond to strangers.
The left perisylvian/language system. This system, which engages
the temporal and frontal areas of the left brain hemisphere, encompasses
semantic, syntactic, and phonological aspects of language. It is the
foundation for our reading, pronunciation, spelling, and writing skills.
The medial temporal/memory system. This system allows us to
process explicit learning (text, spoken words, and pictures) and, if
appropriate, store that learning. It includes our "indexing”
structure (the hippocampus) and our emotional processor (the amygdala).
The parietal/spatial cognition system. This system underlies our
ability to mentally represent and manipulate the spatial relations among
objects and primarily engages the posterior parietal cortex. This brain
area is especially important for organizing, sequencing, and visualizing
information. It is essential for mathematics and music and for feeling a
sense of organization.
The occipitotemporal/visual cognition system. This system is
responsible for pattern recognition and visual mental imagery, translating
mental images into more abstract representations of object shape and
identity, and reciprocally translating visual memory knowledge into mental
images (Gardini, Cornoldi, De Beni, & Venneri, 2008).
Figure 2.5. Brain Areas of Known Difference Between Low- and
Source: Adapted from "Neurocognitive Correlates of
Socioeconomic Status in Kindergarten Children,” by K. G. Noble, M.
F. Norman, and M. J. Farah, 2005, Developmental Science, 8, pp.
The value of understanding "where” in the brain vital processes
occur cannot be overstated; there are significant contrasts in these key
systems between the brains of lower-SES and higher-SES individuals.
With the advent of cognitive neuroscience, it has become possible to assess
these systems more selectively. One study (Noble, Norman, & Farah, 2005)
examined the neurocognitive performance of 30 low-SES and 30 well-off African
American kindergartners in the Philadelphia public schools. The children were
tested on a battery of tasks adapted from the cognitive neuroscience
literature, designed to assess the functioning of the aforementioned key
neurocognitive systems. This was one of the first studies that showed both
global and specific brain differences between lower-income and higher-income
children. Another study (Farah et al., 2006) assessed middle schoolers'
working memory and cognitive control and also found significant disparities
between lower-income and higher-income students in the five neurocognitive
areas. I'm often asked, "Has anyone actually scanned the brains of
low-SES children and contrasted them with those of higher-SES children?”
Yes, it has been done. And when the data are compiled and viewed by effect
size, the areas of difference become dramatic (see Figure 2.6).
Figure 2.6. How Do the Brains of Children from Poverty Differ?
Source: Adapted from "Neurocognitive Correlates of
Socioeconomic Status in Kindergarten Children,” by K. G. Noble, M.
F. Norman, and M. J. Farah, 2005, Developmental Science, 8, pp.
In another study (Noble, McCandliss, & Farah, 2007), 150 healthy,
socioeconomically diverse 1st graders were administered tasks tapping language
skills, visual-spatial skills, memory, working memory, cognitive control, and
reward processing. Socioeconomic status accounted for more than 30 percent of
the variance in the left perisylvian/language system and a smaller but
significant portion of the variance in most other systems.
One possible explanation of the strong association between socioeconomic
status and language is that the perisylvian brain regions involved in language
processing undergo a more protracted course of maturation in vivo (i.e., once
the child is born) than any other neural region (Sowell et al., 2003). It is
possible that a longer period of development leaves the language system more
susceptible to environmental influences (Noble et al., 2005).
For example, we have discovered that the quantity, quality, and context of
parents' speech matter a great deal (Hoff, 2003). Children's vocabulary
competence is influenced by the mother's socio-demographic characteristics,
personal characteristics, vocabulary, and knowledge of child development (Bornstein,
Haynes, & Painter, 1998). By the time most children start school, they
will have been exposed to 5 million words and should know about 13,000 of
them. By high school, they should know about 60,000 to 100,000 words (Huttenlocher,
1998). But that doesn't often happen in low-income homes. Weizman and Snow
(2001) found that low-income caregivers speak in shorter, more grammatically
simple sentences. There is less back-and-forth— fewer questions asked and
fewer explanations given. As a result, children raised in poverty experience a
more limited range of language capabilities. Figures 2.7 and 2.8 illustrate
how parents' speech affects their children's vocabulary.
Figure 2.7. Talking to Infants: The Cumulative Effects of Mother's
Speech on Vocabulary of 2-Year-Olds
Source: Adapted from "Early Vocabulary Growth: Relation
to Language Input and Gender," by J. Huttenlocher, W. Haight, A.
Bryk, M. Seltzer, and R. Lyons, 1991, Developmental Psychology, 27(2),
Source: Adapted from Meaningful Differences in the
Everyday Experiences of Young American Children, by B. Hart and T.
Risley, 1995, Baltimore: Brookes Publishing.
At the preschool level, inattention from care providers has a huge impact
on the child's developing language skills and future IQ scores. A six-year
study by Hart and Risley (1995) that followed the outcomes of children
selected from different socioeconomic backgrounds found that by age 3, the
children of professional parents were adding words to their vocabularies at
about twice the rate of children in welfare families. Both the quantity and
the quality of phrases directed at the children by caregivers correlated
directly with income levels. They found that a pattern of slow vocabulary
growth helped put in place a slower cognitive pattern by the time children
turned 3. In fact, IQ tests performed later in childhood showed the welfare
students' scores trailing behind those of the more affluent children by up to
29 percent. Parents of low socioeconomic status are also less likely to tailor
their conversations to evoke thoughtful and reasoned responses from their
Going hand in hand with language acquisition, reading is one of the most
important factors affecting the development of a child's brain. Reading skills
are not hardwired into the human brain; every subskill of reading, including
(but not limited to) phonological awareness, fluency, vocabulary, phonics, and
comprehension, must be explicitly taught. This teaching requires attention,
focus, and motivation from the primary caregiver. Again, the time and
expertise to make this happen are unfortunately in short supply among poor
families. Evidence suggests that poverty adversely alters the trajectory of
the developing reading brain (Noble, Wolmetz, Ochs, Farah, & McCandliss,
Even when low-income parents do everything they can for their children,
their limited resources put kids at a huge disadvantage. The growing human
brain desperately needs coherent, novel, challenging input, or it will scale
back its growth trajectory. When a child is neglected, the brain does not grow
as much (De Bellis, 2005; Grassi-Oliveira, Ashy, & Stein, 2008).
Unfortunately, low-SES children overall receive less cognitive stimulation
than middle-income children do. For example, they are less likely to be read
to by parents: Coley (2002) found that only 36 percent of low-income parents
read to their kindergarten-age children each day, compared with 62 percent of
upper-income parents. In addition, low-SES children are less likely to be
coached in learning skills or helped with homework, and they are half as
likely as their well-off peers to be taken to museums (Bradley, Corwyn,
Burchinal et al., 2001; Bradley, Corwyn, McAdoo et al., 2001) and on other
culturally enriching outings. They also have fewer play areas in their homes;
have less access to computers and the Internet (and use them in less
sophisticated ways); own fewer books, toys, and other recreational or learning
materials; spend more time watching television; and are less likely to have
friends over to play (Evans, 2004). Low-income parents' financial limitations
often exclude their kids from healthy after-school activities, such as music,
athletics, dance, or drama (Bracey, 2006).
Effects on School Behavior and Performance
Many children raised in poverty enter school a step behind their well-off
peers. The cognitive stimulation parents provide in the early childhood years
is crucial, and as we have seen, poor children receive less of it than their
well-off peers do. These deficits have been linked to underdeveloped
cognitive, social, and emotional competence in later childhood and have been
shown to be increasingly important influences on vocabulary growth, IQ, and
social skills (Bradley, Corwyn, Burchinal et al., 2001; Bradley, Corwyn,
McAdoo et al., 2001). Standardized intelligence tests show a correlation
between poverty and lower cognitive achievement, and low-SES kids often earn
below-average scores in reading, math, and science and demonstrate poor
writing skills. Although the effects of poverty are not automatic or fixed,
they often set in motion a vicious and stubborn cycle of low expectations.
Poor academic performance often leads to diminished expectations, which spread
across the board and undermine children's overall self-esteem.
The dramatic socioeconomic divide in education doesn't help matters.
High-poverty, high-minority schools receive significantly less state and local
money than do more prosperous schools, and students in such schools are more
likely to be taught by teachers who are inexperienced or teaching outside
their specialties (Jerald, 2001) (see Figure 2.9). This gap is most evident in
the subjects of math and reading.
Figure 2.9. Percentage of Teachers Outside Their Subject Expertise
Assigned to Teach in High-Poverty Schools
All Public Schools
Source: Adapted from Dispelling the Myth Revisited:
Preliminary Findings from a Nationwide Analysis of
"High-Flying” Schools, by C. D. Jerald, 2001, Washington,
DC: The Education Trust.
Constantino (2005) examined six communities in the greater Los Angeles,
California, area and found that children in high-income communities had access
to significantly more books than children in low-income communities did. In
fact, she found that in some affluent communities, children had more books in
their homes than low-SES children had in all school sources combined. Milne
and Plourde (2006) identified six 2nd graders who came from low-income
households but demonstrated high achievement and found that these children's
parents provided educational materials, implemented and engaged in structured
reading and study time, limited television viewing, and emphasized the
importance of education. The researchers concluded that many of the factors of
low socioeconomic status that negatively affect student academic success could
be overcome by better educating parents about these essential needs.
The composite of academic skills needed for school success is actually a
short list. I have introduced these skills as chunks scattered throughout this
chapter. In Chapter 3, I list them together as an aggregate of subskills I
call the fundamental "operating system” for academic success.
Build core skills. When students underperform academically,
teachers can use assessments as an initial roadmap to ascertain the range and
depth of skill building they need. Of course, assessments don't measure every
skill that students need to succeed in school. Those core skills include
Attention and focus skills.
Short- and long-term memory.
Sequencing and processing skills.
Perseverance and ability to apply skills in the long term.
Hopefulness and self-esteem.
Once you determine which skills your students most need to hone, create a
plan, find a program, and allocate the resources. Later in this book, I
address the logistics of implementing an intervention program. Some of the
most important skills teachers should foster are social skills and
problem-solving skills. When schools teach kids the social skills to resist
peer pressure, for example, students stay in school longer, do better
academically, and get in less trouble (Wright, Nichols, Graber, Brooks-Gunn,
& Botvin, 2004). It is also essential to explicitly teach and model
problem-solving skills and provide feedback to students. Here's an example of
an established problem-solving process you can post in the classroom:
Identify and define the problem.
Evaluate each solution with a checklist or rubric.
Implement the selected solution.
Follow up and debrief on the results to learn.
In addition to posting a model, you can create simple case studies with
real-world problems for students to solve. For example, "You are leaving
a shopping mall with friends late at night. Your friend is supposed to do the
driving. But as far as you can tell, he looks pretty wasted. You have to get
home soon or you'll get in trouble. What do you do?”
Pinpoint assessments. Helping to improve students' cognitive
abilities and academic performance takes more than just knowing that a student
is behind in a given area. For example, with reading skills, you'll want to
find out if the student's difficulty is rooted in
A vision or a hearing problem.
A tracking issue.
A vocabulary deficit.
A comprehension challenge.
A phonemic awareness or phonics issue.
A fluency problem.
Quality assessment is essential, but follow-through is even more important.
Pinpointed assessments are crucial to determine areas of strength and
weakness. For example, the Woodcock-Johnson III Diagnostic Reading Battery can
reveal specific areas that need targeted practice.
Provide hope and support. Any student who feels "less
than” cognitively is likely not only to struggle academically, but also to
be susceptible to such secondary issues as acting out, getting bullied or
becoming a bully, having lower self-esteem, or having feelings of depression
or helplessness. Ensure that teachers build supportive relationships, provide
positive guidance, foster hope and optimism, and take time for affirmation and
Although the cognitive deficits in children from low-income families can
seem daunting, the strategies available today are far more targeted and
effective than ever before. Kids from all over the United States can succeed
with the right interventions. I discuss these further in Chapters 4 and 5.
Recruit and train the best staff you can. You cannot afford
to let disadvantaged kids receive substandard teaching. A Boston Public
Schools (1998) study of the effects of teachers found that in one academic
year, the top third of teachers produced as much as six times the learning
growth as the bottom third of teachers did. Tenth graders taught by the least
effective teachers made almost no gains in reading and even lost ground in
math. To find superior teachers, start asking around the district and at
conferences, post ads for teachers who love kids and love challenges, and ask
the existing good teachers at your school, "How do we keep you here?”
Recruiting great teachers is never easy, but it is possible if you know how to
appeal to them. Top teachers crave challenge and workplace flexibility and
look for highly supportive administrators. They continually strive to upgrade
their skills and knowledge by participating in staff development, attending
out-of-town conferences, and seeking out printed materials or DVDs. Appeal to
their values and specify what you can offer.
Health and Safety Issues
As we have seen, low-SES children are often subject to such health and
safety issues as malnutrition, environmental hazards, and insufficient health
care. Health and achievement overlap: every cell in our body needs a healthy
environment to function optimally. When a body's cells are besieged daily by
stressors, they slow their growth trajectory and contract. Kids raised in
poverty have more cells in their body "under siege” than do kids from
middle- or upper-income families. The consequent adaptations that these kids'
immune systems make diminish their ability to concentrate, learn, and behave
Theory and Research
Stanford neuroscientist and stress expert Robert Sapolsky (2005) found that
the lower a child's socioeconomic status is, the lower his or her overall
health. Substandard housing in low-income neighborhoods leaves children
exposed to everything from greater pedestrian risks (heavier traffic on
narrower streets) to environmental hazards (exposure to radon and carbon
monoxide) (Evans, 2004). Poor housing quality may cause respiratory morbidity
and childhood injuries (Matte & Jacobs, 2000) and may elevate
psychological distress in children (Evans, Wells, & Moch, 2003). Poor
children are more likely to live in old and inadequately maintained housing
and to be exposed to lead in peeling paint (Sargent et al., 1995)—a factor
associated with decreased IQ (Schwartz, 1994). And, as with other risk
factors, these negative environmental effects synergize with and build on one
another (Evans & Kantrowitz, 2002).
The lower parents' income is, the more likely it is that children will be
born premature, low in birth weight, or with disabilities (Bradley &
Corwyn, 2002). Expectant mothers living in poverty are more likely to live or
work in hazardous environments; to be exposed to pesticides (Moses et al.,
1993); and to smoke, drink alcohol, or use drugs during pregnancy, all factors
linked to prenatal issues and birth defects (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002) and
adverse cognitive outcomes in children (Chasnoff et al., 1998).
Children from low-income families have generally poorer physical health
than do their more affluent peers. In particular, there is a higher incidence
of such conditions as asthma (Gottlieb, Beiser, & O'Connor, 1995),
respiratory infections (Simoes, 2003), tuberculosis (Rogers & Ginzberg,
1993), ear infections and hearing loss (Menyuk, 1980), and obesity (Wang &
Zhang, 2006). Contributing factors include poor nutrition (Bridgman &
Phillips, 1998), unhealthy environmental conditions, and inability to obtain
appropriate health care. Children with no health insurance may receive little
or no treatment for illnesses and are far more likely to die from injuries or
infections than are well-off children (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002). In
addition, early health conditions may have significant long-term consequences,
even if children's socioeconomic status improves later in life (McLoyd, 1998).
Further, Broadman (2004) found that a significant portion of health
differentials across neighborhoods (high- and low-income) could be explained
by the disparate levels of stress across these neighborhoods.
Effects on School Behavior and Performance
The greater incidence of health issues among lower-income students leads to
Duration of school absences.
Incidents of illness during class.
Rates of undiagnosed and/or untreated health problems or disabilities.
Each of these issues can occur among middle- and upper-income students, but
they are both more common and more severe among students living in poverty. As
a result, low-SES kids are often missing key classroom content and skills.
Teachers may see students as uncaring or uninterested, when the real issue is
that they're not in class enough to keep up.
Increase health-related services. Lower-income students face
a daunting array of health issues. Successful schools understand these
challenges and provide wide-ranging support and accommodations. Such support
Providing a physician on-site once a week.
Working with a local pharmacy to arrange for access to medications.
Arranging for a dentist to make designated school visits.
Educating students' caregivers about school resources.
Providing tutors to help students who miss classes to catch up.
Improving awareness among staff about health-related issues.
There are serious limitations on what schools can and should do about
student health. But all of us understand that when we don't feel right, it's
hard to listen, concentrate, and learn. Successful schools find ways to ensure
that students have a fighting chance to get and stay healthy.
Develop an enrichment counterattack. A compelling body of
research (Dobrossy & Dunnett, 2004; Green, Melo, Christensen, Ngo, &
Skene, 2006; Guilarte, Toscano, McGlothan, & Weaver, 2003;
Nithianantharajah & Hannan, 2006) suggests that early exposure to toxins,
maternal stress, trauma, alcohol, and other negatives can be ameliorated with
environmental enrichment. The better the school environment is, the less the
child's early risk factors will impair his or her academic success. An
Provides wraparound health and medical services.
Minimizes negative stress and strengthens coping skills.
Uses a cognitively challenging curriculum.
Provides tutoring and pullout services to build student skills.
Fosters close relationships with staff and peers.
Offers plenty of exercise options.
The whole point of school ought to be to enrich the life of every student.
Enrichment does not mean "more” or "faster” schooling. It means
rich, balanced, sustained, positive, and contrasting learning environments.
That's what will change students' lives over the long haul (see Figure 2.10).
Figure 2.10. Benefits of Academic Enrichment for Children from
Source: Adapted from "The Development of Cognitive and
Academic Abilities: Growth Curves from an Early Childhood Educational
Experiment," by F. A. Campbell, E. P. Pungello, S.
Miller-Johnson, M. Burchinal, and C. T. Ramey, 2001, Developmental
Psychology, 37(2), pp. 231–242.
Beating the Odds
This chapter has painted a bleak picture of children raised in poverty.
Certainly not all children raised in poverty experience the brain and
behavioral changes described in this chapter, but we have seen that an
aggregation of disadvantages creates a difficult web of negatives. Poverty
penetrates deeper into the body, brain, and soul than many of us realize.
A childhood spent in poverty often sets the stage for a lifetime of
setbacks. Secure attachments and stable environments, so vitally important to
the social and emotional development of young children, are often denied to
our neediest kids. These children experience more stress due to loneliness,
aggression, isolation, and deviance in their peer relationships, and they are
more likely to describe feeling deprived, embarrassed, picked on, or bullied.
As a result, they more often face future struggles in marital and other
However, research (Hill, Bromell, Tyson, & Flint, 2007) suggests that
although the first five years of a child's life are very important, there is
tremendous opportunity during the school years for significant transformation.
Low-SES children's behavior is an adaptive response to a chronic condition of
poverty, but a brain that is susceptible to adverse environmental effects is
equally susceptible to positive, enriching effects. You'll learn more about
how brains can change for the better in Chapter 3.
Last fall, a root cause of
Connecticut's worst-in-the-nation achievement gap was laid bare.
investigating more than 600 students to determine whether they lived outside the
school district. They found 48.
One school board member
insisted the students were costing the town "big money for people … that
don't live here." Another accused those parents of "larceny" and
said they should be sued for damages. Cooler heads prevailed. The students were
simply asked to leave.
Glastonbury's schools are
very good. But the residents are rich ($105,000 median income), the median home
value is high ($347,500) and the town hasn't made much room for working-class
families. Less than 6 percent of the town's homes are affordable. From 2003 to
2012, the state says, the town created no affordable homes.
Glastonbury did allow 53
Hartford students to attend its schools under the Open Choice program this year.
But permit more working-class families to live and pay taxes there so they too
can enjoy a good education and necessary services? Well, a town has its limits,
Wrong. But then,
Glastonbury is hardly alone. In the nation's richest state, only 31 of
Connecticut's 169 municipalities have any appreciable affordable housing. Low-inome
families are trapped in the 31 municipalities that, not coincidentally, have
overburdened schools, fewer enrichment classes and even fewer resources —
parks, children's programs, sports, library branches — that foster school
gap is the product of many factors. That middle-income third-graders know 12,000
words while low-income students have a 4,000-word vocabulary is partly a
function of their parents' education level and time available to talk with their
Progress in closing the
achievement gap depends on the work of dedicated public servants, from the
reforms brought by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and legislative leaders to
administrators and teachers on the front lines.
But the progress we hope
for from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in school will also depend on housing costs and
location and what happens from 3 p.m. to 9 a.m.
County in Maryland, with mixed
income housing, to Mount Laurel, N.J., which let low-income children attend its
schools, the research is clear: Parents who can choose the right school and
neighborhood for their children are more likely to see them flourish. Parents
who can't will more likely see them fail.
Why then can't we provide
more choices? Why are towns so scared to open their doors, and hearts, to
families that earn so much less but could benefit so much more?
Residents say they don't
want higher school costs or lower property values or crime. The research shows a
wider array of housing options — smaller, denser, lower-cost, walkable to
services — won't unleash those furies. But residents are not easily convinced.
Why? The best explanation
is easiest to understand. They like the town they've chosen. They don't want
change. Everything — their children's education, their retirement, their
security, their wealth — is tied to their home. They fear neighbors, tax
increases and other threats to their well-being.
But others are, frankly,
exclusionary. They say "we made it and why should we let in people who
didn't," as if an admission charge is fair. Many have, in fact, been
successful. But often, it's because they've had educated parents, wealth and
other advantages. As the saying goes, "they were born on third base but
think they hit a triple."
Because we have done too
little to allow working-class families to enjoy not only schools but everything
high-resource communities offer, we've had to devise effective, but expensive,
magnet schools, charter schools and the Open Choice program. But the need far
exceeds the supply: 18,000 households applied for Open Choice or magnet spots
last year; 4,300 got them.
Which brings us back to
Glastonbury. I would wonder whether those school board members would be willing
to change places with those obviously desperate parents who, loving and wanting
the best for their children, saw no alternative but to "steal" them a
better, more appropriate education because the town wouldn't provide them with
an affordable home.
Honestly, who among us,
with no other choice, wouldn't do exactly what they did to help our own
David Fink is policy
director for The Partnership for Strong Communities, a statewide housing policy
organization. A forum, "Mt. Laurel and The Achievement Gap," will be
held from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. at The Lyceum Thursday. Information: Laura@pschousing.org.
What If Everything You Knew About Poverty Was Wrong?
Edin, Joe White, and his daughter JanasiaPhotos
by Mustafah Abdulaziz
Blond and midwestern cheerful,
Kathryn Edin could be a cruise director, except that instead of
showing off the lido deck, she's pointing out where the sex
traffickers live off a run-down strip of East Camden, New Jersey. Her
blue eyes sparkle as she highlights neighborhood landmarks: the scene
of a hostage standoff where police shot a man after he'd murdered a
couple in their home and abducted
their four-year-old; the front yard where a guy was gunned down
after trying to settle
a dispute between his son and two other teens.
Edin, 51, talks to every stranger we pass. She chirps hello to some
guys working on a car jacked up in their front yard, some dudes
selling pot, and a little girl driving a pink plastic jeep on the
sidewalk. Most of them look at her like she's from another
planet—which in a way, she is.
A sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, Edin is one of the
nation's preeminent poverty researchers. She has spent much of the
past several decades studying some of the country's most dangerous,
impoverished neighborhoods. But unlike academics who draw conclusions
about poverty from the ivory tower, Edin has gotten upclose
with the people she studies—and in the process has shattered many
myths about the poor, rocking sociology and public-policy circles.
10 Poverty Myths, Busted
10 Poverty Myths, Busted
No, single moms aren't the problem. And
neither are absentee dads.
1. Single moms are the problem. Only 9
percent of low-income, urban moms have been single
throughout their child's first five years. Thirty-five
percent were married to, or in a relationship with, the
child's father for that entire time.*
2. Absent dads are the problem. Sixty
percent of low-income dads see at least one of their
children daily. Another 16 percent see their children
3. Black dads are the problem. Among
men who don't live with their children, black
fathers are more likely than white or Hispanic dads to
have a daily presence in their kids' lives.
4. Poor people are lazy. In 2004,
there was at least one adult with a job in 60
percent of families on food stamps that had both kids
and a nondisabled, working-age adult.
5. If you're not officially poor, you're doing
okay. The federal poverty line for a family of
two parents and two children in 2012 was $23,283.
Basic needs cost at
least twice that in 615 of America's cities and
6. Go to college, get out of poverty. In
2012, about 1.1 million people who made less than $25,000
a year, worked full time, and were heads of household had
a bachelor's degree.**
7. We're winning the war on poverty. The
number of households with children living on less than $2
a day per person has grown
160 percent since 1996, to 1.65 million families in
8. The days of old ladies eating cat food are
over. The share of elderly single women living in
extreme poverty jumped
31 percent from 2011 to 2012.
*Source: Analysis by Dr. Laura Tach at Cornell
For three years Edin lived with her family in a studio apartment
smack in between the two crime scenes we just passed and a few blocks
from one of the city's largest and most notorious public housing
projects. Here she spent years doing intensive fieldwork for her
latest book, coauthored with husband and Johns Hopkins colleague Tim
Nelson, on low-income, unwed fathers. Doing
the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City is a complicated
portrait of a group of people all but ignored by statistics-driven
social-science research—in large part because there's little
ready-made data about them.
Disconnected from a welfare system that historically has helped
researchers track single moms, these men are also often untethered
from traditional institutions such as schools and churches. The places
where you can find clusters of them—prisons and drug rehab
programs—give you a skewed sample. And there's a more basic problem,
well documented in research: When sociologists ask whether they have
kids, some men
don't know—or lie.
To get around these issues, Edin spent years getting to know
low-income fathers, drawing them out to talk about their love lives
and use of birth control, their reaction to pregnancies, and other
intimate details. The result goes beyond the welfare-queen-style
anecdotes that drive headlines and policy discussions, and instead
gleans truth from ordinary experiences.
"Some social scientists will rent an office
building and bring people in and interview them. But experiencing
what other people are experiencing while you're studying them is
"Conventional wisdom is that the moms are the only ones who
care about the kids and the dads want to flee responsibility,"
Edin says. But she and Nelson found that the reviled "absentee
quite so absent, nor does he want to be, and that whether he's a
deadbeat depends a lot on which of his kids you're talking about.
Sociologist William Julius Wilson, one of the nation's foremost
chroniclers of inner-city poverty, heralds Edin's work as
groundbreaking. "I do research in those neighborhoods, and I
found those stories quite revealing," he says. "She
uncovered things I hadn't even thought about. I thought there would be
some apprehension or concern that [the men] got a girl pregnant, but
these guys were happy that they'd fathered a child. A child
represented a life preserver for some of these guys."
In the book, Edin and Nelson take as a starting point the public
freak-out about the rise in unwed parenthood, a problem first
highlighted by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) back in 1965 with
the infamous report "The
Negro Family: The Case for National Action." Then an
assistant labor secretary in the Johnson administration, Moynihan
warned that the black family was on the verge of a "complete
breakdown"—at the time, 1 in 5 black children was born out of
wedlock. Today, it's more than 1
Unwed black fathers continue to be singled out for special scorn by
everyone from conservative gadfly Gary
Bauer (who blames them for crime among NFL players) to President
Obama, who in 2008 told black churchgoers in Chicago that
"what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child"
and pledged to address the "national epidemic of absentee
Over the past two decades, such views helped unleash a torrent of
punitive policies aimed at raising the cost of unwed fatherhood. Yet
the share of those having kids out of wedlock has continued to soar.
In 1990, 28 percent of American births were to unmarried women. Today,
it's a record 41
percent, with much of the increase coming among low-income whites.
than a third of all children with single mothers live below the
poverty line, four times the rate of those with married parents.
Conservatives have blamed the shift on cultural decay, immorality,
and welfare benefits. Liberals have flagged the disappearance of
well-paying manufacturing jobs. But when Edin started her research, it
was clear that none of these explanations told the whole story. The
disappearance of marriage was a true social-science mystery.
So she and Nelson decided to embed with their subjects. In 1995,
while teaching at Rutgers University, Edin, Nelson, and their
three-year-old daughter moved into a studio apartment near 36th and
Westfield in Camden, one of the poorest cities in America. It was the
beginning of two years of intensive fieldwork, followed by another
five years of interviewing—or, as Edin puts it, "a rich
opportunity for learning. Some social scientists will rent an office
building and bring people in and interview them. But experiencing what
other people are experiencing while you're studying them is just
Once a thriving industrial center,
home of RCA Victor and the Campbell Soup Company, Camden saw decades
of white flight as the manufacturing sector disappeared. By 2000, five
years after Edin arrived, 53 percent of Camden's residents were black,
39 percent were Hispanic, and 36 percent lived below the poverty line.
The year she moved in was the city's bloodiest
on record, with 58 murders among 86,000 residents.
About a block away from the blue clapboard Victorian where Edin
lived is the former Presbyterian church where she taught Sunday
school—one of the ways she got to know people in the community,
along with volunteering at an after-school program. On the warm fall
day I visited, the voice of a holy roller bellowing at his flock rang
clear across the street.
Teaching Sunday school wasn't just a research ploy. Edin hails from
rural Minnesota, where she "grew up in the back of the van"
that her mother drove for a Swedish Lutheran church. She worked there
with needy families whose kids often cycled in and out of jail and
foster care. "The religious tradition I came up in was very
focused on social justice," Edin says, citing Micah 6:8 ("To
act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God").
White's daughter Janasia plays in front of Urban Promise,
the nonprofit where her dad met Edin as a teen.
She attended North Park University, a small Christian college in
Chicago with a social-justice focus. There, she took extra-credit
assignments working in the notorious Cabrini-Green public housing
project. In her free time she did things like watch Brother Sun,
Sister Moon, Franco Zeffirelli's film about St. Francis of
Assisi, and walk around campus barefoot in the winter to emulate the
Sunday school in Camden was different. One day, Edin recalls, she
drew on a common evangelical trope, asking the kids what one thing
they would save if their house were on fire. The answer is supposed to
be "the Bible," but for these kids the question was not a
hypothetical. Most of the kids had actually been in that situation and
could tell her exactly what they took. (Sometimes it was the Bible.)
Tragedy was endemic to her small class. In the space of a month,
the fathers of two of the five students were killed in gun violence.
Trauma made the kids "very vigilant," she says. "They
notice everything about you." Some of their comments yielded
unexpected insights for her research on low-income women's attitudes
toward marriage, which they tended to view as hard work more than a
source of pleasure. "One girl said to me, 'You white women are
really into your husbands,'" she says with a laugh.
"Watching people respond to you reveals a lot."
Not long after she and Nelson moved in, a teenager avoiding
pursuers jumped through an open bathroom window, then raced out their
front door. She recalls the time she put her baby's empty car seat
down in the front yard while unloading groceries. When she turned
around, it was gone. She ran down the street to a garage that served
as the neighborhood's unofficial flea market, and found it already for
Edin says her willingness to put up with the same routine
annoyances as her neighbors helped persuade them to open up.
"Lots of people said, 'We know you're the real thing. You're not
here just to study us, because you live here, too.'"
She had some other things working in her favor, namely her
family—which, in a way, was also a product of her research. In 1992,
she was studying residents of a public housing project in Charleston,
South Carolina, and volunteering at a food bank, where she befriended
an African American woman who lived with her children in a
tarp-covered shack with no running water. The woman asked Edin and
Nelson to adopt her youngest child; they were about to go through with
it when the child's father stepped in to take custody. The wrenching
loss inspired Edin and Nelson to formally pursue adopting.
They were incensed by ads in the local paper from white couples
looking for a white baby. So they placed their own, reading,
"white couple looking to adopt your black or biracial
child." The newspaper told Edin the text was illegal because it
mentioned race, but eventually published it anyway. They received four
calls within an hour and soon adopted a baby; their second child came
via the New Jersey foster care system.
Raising young children in Camden, where nearly 75 percent of kids
are born out of wedlock, proved to be a sociological study in itself.
One day, she was out doing fieldwork when she spotted her
three-year-old crossing Route 130, a major highway, trailing behind
her teenage babysitters without anyone holding her hand. "It's
just an expectation of maturity that middle-class parents do not
expect their kids to have," she says. "When you're poor and
you're a single mom, you have to raise your kids to be tougher and
more savvy sooner."
Edin came of age at a time when
the country was engaged in a heated debate about whether the
government should provide cash benefits to help single mothers and
their children. Ronald Reagan had helped set the stage with his
attacks on the "welfare
queen," and writers like conservative Charles Murray and
liberal Mickey Kaus insisted that benefits
made women lazy and encouraged them to have babies out of wedlock.
Kaus and Murray didn't base their arguments on any significant
fieldwork. Murray went so far as to create a fictional
couple to illustrate his argument. But their conclusions were
shaping public policy nonetheless.
Raising young children in Camden, where nearly 75 percent of kids
are born out of wedlock, proved to be a sociological study in
Edin stepped into this fight in the late 1980s while working on her
master's degree at Northwestern University. Sociologist Christopher
Jencks had hired her to reinterview some of his subjects in a study on
welfare. She'd been moonlighting by teaching college courses to
welfare recipients, and one day Jencks asked what she was learning
from her students. "Everyone cheats," she said. Jencks
perked up and said, "Can you prove it?"
Edin spent the next six years taking a deep dive into welfare home
economics, pestering poor mothers in Chicago, Boston, San Antonio, and
Charleston about how they managed to survive on benefits that averaged
$370 a month. In 1997, she published her findings in a book called Making
Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work.
It came on the heels of the Clinton-era welfare reform that overhauled
the entitlement system to force single mothers into the workplace.
But Edin documented that most moms on welfare were already working
under the table or in the underground economy, and that lovers,
friends, family, and the fathers of their children were pitching in to
help. They didn't get legal jobs because of a straightforward economic
calculus: Low wages drained by child care, transportation, and other
expenses would have left them poorer than they were on welfare.
In a foreword to the book, Jencks notes that this simple math had
been kept out of the political debate for years, as conservatives
refused to admit that welfare benefits couldn't support a family, and
liberals were reluctant to acknowledge the extent of the deceptions.
Edin's work forced that discussion out into the open. "I don't
think we realize how difficult it is for low-income families living on
minimum wage or less than minimum wage to survive," says William
Julius Wilson. "That's why that book was so important—it
documented what we should have known."
Jencks says that Edin's work also represented a
"methodological innovation." Rather than obsessing about
getting a perfect sample for her study, he says, "she figured out
that it was really better to get interviews and observations of people
who were willing to trust you and would tell you the truth than it was
to get interviews of people who were a random sample of the population
who'd lie to you. That came as something of a shock to social
scientists. The question of whether people were telling the truth had
sort of slipped away."
Next Edin took up the question of why low-income mothers so often
put childbearing before marriage. Far from eschewing marriage as an
institution, she found, poor women idealized it to such an extent that
it became unattainable. They didn't believe that a marriage born in
poverty could survive.
In a society that increasingly saw marriage as a choice, not a
requirement, low-income women were embracing the same preconditions as
middle-class women. They wanted to be "set" before marrying,
with economic independence to ensure a more equitable partnership and
a fallback should things go bad. They also wanted men who were mature,
stable, and who had mortgages and other signs of adulthood, not just
"People were embracing higher and higher standards for
marriage," Edin explains. From a financial standpoint alone,
"the men that would have been marriageable [in the 1950s] are no
longer marriageable now. That's a cultural change." The
low-income women in Edin's study reported that decent, trustworthy,
available men were in short supply in their communities, where there
were often major sex imbalances thanks to high incarceration rates.
This, Edin found, was why low-income women were willing to decouple
childbearing from marriage: They believed if they waited until
everything was perfect, they might never have children. And children,
says Edin, are "the thing in life you can't live without."
As one subject explained, "I don't wanna have a big trail of
divorce, you know. I'd rather say, 'Yes, I had my kids out of wedlock'
than say, 'I married this idiot.' It's like a pride
Marriage was so taboo among her subjects that Edin discovered two
couples in her sample who claimed they were unmarried at the time of
their babies' birth but were actually not. One of the women had even
been chewed out by her grandmother for marrying the father of one of
Edin met Joe White as a troubled teen two
decades ago. Now he's a dedicated father.
All through this research,
Edin says, she'd never been interested in studying men.
"It's fun to write about people with a strong heroic
element to the story," she says. "Women have
that. Men don't have that. [They're] more complicated;
they're dogged with bad choices." In addition, she
admits, "I felt hostile after writing about the
women. I really had their point of view in my head."
It was Nelson who, after years of working on a book
about religious experience in a black church, convinced
her otherwise. Together, they spent several years
canvassing Camden in search of dads to interview. They
stopped men on the street and asked if they'd
talk—sometimes right there on the spot. They put up
flyers and worked with nonprofit groups and eventually
knit together a sample of equal parts black and white men
they interviewed at length over the better part of a
"At every turn an unmarried man who seeks to be a
father, not just a daddy, is rebuffed by a system that
pushes him aside with one hand while reaching into his
pocket with the other."
Again, what they discovered surprised them. Rather than
viewing unplanned fatherhood as a burden, the men almost
uniformly saw it as a blessing. "It's so antithetical
to a middle-class perspective," Edin says. "But
it finally dawned on us that these guys thought that by
bringing children in the world they were doing something
good in the world." Everything else around them—the
violence, the poverty, their economic prospects—was so
negative, she explains, a baby was "one little dot of
color" on a black-and-white canvas.
Only a small percentage of the men, black or white,
said the pregnancy was the result of an accident, and even
fewer challenged the paternity. When the babies were born,
most of the men reported a desire to be a big part of
their lives. Among black men, 9 in 10 reported being
deeply involved with their children under the age of two,
meaning they had routine, in-person contact with their
kids several times a month. But that involvement faded
with time. Only a third of black fathers and a quarter of
white fathers were still intensively involved with kids
older than 10. Among the reasons, Edin identifies unstable
relationships with the mothers—the average couple had
been together only about six months before conceiving a
child. The men also frequently struggled with substance
abuse and stints in prison.
Government rules also stood in the way of meaningful
fatherhood. The welfare system tends to view an unwed
father solely as a paycheck, not as a coparent. In many
states, even unwed fathers who live with their children
and pay some of the bills can be sent to jail for failing
to pay child support. And men who do pay don't necessarily
get to see their child.
"At every turn an unmarried man who seeks to be a
father, not just a daddy, is rebuffed by a system that
pushes him aside with one hand while reaching into his
pocket with the other," Edin and Nelson write.
Edin sees in these obstacles to full-time fatherhood a
partial explanation for what's known as
"multiple-partner fertility." Among low-income,
unwed parents, having children with more than one partner
is now the norm. One long-running study found that in nearly
60 percent of the unwed couples who had a baby, at
least one parent already had a child with another partner.
Multiple-partner fertility is a formula for unstable
families, and it's really bad for children, which Edin
acknowledges in the book. But rather than view
"serial dads" as simply irresponsible, Edin
suggests that they suffer from unrequited "father
thirst," the desire for the intense experience of
being a full-time dad. Consciously or not, they keep
trying until they finally sort of get it right, usually
with the youngest child, to whom they devote most of their
resources at the expense of the older ones.
Some of these insights came from friendships Edin
formed while living in Camden. She first met Joe White
when he was a teenager participating in an after-school
program run by Urban Promise, a nonprofit that helped Edin
with her research and on whose board she now serves. White
grew up in the notorious (and since-demolished) Westfield
Acres housing project; his mom, who struggled with
addiction, was once affiliated with a motorcycle gang.
"To establish a set of policies that require you to
be a superhero doesn't make sense," she says.
"These men have a tremendous amount to contribute
if we can just find a way."
I met White, now 36, at Urban Promise in September with
Edin and Nelson. Sitting in the old church building that
serves as its headquarters, White is a hulking and jovial
figure in gray sweats, a sparkling white T-shirt, and
sneakers. Before I can ask him a question, Edin jumps in,
and I get a look at her technique in real time. She
interrogates White, leaning forward with her blue eyes
trained on him, hanging on his every word.
She urges White to talk about his life circa 1995, when
they first met. Of the 58 people killed in Camden that
year, "I knew at least 20 or 25 of those guys,"
he says. "Because the city ain't but so big." He
describes life in the projects: "Shoot-out right in
front, come out to dead bodies." As a teenager, he
thought that after high school, "either you're going
to be a football player, or you look around and think,
'I'm going to be dead when I'm 18.' So when I got to 18, I
was like, 'Yeah!'"
Around that time, White discovered his girlfriend was
pregnant. Ecstatic, he told his friends, "I just
created a miracle!" White thought he'd overcome some
pretty grim odds. "I'm going to be a dad, I'm 18, and
I'm still alive! I'm passing a statistic," he
White's response to impending fatherhood was to look
for an income. A number of the men in Edin's book quit
high school or college to work low-wage jobs trying to
provide for their new children—giving up opportunities
that would have helped them become better providers in the
long run. Many turn to selling drugs because it pays
White began dealing as well. Eventually, he and his
son's mother split, and a few years later he had a
daughter with another woman. But meanwhile, he'd started
using drugs. At 24, he landed in a court-ordered drug
treatment program and got clean. "My kids were my
saviors," he says. White's girlfriend stuck with him,
they had another daughter, and in 2006 they got married.
Today, White works full time at a screen-printing
company, where he's been for about 12 years, and spends
his free time ferrying kids to sports practices and
dentist appointments. He's even got a house with a white
fence—PVC, not picket—he put up himself.
Getting here hasn't been easy. At one point, his first
son's mother, who now has two more kids, applied for
welfare benefits. Even though White had always supported
his son, the state automatically took him to court for
child support, just as he got laid off from his
His unemployment benefits were slow to come, so for
about four months he had no income. The state threatened
to revoke his commercial driver's license. "My
driving privilege was my job," he says. He was able
to pay in time to save his license, but the experience
reinforced his sense that the welfare system
"discourages a lot of guys from wanting to do the
right thing. I've got family members right now who don't
even want to go work, because once child support gets done
with their paycheck they've got $45, and that's not enough
to pay their bills," he says.
Instead, they're driven into the underground economy.
"Don't get me wrong," White says. "There
are some deadbeats out there that deserve that treatment.
I'm not defending those guys. I'm defending the guys who
actually take care of their kids regardless of a court
As an academic, Edin generally shies away from policy
recommendations. But she says the way to reunify families
is not by beating up on men—particularly when the child
support system doesn't recognize the realities of the
labor market. "To establish a set of policies that
require you to be a superhero doesn't make sense,"
she says. "These men have a tremendous amount to
contribute if we can just find a way."
Not everyone comes to
the same conclusions. Ron Haskins, a Republican architect
of the Clinton-era welfare reform, is an old friend of
Edin's but thinks she's being too kind to her subjects.
Her book, he says, is "extremely valuable. But I
think she put the best possible face on these young men. I
think it's possible to be much less sympathetic than she
is. Someone has to start demanding that these guys shape
Nonetheless, her research may already be prompting some
changes. Joe Jones is the founder of the nonprofit Center
for Urban Families in Baltimore, which works with
low-income men, and serves on Obama's Taskforce on
Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Families. He says
Edin's work has helped inform his effort in Maryland to
pass legislation overhauling the welfare system to focus
not just on women and children, but on couples and joint
parenting. The bill would also offer men more access to
job training and other supports that now go almost
exclusively to women.
Edin, for her part, is on to another project. This one
involves scouring the streets of Cleveland alongside
Nelson, on a pair of purple cruiser bikes, to find the
growing population of Americans living on less than $2 a
day—"a third-world measure of poverty in
first-world America," Edin says.
In this pursuit, Edin has become obsessed with plasma
centers. She now spends hours sitting in her car outside
one, watching people come and go. She has zeroed in on a
mother with no teeth who has raised herself since age 12
and recently lost her Walmart job after her aunt's car
died and she missed work. Edin is talking to people so
poor they're dependent on barter because they never have
cash. One man she met is raising 12 children—four from
his first wife, who just died of cancer, plus one of hers
from another partner; three by his second, estranged wife,
plus three of her kids from a previous relationship, and
her niece. Since he lost his house in an eviction, they've
all been squashed into his parents' three-bedroom home,
and he's on the verge of losing the kids to foster care
for lack of a bigger place to live.
Edin wants to tell stories like these to a larger
audience to show how many people are not just struggling,
but falling through the cracks entirely. When you lose the
kind of low-wage, part-time work that dominates in places
like East Camden, there are rarely unemployment benefits
to cushion the blow. Welfare has been decimated, and food
stamps can't buy diapers.
Over a steaming bowl of chicken soup near the Urban
Promise headquarters in Camden, Nelson and Edin marvel at
how little policymakers know about the economic realities
that poor people face. "You hear people say there's
not material poverty in the US," says Nelson; census
data, the argument goes, shows that most of America's
poor have TVs and air conditioning. But Edin—who is
writing her first mass-market book on extreme poverty with
colleague Luke Shaefer—*says
the people they're finding in Cleveland and other study
sites "aren't in the census." Even she has
trouble keeping track of her subjects. "They can just
fall right off the map," she says.
This is one reason why "people have been lulled
into complacency thinking poverty is solved." With
the new book, Edin says, "we're hoping to stoke the
American conscience. These people are not a dependent
class. They're trying to do the right thing."
Correction: The original version of
this article incorrectly implied that Nelson is a
co-author of the mass-market book Edin is writing on
extreme poverty. Her co-author for that book is another
colleague, Luke Shaefer.
The state established a Child Poverty and Prevention
Council, in accordance with C.G.S. Sec. 4-67x, to develop and promote the
implementation of a ten-year plan to reduce the number of children living in
poverty in the state by fifty percent and to establish prevention goals and
recommendations and measure prevention service outcomes in order to promote
the health and well-being of children and families.
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obtain other versions of the documents.
In 2014, the state must turn its attention to poverty. In both human and
economic terms, it's gotten too expensive.
Nearly 50 years ago, on Jan. 8, 1964, President Lyndon
B. Johnson announced the bold initiative that would become known as the
War on Poverty. A half-century later many of its signature programs —
Medicare and Medicaid, VISTA, Head
stamps — are still part of our social infrastructure.
But while these programs have helped many people, they have not ended
poverty, as Mr. Johnson hoped. After an expenditure of, by one estimate,
nearly $15 trillion, the "war" is a stalemate, a holding action.
The national poverty rate of 15 percent in 2012 (46.8 million people) is
about where it was in 1965.
In Connecticut, the poverty rate began to rise before the recession,
going from 7.5 percent in 2002 to a current estimate of 10.7 percent (
372,000 people) living below the poverty line, which is $23,492 for a family
of four. Another 10 percent of residents live at or below 200 percent of the
Though poverty has grown markedly in the suburbs, it is still heavily
concentrated in the cities. Hartford, according to the U.S. Census' most
recent American Community Survey, has an estimated 38 percent of residents
and 53 percent of children living in poverty.
This is frustrating on moral and economic grounds. We aspire to be a fair
and egalitarian society that provides all of its citizens with basic
sustenance and the chance to get ahead. Yet many are struggling, some
Meanwhile, government and private philanthropy are spending billions of
dollars on programs and services to either help the poor or pay for the
consequences of poverty.
While it is impossible to put an exact number on it, billions of dollars
in state spending — portions of the budgets for social services, courts,
public defenders, prisons, public health, mental health and addiction
services, labor and education — are rooted in poverty.
In addition, federal funds administered by community action agencies and
private philanthropy bring tens of millions more to the anti-poverty effort.
While this money provides a safety net and help for many people,
shouldn't we be doing better?
If eliminating poverty were easy, we wouldn't be approaching this
anniversary. It's sometimes politically expedient to blame the poor for not
getting ahead. Recent research suggests that living in poverty — facing
the daily stress of finding food, clothing, heat and shelter — makes it
all the more difficult to finish school or train for a job.
Institutional efforts to end poverty haven't met with consistent success,
either. For example, in 2004 the legislature formed a Child Poverty and
Prevention Council with the goal of reducing child poverty by 50 percent
over 10 years. Since then, the percentage of children living in poverty has
risen from 10.1 to 14.8 percent, an increase approaching 50
This is connected both to the recession and to Connecticut's stagnant job
growth from 1990 to 2010, during which the state had the worst job creation
record in the country, according to the Connecticut Center for Economic
Yet there are good things happening. "Jobs Funnels" set up
around the state since 1999 have gotten 2,800 workers into the construction
trades in the last 14 years. The earned income tax credit has been a huge
help in getting people out of poverty. The state's investment in education
and training should bear fruit. There are innovations around the country,
such as subsidized work programs and financial empowerment centers, that
teach people how to manage money, build assets and not fall back into
The recent innovation that might best suit Connecticut's situation is
called "collective impact," in which all the players, directed by
a "backbone" organization, decide on a common agenda and
measurements, and then work together.
Getting all the state and local agencies and nonprofits on the same page
— some are moving in this direction — would be a good start.
This is first on The Courant's agenda list for the state for 2014.
Tomorrow: What the city of Hartford needs to do.
Paying the Homeless to Stand Outside Your Business: Schenectady
Bridges Project Turns Poverty Upside Down
Interview with Michael Saccocio, conducted by Jesse Conrad
Michael Saccocio is executive director and CEO of City Mission in
Schenectady, New York, which has taken the lead in a movement to implement
Bridges Out of Poverty (Payne, DeVol, & Dreussi-Smith, 2006) concepts in a
variety of helping organizations in the broader Schenectady area.
Jesse Conrad: What made you decide to develop and
implement a new strategy?
Michael Saccocio: We’ve always been focused on a need to
see transformed lives, and from those transformed lives we can work toward a
transformed community. We’ve come to understand that the only way to make
the transformed community sustainable is that the folks themselves have to be
the leaders of it. We were saying, “Maybe we’re trying too hard to be the
leaders ourselves, and we need to reverse that by giving folks we’re working
with an opportunity to participate and be on the team. We give them ownership,
they’re the leaders of the team, and we can be on the team.”
I started reading Bridges Out of Poverty, and the biggest thing
that broke through was how much we didn’t understand. We were vulnerable to
thinking we were experts because many of us had spent almost our entire
careers working with people from poverty, so you kind of assume that you know
everything there is to know. Bridges materials and trainings really got us to
better realize that there’s a lot we didn’t understand, but from that
understanding, a whole new strategy could emerge in which our folks were being
trained to be leaders and to really be part of community transformation and
I’m not sure, in terms of physics, if you can have twotipping
points, but we had an in-house tipping point and a community tipping point.
In-house, as we embedded Bridges constructs, things started working. One of
the participants was in drug court at the time, living at the mission, and the
judge called us and said, “I’ve never seen such remarkable transformation
in an individual.” The judge challenged her to get Supreme Court approval in
New York State to bring Getting Ahead to drug court participants. She made two
presentations to two New York Supreme Court judges. I had the privilege of
driving her there and saying a few words. Right off the bat that flip—where
she was becoming the leader and I was on the team—she was leading it, and by
virtue of her testimony, we got permission to start offering Getting Ahead
classes to Schenectady City and County drug court participants, and that’s
still going today.
The second tipping point was in the community. We were getting enough
successes in-house that we decided it was time to share it with our
collaborative partners in the community, and everywhere I went, people who had
great hearts to help people in poverty but also great struggles and probably
great frustrations, they experienced continuous aha moments. I came back from
that saying, “There’s a universal quality to these trainings.” So the
tipping point was when we decided that this needed to be a communitywide
Because the mission has been in the community for more than 100 years, we
had good relationships, but I think the open door was not just the fact that
people knew who we were, but really that I could share these concrete
victories—and everybody wanted in. That led us to submit a grant to the
Schenectady Foundation. They gave us a $21,000 grant in 2011, which gave us
the resources to offer genuine two-day Bridges Out of Poverty trainings for
staff members. In 2011 we trained 144 staff members from seven participating
agencies in Schenectady, including City Mission.
It wasn’t that the number 144 is stunning, but we were able to connect
seven moving parts and get them to commit to learning and embedding the
Bridges ideas. I learned it’s much more valuable to make sure there’s a
diversity of agencies represented, even if that slows you down in terms of
generating numbers. One of our partners is Ellis Medicine, the only hospital
in Schenectady County. If we had worked solely with them, we probably could
have trained 200 people just through them, but we really wanted to get
everybody on board.
JC: What was the most valuable resource you discovered and
utilized in the process of getting started?
MS: People who were excited about it really became the
lead resource. It’s great that CEOs and vice presidents are committed to
this, but the biggest breakthrough was that front-line people who had the
training went back to their worksites and started developing new policies and
models based on what they learned in that Bridges training.
A great example is Ellis Medicine’s dental unit. They worked with
Schenectady Head Start and created one day a month that would be reserved for
Head Start students without appointments. So now the Head Start people know
that, on this day of the month, we fill up the van with kids who need dental
work, we literally just show up, and they make it work for us. And Ellis is
now considering expanding that concept to other parts of the hospital.
What’s really going to make this become a tipping point communitywide is
that the front-line folks are becoming the innovators, the inventors, the
creators of systems change.
JC: What kinds of results are you seeing?
MS: I’ll give you one example that has really stemmed
from Bridges. Our downtown went through a decline, where the downtown became
nearly vacant, boarded-up buildings everywhere you looked. Because the
property got cheap downtown, a lot of social service agencies moved their
offices downtown. That’s where the cheapest rents were and where the bus
lines are, so the downtown got increasingly populated with folks coming from
A group called Metroplex committed to a revitalization of downtown
Schenectady about 10 years ago. They’ve been highly successful, and one key
to that is Proctors Theater, a 2,700-seat theater that used to be a venue for
vaudeville, and as Proctors has grown, they’ve seen in the last 10 years new
restaurants, hotels, and businesses open up nearby. A genuine revitalization
Okay, so what’s the problem? There are still these social service
agencies smack dab in the middle of downtown, and often those two don’t mix
well, right? A new restaurant opens, and folks are coming in next door for
mental health treatment. At City Mission we are almost on the main block, and
we have a 100-bed shelter for men, women, and children. So that is a pretty
tense reality, and I understand the issues involved. Long story short, as it
was evolving into an either/or battle in downtown Schenectady—we’re either
going to have economic development or we’re going to be populated
by folks in need of social services—the mission staff was getting trained in
Bridges concepts, and we led a movement to adopt a third way. It’s not
either/or, not either economic development or helping people in need. We can
do both, and ideally the people in need are becoming stakeholders in that
So here’s what we did: We worked with Proctors Theater and created the
Downtown Ambassadors Program. City Mission residents who have been through
Getting Ahead training go out every night there’s a show and greet the
guests that are coming in. They have uniforms and flashlights, and they help
people across the street, direct them to parking, get them to restaurants,
hold the door open—it’s really like a sidewalk concierge service. This
went so well that the economic development agency offered to pay our people if
they’ll continue doing this. So now Proctors has a contract with us, and
other businesses nearby want ambassadors to work in front of their businesses,
so what we have in Schenectady is the top businesses holding fundraisers to
generate money to get more ambassadors. I like to tell people, and Bridges has
been a big part of this, that downtown Schenectady may be the only urban
center in America where the businesspeople are paying the homeless to
stand in front of their business and greet their guests.
JC: That’s a really interesting solution. Finding that
third way that doesn’t displace people is incredibly impressive
MS: Thanks. What we realized was—and this was the great
breakthrough—we realized we had to teach our folks who became ambassadors
what the rules of the middle class are, what the rules of the theater are,
what the rules of restaurant life are. Here was the Bridges breakthrough:
Although it was very easy for them to learn the rules of the middle class, the
fact that they also knew the rules of poverty was an extra benefit for them
out there because when issues did come up that were more poverty-based, they
knew how to deal with them.
As we implemented the ambassadors program, we thought, well, our folks will
get it started, and then they’ll hire students from Union College and let
them do it. But do you know why they don’t? Because our folks are in a sense
bilingual: They can learn the middle class stuff, but they know the rules of
poverty, and that is an asset for them. And that’s right out of the Bridges
playbook, that these rules aren’t wrong, they’re just different. It’s
all about understanding the context, building on people’s strengths, so the
Bridges material has really been a catalyst and an accelerator. And the
ambassadors program is something that’s off the charts. Now we’re talking
about creating healthcare ambassadors in the hospitals and health centers.
We have them go through a training that really teaches the hidden rules of
middle class. But then maybe they’ll encounter someone who’s been drinking
too much, or someone who’s passed out in the cold, or someone who’s just
disoriented, and they immediately go into action. They know how to get them
help. So I think they’re very proud that both parts of their background are
now a resource that they’re taking with them into this job.
JC: Talk a little bit about some key lessons you’ve
MS: The main lesson is twofold: First, you can train
people and equip them, but then you have to give them the latitude to be
innovative at ground level. There’s a tendency with organizations where they
train and then choke the life out of it. Bridges isn’t going to work like
that. You have to train and then empower people to be creative.
Second, I’ve learned the training can never end. It’s like exercise:
You’ve never worked out once and for all. The Bridges concepts are so
different from the way we’ve always thought, that for us, even after several
years of using them, there’s still an almost reflexive retreat back to what
is comfortable and familiar. Bridges to me is like exercise in your workplace.
You have to do it every day. If you do, you will love the results. If you
think you can coast along using the momentum from prior trainings and that
will carry you, I think there’s going to be disappointment.
With the Bridges constructs we’re really bringing new voices to the
table. You’re changing the way you’ve always done things, you’re giving
a much bigger voice to folks who are receiving services, you’re granting
leadership to them, you’re losing some control yourself, and that’s hard
work. The results make it all worthwhile, but you have to stay intentional
about working with these concepts every day and keeping them fresh in your
DeVol, P. E. (2006). Getting ahead in a just gettin’-by world:
Building your resources for a better life (2nd ed.). Highlands, TX: aha!
Payne, R. K., DeVol, P. E., & Dreussi-Smith, T. (2006). Bridges out
of poverty: Strategies for professionals and communities (3rd ed.).
Highlands, TX: aha! Process.
Jesse Conrad interviewed Michael Saccocio
for this article and co-edited From Vision to Action in his work for
aha! Process where he has been an editor since 2003. He lives in DeKalb,
Michael Saccocio is the executive director
of City Mission of Schenectady, New York. Saccocio has been deputy mayor of
Schenectady, played professional baseball with the Montreal Expos, and he and
his wife, Carol, live in Glenville, New York.
Poverty 101: What Liberals and Conservatives
Can Learn from Each Other
By: David Kuo
The 21st Century has already begun with a radical new welfare system that
fundamentally changes how America cares for her poor, dependent, jobless, and
abused. The 1996 welfare reform law was the result of a decade of often
dramatic and contentious debate about the proper nature of reform. On the one
side were conservative reformers who demanded work requirements, illegitimacy
prevention, and general de-entitlement. On the other were liberal reformers
who also had an interest in work requirements and better job placement but
wanted to see the essential characteristics of the social safety net remain
The heat of the last debate was often painfully intense, but perhaps the lull
before the next welfare debate begins will afford both camps of reformers the
opportunity to learn from each other—especially when it comes to the hard work
of recreating civil society and a private sector approach to caring for those
individuals in need.
Liberals first. Faith matters. Ironically for a liberal welfare tradition
that had its roots in religious revival, many of today's liberals acknowledge
that religious faith is certainly a matter of importance, while ignoring—or
being actively hostile to—its policy potential as a catalyst for radical
change in people's lives.
During the last welfare debate, for instance, Senator John Ashcroft's
"charitable choice" provision to allow states to contract with private
and religious charitable organizations using federal funds was broadly attacked
by many on the left. Yet its basic purpose was simply to level the playing field
for faith-based not-for-profits.
Overwhelming evidence coming from groups as diverse as the Heritage
Foundation and Public/Private Ventures suggests that faith is not only
important, it may be the factor in determining whether an at-risk child, a
welfare mother, or a convicted criminal is able to turn his or her life around.
It is vital that political liberals embrace this idea. The next year will give
them opportunities to do so: new efforts to encourage this kind of religious
element in welfare include the charity tax credit and further implementation of
charitable choice—type measures.
Conservatives next. Governmental programs can do—and have done—good. In
just the past few —decades, hunger and malnutrition have become far less
serious social problems thanks to food stamps. Where once one out of every three
elderly Americans was in poverty, today that number has dropped to about one in
ten, thanks to the indexing of Social Security benefits and Medicare. These are
social policy successes virtually without parallel.
Despite its well-documented failures, particularly vis-á-vis the family, the
War on Poverty changed the face of poverty. The lesson for conservatives is that
keeping intact a safety net of noncash services for the poor—and especially
for the children—is crucial to preventing future welfare dependency. In a
recent book, What Money Can't Buy, University of Chicago professor Susan
Mayer pointed out that the two most important things determining a child's
future are, first, that his or her basic needs be met, and, second, that he or
she be the child of parents with character. Legislatively, little can be done to
ensure the second. Realistically, improving the delivery mechanisms for programs
like Medicaid so that those who use the services will have better care and
better access should be at the forefront of the conservative agenda.
Liberals need to place more trust in
the private sector. Long skeptical of some conservative claims that the
private sector could replace decades-old government programs overnight, some
liberals appear to believe that the private sector can actually do very
little—while clinging to the belief that true compassion is directly related
to federal spending on welfare. In fact, free market charity and social
entrepreneurism operating without the debilitating effects of government are the
real hopes for making a transformational difference.
Looking to examples like the "He Is Pleased" program in Delaware,
founded by mutual fund magnate Foster Friess, the evidence is apparent that the
social sector is a market like any other—with one difference: here the profit
isn't financial, it is personal. He Is Pleased helps homeless men and women
transition from the streets into full-time employment. Started with venture
capital from Friess several years ago, HIP has already helped about 100 homeless
people change their lives. Grounded in hard work—a 90-day cycle of paid work
cleaning up the city—and tough rules—tardiness is not accepted, drug tests
are mandatory—HIP is a social sector equivalent to micro-corporations like
Apple or Sun Microsystems 20 years ago. It is cutting-edge, it is optimistic,
and it is providing a challenge to established forms of charity. Scores of
programs like these have sprung up across the country—they are the best hope
for change and need to be supported.
Conservatives must not trust blindly
in the private sector. One temptation to which conservatives sometimes
succumb is believing that all government programs are bad and all private
charity programs are good. Both are quite untrue. Conservatives ought not to
paint too rosy a picture of private sector charity. Rhetorically, they asked
Americans to choose between government and charity, HUD or Habitat for Humanity,
HHS or the Red Cross, knowing the answer they would get. But in so doing, they
ignored the reality that many of the biggest and best known
organizations—groups with multibillion dollar budgets and national
recognition—have served as little more than private sector surrogates of the
welfare state. Groups like the United Way, the Red Cross, and Catholic Charities
receive a substantial portion of their funding from the federal government. Not
coincidentally, they also tend to reflect in mission, means, and orientation the
government model of impersonal, bureaucratic, and secular assistance that is a
far cry from the kind of assistance people need. Conservatives who have been at
the forefront of critiquing government should now be at the forefront of
critiquing the private sector—of pointing out the good, the noble, and the
bad. The recently completed National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic
Renewal took a much-needed step in this direction.
Work: The First Step to Beating Poverty
Liberals need to better appreciate the importance of work—all work. Too
often liberals have focused on the availability of "good" jobs to the
exclusion of encouraging employment. Belittling "low-wage" jobs as
demeaning, intentionally or unintentionally they sent a message that work, in
and of itself, is not that important—that only "good" jobs count.
Conservatives, for their part, need to consider the barriers to moving from
welfare to work. Moving to a low-paying job can mean giving up medical benefits
for one's children—a clear systemic barrier to work.
Most studies show that getting and keeping a job, any job, is the most
essential step to beating poverty. Finding and keeping a job provides more than
income. It provides a sense of self-worth and accomplishment. It does something
else as well—it almost guarantees raises. While having focused on job training
and job opportunities, liberals haven't focused enough on putting people to
work—a sort of trial by employment fire. Early evidence from the states seems
to suggest that for many people on welfare, the new welfare law provided the
impetus to change. This is not to say that all have found work or will be able
to, but it is an important lesson—one that, as Governor Thompson of Wisconsin
has shown, sometimes requires state spending.
Poverty: A Grinding Reality
A final thought for conservatives. Poverty in America is real. Some on the
right seem to suggest that poverty is just an invention of the left, that it is
mostly a matter of sloth and bad bookkeeping.
While poverty may not be as life-threatening as it once was, it can still be
dark and desperate. As accounts like There Are No Children Here and Turning
Stones have shown, poverty is not just "poverty," though its ravages
can turn children into "children"—kids who may be chronologically
young but who have seen and experienced life that is beyond the nightmares of
Coming to grips with the reality of poverty in America may be the most
important thing that conservatives can learn from liberals. Certainly it would
change the tone of conservatism. Conservatives will have more success undoing
the welfare state if they abandon arguments asserting that all of America's poor
are either "undeserving" or "nonexistent."
The hope that liberals and conservatives can take the time to learn from each
other on matters of poverty springs from the common ground they have already
found in the need to strengthen America's civil sector. In just the past
half-decade, politicians, pundits, and professors from across the ideological
spectrum have come to the recognition that the real hope of reform and the true
answers to long-vexing social problems will come from "civil society."
That agreement is rooted in a common appreciation that communities and civic
groups and churches have strengths and abilities beyond the dreams of
government. They are actively and intimately involved in needy individuals'
lives. They share a common code of moral responsibility that provides guidance
and guardrails. They have elements of faith that touch people in a far more
profound way than a check or a voucher.
If this kind of agreement could find a way to grow in the poisonous
atmosphere of the last welfare debate, let us all hope that in this calm after
the storm the two sides will come together even more closely and revivify our