I teach at a small, private college in the Midwest. While it is not the most expensive school in the area, it ain’t cheap. Many, many of my students are quite privileged. But there are some that are not. There are those that are less well off, of course. And then there are those that are poor. Maybe it’s new poverty – the divorced or never married single parent and other family drama induced poverty. Could be the lost my job/had a major illness or accident, and we were only a couple of paychecks away from real trouble poverty. Or maybe it’s familiar poverty, known all the student’s life. Often they are the first in their family to go to college. Often (but not always) they are black and brown.
Lack of money is not the only thing students who are poor need to deal with. Yes, that lack is a pretty basic, tangible part of it. Cities tend to lump poor people together, if they are not in fact pushing them out of the city altogether with gentrification projects. Poor areas of town don’t have the same type of services that wealthier areas have – things like access to good food; a full service grocery store within walking or biking distance that has fresh produce rather than fast food joints and corner stores that sell mostly cigarettes, alcohol, junk food and lottery tickets. A bank that will gladly handle small accounts rather than a pay day loan place. And schools. Schools that have resources enough for every student, resources that are current and relevant and useable. Teachers that have what they need to teach, and the resources both internal and external to teach the children who live there. It seems to me so many poor kids end up hating school because it seems to be a system that hates them first.
Students from these kinds of circumstances are familiar to me. My parents came to the north in the 50’s to escape the poverty imposed by southern segregation. They wanted to find jobs. During that time period, the “good” jobs for men, and, importantly, the ones open to black men, were in the steel and auto industries. My mom worked in childcare, first taking people’s kids into our home, then working in day care centers, and eventually becoming an administrator. As kids, we didn’t have a lot of extras, but we always had what we needed.
But the area of town we lived in, the schools we went to, the lack of services to the part of the city – the black part – that we lived in is also my reality. I went to a poor school where I was richly rewarded basically for staying out of trouble. I was a smart kid and was lucky enough that a couple of influential teachers took notice of me and challenged me to do more than just get by. We had books at home, I had a parent who read to me when I was young and shaped me into being a voracious reader. My mom was college educated herself, and I grew up with the expectation that I would go to college. I have no idea how my family financed my first couple of years of school. We had money enough that I did not qualify for need based aid. My parents helped me as much as they could, but eventually I was on my own. For that reason among others, it took me a long, long time to complete my degree.
A couple of years ago, in my Race and Ethnicity class I overheard a small group discussion that gave me pause. Our school is mostly white, so I usually have at least one or maybe two small groups (out of 6 or 7) that are made up of all white students. This was the case in the discussion I overheard. The students were making the assertion that African American students had it made, because of all the scholarships available to them simply for being black. So me with my ‘never quite poor enough to get a scholarship’ behind sat down with them to give them some facts.
There are assumptions made by students, and others made by faculty and administrators. What often gets interpreted as laziness, or disengagement – I see the product of an underfunded school system. Underfunded because our many of our public schools are supported by property taxes, and this puts schools located in poor districts at a severe disadvantage. I see students who did not read the same things their college classmates did, or go on the same trips, or play the same sports. I see students whose families still count on them for various things, and so they do not have the freedom to do what the other students may have the freedom to do. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t coddle these students. I kick their butts. But I hate that I have to do so. And I hope they know I understand them, and that I have their backs.
I’m worried that in this election cycle, there is much conversation about the middle class. I guess that’s who votes and so that base needs to be covered. But how can either major party say with integrity that they are about change when there is no substantial conversation about the poor?