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The lack of access to quality education, especially among underprivileged youth, is preventing millions of people worldwide from escaping the cycle of educational inequality and poverty. Looking around the campuses of Ivy League schools, one wonders how students from such diverse backgrounds ultimately wound up at the same places. What privileges did they benefit from or what obstacles did they overcome to make it there? For some, cultural and economic capital were key factors, along with grades and test scores. For others, mentors and special programs played critical roles in unlocking opportunities.
In this essay, I will explore what it means to be a student in poverty and how poverty limits educational opportunities. By examining a wide variety of sources, including the stories of several individuals and experts, I hope to offer a well-rounded perspective on the state of educational inequality for youths.
Despite being one of the most developed countries in the world, the United States has one of the highest rates of childhood poverty and does not have effective solutions to combat it, although multiple programs and organizations are in place.
Children raised in poverty face a number of disadvantages, especially when it comes to education. Poverty reduces a child’s readiness for school because it leads to poor physical health and motor skills, diminishes a child’s ability to concentrate and remember information, and reduces curiosity and motivation. Often, when parents have little to no education, their children will follow in their footsteps because they are not aware of what opportunities exist.
Even if poor children are motivated and perform well in their schools, they lack the resources to afford better schools and lack the knowledge to seek out sources of financial aid. Many educational institutions offer need-based scholarships; however, it is not well advertised for students to take advantage of. Without a decent education, it is difficult to break the cycle of generational poverty and lead rewarding, productive lives.
The term “poverty” must first be defined, so that we are clear on the pool of individuals to be discussed in this essay. According to Economic and Political Weekly’s definition, poverty is a combination of income poverty, human development poverty, and social exclusion. This holistic definition emphasizes the vulnerability of the poor and places some responsibility for mitigating poverty on society. It describes an extreme form of poverty, especially when all these elements of deprivation coexist. Lacking in cultural, economic, and social capital, children in poverty, ages eighteen and under, have greater needs than “underprivileged” children. Lacking Bourdieu’s forms of capital, students are automatically at a disadvantage based on circumstances that they and their caretakers have limited ability to control.
The first dimension of poverty concerns income level. Traditionally, poverty has been viewed as “the lack of income or purchasing power to secure basic needs” (85, Sengupta). A simple absolutist interpretation would be to fix a minimum daily amount of calorie intake from food necessary for survival in a reasonably healthy condition, supplemented by some minimum amount of non-food items (such as clothing and shelter) that are essential for social existence. Income poverty can also be seen in a relativist way. Basic needs may be met depending on the sociocultural norms of a country, so that even while a person's income covers the requirements of subsistence and essential consumption, they may be regarded as poor if their income does not allow access to goods and services required to satisfy sociocultural norms. In simple language, poverty according to this definition is relative and can only be identified within a specific sociocultural context.
Alternatively, poverty can be defined in terms of income distribution. The distinction between poverty and extreme poverty would be a question of degree. The book $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn L. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, follows the stories of families in the lowest poverty belt in America and observes how they survive day to day living off barely anything. Edin and Shaefer found that a low-wage labor market fails to provide living wages, and with that comes a secretly growing tool box of survival strategies from America’s poor. They discuss the differences between types of people in poverty and what classifies them as such. Until 2011, only poverty at $16.50/day and extreme poverty at $8.50/day had been studied. Edin and Shaefer found that the absolute lowest poverty level, at $2/day, had never been considered.
In 2011, 1.5 million households with three million children lived on $2 a day per person, an amount that seems unlivable to most. In 2012, the team began ethnographic studies in cities across the country, such as Chicago, Cleveland, a city in the Appalachian region, and villages in the Mississippi Delta. In each of these areas, it was not difficult to find families surviving on cash incomes of no more than $2 per person, per day. The authors conducted a longitudinal study in hopes of finding solutions to better the participants’ circumstances. They found first-hand evidence that income inequality and welfare had not improved in the past 40 years. Their study exposed new evidence contributing to the national debate on income inequality.
Because the income distribution definition of poverty describes poverty in terms of access to and availability of goods and services, extreme poverty would mean the command over a much smaller section of goods and services and the prevalence of a longer duration of poverty. If a group of people remain poor for generations, they can be described as suffering from chronic poverty and can be considered as extremely poor (86, Sengupta). People affected by chronic poverty over generations are expected to behave in a particular manner or play a specific role in which they should not deviate from. This behavior is different from the behavior of people with higher incomes. People afflicted by chronic poverty often become socially excluded and feel like they are trapped in a never-ending cycle.
According to Sengupta, the discourse on poverty has moved far beyond the income criterion in the last two decades. A second dimension of poverty concerns the deprivation of human development. Poverty is defined as not only economic hardship, but also social, cultural and political deprivation. Extreme poverty is regarded as severe deprivation of human development.
The third dimension of poverty is social exclusion. Social exclusion affects the level of human development and often the level of income, just as income and human development influence social exclusion. It is the relational aspect of social exclusion that adds a distinct value in identifying problems associated with poverty. This social exclusion impacts people’s ability to reproduce, get jobs, have a social circle, and even do some of life’s most simple tasks, such as going to the grocery store. Aside from malnutrition and lacking funds to purchase food, social alienation is arguably the direst consequence of poverty because it reinforces the cyclical nature of the problem by influencing every aspect.
An example of when all of these forms of capital come into play is exhibited in Shamus Kahn’s book Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School. Khan reflects on his experience at St. Paul’s High School and how his socioeconomic standing affected his social and academic life. The causes leading up to Khan’s enrollment and his experience as a minority in his community left a permanent imprint on him and had a profound impact on his schooling. Although some may have seen him as an unprivileged person of color in his childhood, he was considered more affluent in the context of his community at St. Paul’s. The fact that he had a darker skin tone and his parents were from villages in Indian subcontinents meant nothing compared to his neighbors, who were brought up in worse conditions. Khan recounts how at St. Paul’s there were separate residence halls for people of color and wealthier upper-class people.
Although the school had tried multiple times in the past to integrate rooming, it hadn’t worked. Students of color were continuously treated differently, and there was nothing they could do about it. Khan writes, “Non-white students were sequestered in their own space, just like most of them were in their ethnic neighborhood back home” (2, Khan). Khan shows that even as time goes on, people continue to believe the same things they were taught when they were younger. Because the wealthy white kids grew up in a segregated neighborhood, they expected the same conditions in high school and beyond. This shows that is it difficult to make change when societal norms are firmly fixed in place. Khan’s experience at his school emphasizes the social capital necessary to have academic success in a place, and his paucity of social connections and knowledge of elite social norms could have been a disadvantage to him.
In the chapter “The New Elite,” Khan begins to delve into his experience as a teacher by recalling a conversation he had with a student, Chase Abbott, who came from well-to-do family, all of whom attended St. Paul’s. Chase represents the class of individuals who take elite schooling for granted because it is a seen as a birthright and not as something that is earned. Khan writes about his own family, saying “My parents did what many immigrants do: they played cultural catch-up” (2, Khan). The pressures of getting an elite education pushed many families to find means of supporting their children in more extreme ways than ever before. This “cultural catch-up” is part of the tool box people used in $2 a Day. Khan then talks about the school system and how as long has something is considered “fair,” it is considered just. The standards for equality were very low in the schools that Khan experienced. “The source of my discontent was my increasing awareness of inequality,” he writes (4, Khan). Throughout high school and as he conducted his college search, he noticed unfair testing environments and opportunities. For example, wealthy kids were able to enroll in prep courses and take more AP and SAT tests, whereas less fortunate kids were left to lag behind without any help from a tutor or mentor.
Khan then explores the rise and fall of the “old elite.” The old elite were those who inherited their wealth through the generations. They were later replaced by those who took advantage of the revolutions that were occurring in western Europe and the United States. Khan points to specific examples such as the Armory in New York’s Upper East Side, a clear indication of division of classes as the old elite tried to protect themselves against the rise of the middle class. This was a physical barrier between the two classes. Following prominent schools such as Phillips Exeter and Andover, St. Paul’s emerged in the latter half of the 19th century to provide isolation for the offspring of the elite class. Although St. Paul’s began with only three courses, Latin, Greek, and Mathematics, as well as a deep commitment to religious studies, it rapidly became a well-renown institution for children of the upper classes.
Additionally, characteristics of the elite were knowing high culture and engaging in sports, such as golf, tennis, or rowing. The value of formal dinners at elite schools, he says, are to teach what cocktail attire is and how to present oneself in that kind of environment. A seemingly minor point like how to eat a fancy meal helps reveal people of different social classes. Children who do not attend schools that offer this kind of cultural learning do not prepare kids for having elite jobs in the future. Even though this may seem unimportant, schools play a major role in teaching this. Because underprivileged students are not taught these cultural behaviors and expectations, when invited to a high-caliber event they do not know how to act, or they are not invited to those events at all. In this way, access begets access, reducing opportunities for social and economic advancement for people from lower classes.
The mark of the elite in the 19th and 20th centuries was having luxury time. Today, the mark of many elite is being constantly busy. In Khan’s book, he found that the poor value family time and playing outside more than the elite, while the elite value activity and constant stimulation. These differing characteristics between socioeconomic classes matter because they affect how educational opportunities are valued and utilized. In Early Care and Education for Children in Poverty: Promises, Programs, and Long-Term Results by Barnett and Boocock, Barnett gives grade retention the emphasis as 'outcomes' of preschool. In the past, arguably too much attention has centered on IQ and other test scores, with little notice taken of how preschool children fare in terms of school progress (567, Barnett et al). Scholarships are offered to poor students who demonstrate high academic achievement, but once they arrive at school, they have to continue to prove themselves and never feel at ease with their intellectual status. Khan admits that poor students do more homework and actually read all of the material because they see this [experience] as an opportunity, whereas other more elite students just see this as an average day.
The core of Khan’s argument focuses on the marked transition of classes in education. He looks at how St. Paul’s (many years ago) ostracized kids who were the poor minority. Now those kids are the ones who come from families that went to schools like St. Paul’s. A new elite of people who worked their way to the top have emerged.
An instance when all forms capital is lacking is in $2 a Day. For the families in this study, their source of income was nearly non-existent. They had to go to extreme measures to make even the littlest of money. Jessica Compton’s family would have no income if she had not donated plasma twice a week at a donation center in Tennessee. Modonna Harris and her daughter Brianna in Chicago went days with nothing to eat but spoiled milk. Lauren and Devin would have gotten a job if they had finished their college degrees, but they couldn’t complete their schooling due to the lack of financial aid. Instead, almost all families sell something to get by, whether it is scraps of materials found lying around that are turned into a product, or whether it is themselves. Authors make a point that living off $2 a day is a skill in itself. These families and millions of others across the country have found strategies to work around these harsh living conditions.
Families take advantage of public libraries, food pantries and homeless shelters, and collect cans for cash. Still, the nearest food pantry is often miles away, and people have no means of getting there. In addition, even if families qualify for food stamps, single mothers often do not want to be a poor example for their children. There was an interesting element of pride that single parents had; they would rather suffer but be good examples for their children than accept the government’s support and be better fed. Edin and Shaefer noticed a stark difference in the 2012 study from the study done in the 1970s. The cash income flow was drastically different in each case. It seems to be a combination of the fact that the government seemed to offer more financial support 40 years ago and that there are more single parents nowadays accepting less governmental support. From this book, the authors hope to bring awareness to these invisible residents of the U.S. and provide support in ways of jobs opportunities, not necessarily financial gifts. Questions brought up from this book were why were the extreme poor so easy to find.
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