Poverty, Education, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and the Unlovely Poor

I found this comment to a Bob Herbert column by a teacher who works at a school attended mostly by poor whites. I'm excerpting it in full as comments have a tendency to disappear into the ether, but also because I don't think many people have (fortunately) any idea what poverty really means for educational outcomes. The comment, followed by a comment about Rebecca Skloot's book (italics mine):

As a teacher in a low income, mostly white, school district, 'the poor' are not an abstract concept to me; they are my students. I see first hand what poverty does and it's not just - as the wealthy imagine - give you less money, My students are homeless, sleeping on benches. My students have arrest records, from blowing things up or burning things down. Their parents are in jail, or abandoned them, or they abuse them, or - on the other side of the spectrum - they work three shifts. The kids are poorly fed and poorly supervised. THey don't sleep properly and are often up until 3:00 playing some video game. They should be on medication but their parents can't afford it; recently my student with Bipolar disorder came in off the wall, late, with no explanation why. Her mom had apparently abruptly taken her off of her medication because she 'didn't like the side effects' and now they're searching for another doctor to proscribe another medication (this is what she says) and 'that might take a few weeks.' For some reason, this is a common story in the school--parents taking their kids off medication abruptly with no transitional plan. I don't know why. But it's horrible for the kids. Of course many kids don't have health insurance and medication is expensive, so there are many kids who can't take ADHD medication when they need it badly, or have migraines (a very common occurence) but take ibuprofin, or have asthma. Many families (not all) don't value college and their goal is for their child to graduate high school; a D- is fine. This is stated point blank. And it's true, if your goal is either to just graduate or to go to community college, which after all, is all they can afford.

Our school, based on their very low property taxes, is literally falling apart. We have rat, mice and cockroach infestations, no supplies, no technology other than ten year old computers. The room is freezing right now (heat is very poor--cold air comes out of the vents!) and in May it'll be boiling hot--no air conditioner or fans, no circulation.

This is poverty.

The kids look around and say, "We suck."

This is the message they get, all the time, at home, at school.

Our wealthy politicians abandon them with their top down slogan-based attack on teachers, as though threatening and bullying us will somehow magically get the kids to perform better on corporate tests (as if the tests matter, but that's another story). As if we teachers are not already in the trenches and we need to be whipped to do our job--that's the wealthy approach: ignore the very existence of poverty, ignore the very serious effects of poverty, which are global, and pretend that all we need to do to solve the problem is threaten to fire teachers. Yes, that'll eradicate poverty and its impact. Their other solution is to pull out the cream of the crop, the ones without arrest records and without violence, with parents who feed them and are able to get them medication, and put them in a privately funded charter, spending far more per child than we can, and then, IF they do better (many don't) they tout this as some sort of solution. Um....what about the unlovely poor? What about them? What about the students I teach.

We cannot ignore poverty or pretend there are easy quick fixes such as threatening teachers (of all people). This is a very, very serious issue with enormous repercussions. Poverty is a host of problems, not merely 'no money.' It's difficult to read that Mr Obama has hired yet another Corporate/Wall Street insider to stand at the helm. Surely there are bright people who haven't worked in either Chicago politics and/or worked on Wall Street. The media - besides you, Bob- very often abdicates its responsibility. Yesterday it reported glowingly on what a hard worker this guy is. Wow. And there are no other hard workers out there? To illustrate how hard a worker he was, they said they could ask him a question at 4:00 am because he was awake and at work. Well, I'm awake and working at 4:00 am, and my poor students are awake all the time. And the ones with functional parents who work three shifts--well, they know the meaning of 'hard work.' I'm disgusted by our politicians of both stripes and their race to plutocracy and abandonment of their duty to most of the nation as civil servants.

Clearly, value-added testing, merit pay, and personnel management (i.e., union busting) are the solutions here. (Something about looking for your keys under the streetlight comes to mind...)

One of the things I haven't really seen discussed in all of the talk about the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the hard life many of Lacks' descendants. Some are doing well, but several are simply not functioning well. A heartless bastard would consider them to be hopeless screwups--"the unlovely poor." A decent person would realize that child abuse, sexual abuse, untreated mental illness, inadequate education, risk for exposure to addictive drugs, and chronic health problems--and each of these are all found in some of the people described in the book--are just damn difficult, if not impossible, to get out from underneath. And these things feed back into each other too.

I raise Skloot's book because I think she did an unsung and superb job of illustrating poverty--and did so in a way that was accessible to an audience that might not otherwise read about it.

At this point, someone will say, "Well, how do you fix poverty?" Not easily, but we can lessen many of the problems. We can provide adequate facilities, books, materials. We could seriously grapple with the inaccessibility of higher education for the poor. We could have a healthcare system that focuses first on patients, not rent extraction. We could provide adequate mental health services (consider the events of last weekend)

We could do those things, but, sadly, I'm pretty certain we won't, given the current climate of free-market Randism and 'fiscal austerity.'

So suffer the unlovely poor it is.

More like this

Here's why I'm a 'heartless bastard' about a lot of this:

The choice to commit child abuse or sexual abuse or other shit such as that ultimately belongs to the hypothetical perpetrator. In fact, I would argue that not considering the responsibility of people for their own actions comes off as considering the 'unlovely poor', whatever the hell that means, as pets or something which you coo over.

And not valuing education is just as anti-intellectual as the creobots and such who are not folks who value it in a different way. There's money out there to be had.

I have minimum expectations for the people I encounter, and two of the important ones are valuing education and not being an abusive shit.

People who abuse their children and rape other people can go fuck themselves. I don't care whether they're rich or poor. And they shouldn't get a free pass if they're poor.

People who don't value education can go fuck themselves too for being anti-intellectual shits.

Ultimately, this is a bilateral clusterfuck, not just by the rich folks who impose shit on the poor but also by a lot of said poor.

By Katharine (not verified) on 16 Jan 2011 #permalink

@ Katharine

You are speaking from a position of power. You have every expectation that if you were ever attacked the police and the courts would listen to you and that you would be able to prevent such an event happening to people around you.

You believe you are in control of your life because you have been taught to navigate successfully through everyday life by parents and teachers who were also competent.

Parents cannot teach skills they don't have. They cannot create a stable environment for children when their own lives are unstable.

I realize many people bring heartache on themselves. However I don't believe the sins of the parents should fall on the children. There is no good reason why a civil society cannot provide equal education opportunities for all its children.

As for not valuing education - these parents want their kids to graduate high school! In their world that is success!

Katharine, glad you admit to being heartless. The problem is that choices are not made in a vacuum - an individual's whole life will contribute to the choices they make. If you've been told so often that you've internalised it that you'll never do anything good or worthwhile from birth to death, education doesn't matter. If you're already a bad person, getting drunk and beating your kids doesn't make you much worse. It is much, much harder for someone who's been told they're worth shit to choose to be good, than for someone who's convinced they have great potential. So we need to put into place supportive structures (social and practical) to get people into a position where they are capable of "being good", even under stress.

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 16 Jan 2011 #permalink

Katharine, I recommend you do two things:

1. Read "A Framework for Understanding Poverty" by Ruby Payne (a conservative, if that helps). She does an excellent job bringing poverty to life for those of us who don't "get it." I had the opportunity to her speak in November at the National Middle School Conference in Baltimore and she is truly a brilliant woman. Take her seriously.

2. Watch the movie "Precious." If you have Netflix, it's an instant movie. Granted, this is Black Harlem, but a lot of what you see can be reflected in any poverty. While you're at it, watch "Kids," another movie in the same category as "Precious," but it's White New York instead. Both equally disturbing and should be required watching for those of us with privilege.

I am a person is who is 100% for personal responsibility, but we need to teach HOW to make that happen. That's the key to change in this world. We can't just expect it when all people know is they world that they're in right now.

Katherine does have a limited point. There are people who fuck up their lives through their own fault, and even when there is a support structure, a very few people will continually fail.

I volunteer at a free clinic. Most people who come in and get the help they need, but very often there are those that don't. We have a huge problem with patient compliance. I want to stress that this an absolutely cost-free endeavour to the patient. We provide up to a three month supply of over 60 separate prescription drugs (including insulin). And still, despite being talked to by a doctor, a pharmacist, and nutritionist and psychologist if need be, despite being given detailed instruction sheets (and in the case of diabetics being forced to come in for a special class), and being given the medicine without costing them a dime, some people just can't be bothered to take them properly. Some diabetics just can't remember to monitor their insulin levels. Or refuse to make the changes in their lifestyle that they are capable of making. A number of people return with resurgent infections after not finishing antibiotics. Elderly patients who we make promise to come back in to get vaccinated in flu season don't bother. Etc.

It breaks my heart, but I cannot help but lay blame on these people. The support structure is there, they are just unwilling or incapable of actually using it. As far as I can tell there is no way that we can make this any easier for them. And we can't actually force them. It is a minority case, but it is naive to think it doesn't exist, even if we can't understand what motivates these people.

However, I must stress that R E G is also right:

However I don't believe the sins of the parents should fall on the children. There is no good reason why a civil society cannot provide equal education opportunities for all its children.

This cannot be stressed enough. The only way to keep this problem from perpetuating is by educating and caring for the children. However, the system doesn't work well when people are perfectly willing to screw up their children just as badly as they screwed up themselves. And as long as the nation at large is ignoring them, I despair of this improving. As long as no one cares, the government is going to feel free to strip money and resources from these programs and lay the blame on any scapegoats it can.

Katharine, you are punishing the children for the crime of being abused. You are punishing the children for the crime of having the wrong parents. You are punishing the children for having been raised with low expectations.

The teacher isn't asking you to pity bad parents. But if you aren't blaming the children for their circumstances, why do you think nothing should be done to help the children. *They* are the unlovely poor under discussion, not their parents (who also probably came from horrible backgrounds). How about actually getting the kids the medicines they need to pay attention in school?
Oh-- and the money isn't there for college anymore. My community college has enough funding for 25 work/study jobs, but there are far more students who qualify. The number of classes available are being cut while enrollment grows-- you can be in college and have to wait an extra term, and extra year, or more to get the credential or degree you need, because space in the classrooms doesn't exist.

By Samantha Vimes (not verified) on 16 Jan 2011 #permalink

Rich and middle-class white people rape and abuse their children all the time. We just don't hear about it because privilege = silence. (In my immediate social group, for instance, I can think of only three or four women -- myself among them -- out of twenty or so, who were not raped as children. Of those of us who weren't raped as children, two of us were raped as adults. We are all middle-class white women.)

The kids, as adults, generally have access to therapy, self-help books, and other resources that the poor don't, or don't have the time/resources for -- when you're poor, you don't have the luxury of time to recover from trauma. You self-medicate, if you can, or persevere if you can't. The best you can do when you're poor is immediate, short-term survival: food, shelter, and then anything that makes life more tolerable (television, videogames, cigarettes, alcohol, etc) in an immediate-payback sense.

Katharine(no 1) has a limited - very limited - point, in that there is a very tiny minority who will always fuck up both their life and others' too.

However, a lot of the behaviour mentioned in the article, yes even including child abuse, is learned behaviour. If everyone they know is doing it, this is normal.

Ultimately, a lot of "the unlovely poor" are fucked up because the world/system they live in is fucked up.

As for Katharine's "mimimum expectations", nice for her. Also, I suspect, rather easy for her.

Again, very glad to be living in Europe. It seems that social mobility is now lower in the USA than it ever has been, and if you drop down, the chances of coming back up are not good.

'The Law, in all it's majestic equality, forbids the rich aswell as the poor from sleeping under a bridge, stealing a loaf of bread and begging in the streets...'

... I only hope the Universe, in all her majesty, shows a teetsy bit more empathy and compassion - else there will be an awful lot of 'Katherines' returning to fulfill their physical existence as molluscs...