Sunday, June 14, 2009

The cost of poverty

I've always wondered why someone like Michael Jordan could walk into a restaurant and get a free meal, but someone who is homeless would be required and demanded to pay full price.

There is nothing easy about being poor.

Being poor takes extra money. Being poor takes extra intelligence. Being poor takes extra determination. Being poor takes extra time. But nothing is set up in our system to allow that extra money, intelligence, determination, or time.

When I was young, my mother used to watch for bargains and stock up. She stocked up and stored it all in our basement or in our multiple freezers. I still follow her philosophy. But I realize people who only have a set amount of money each month and a small apartment can't afford to get ahead like that. They have to buy what's available at the time, which is often more expensive.

The intelligence needed is astounding to me--especially in light of the poor way schools in low-income areas often operate. This summer we are trying to utilize free software available on the internet. We want the kids to realize we are using tools that they have access to without spending money they don't have. However, each free tool takes extra plug-ins and takes a huge amount of knowledge to figure out what other program(s) you have to have to convert the file into a readable format. It would be so much easier to use software we pay for.

Which leads to my point about determination...and refers back to my point about the time it takes to be poor. A person has to be extremely determined to figure out how these tools work...which also takes a lot of time. If a person is working, has a family, hasn't been equipped with even a base-knowledge of technology or education, this determination seems pointless. It would be very easy to give up and exist at what is already known.

Finally, it takes extra time to be poor. One of my friends has been poor for some time now. But she doesn't believe in government assistance. After looking for a job for several months, she decided she would have to resort to being considered "low-income" and went to the office to apply. She explained that they asked her for her life story and they require her to keep going for appointments. Without a car, those hours spent on the bus and in the welfare offices add up to a lot of time spent away from job search and family.

As I am reading Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence book, I realize there is another cost of poverty. There is an emotional cost. And that emotional cost feeds all of the other areas.

A lot of the parents I know speak with short, frustrated commands. They are tired of years of struggle and that struggle gets passed on to their children. They work or go to school all day and don't have the energy or desire to deal with a crying baby or, when the children are older, to take their children places...even if those places are free. When a parent is too frustrated to have empathy toward their children, the children learn to avoid expressing emotions that would need empathetic responses. The reflection of these responses begin in a child's infancy.

Emotional neglect has cyclical effects. It dulls empathy skills but can also result in hyper-sensitivity to emotions and comments of those around them, causing children to react defensively and in anger to comments that could have been resolved easily.

The combination of all of the above often results in a downward spiral. The children who achieve in spite of are those with amazing resilience and are the exceptions to the rule.

The solutions are complex. We have a lot of work to do. We must create learning environments that inspire a release of creativity and allows kids to get lost in their passions. We need to do a much better job of educating children and providing them with opportunities to grow and explore. We need to think through our current society that raises prices in low-income areas and lowers prices in higher income communities.

The emotional toll has huge consequences to all of us. Goleman sites a higher rate of crime from those who have these emotional voids. It is not a problem for those who are poor; it is a problem for all of us. We all must work together to solve it.
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