Poverty’s Effects on Education

These aren’t my words and this isn’t my story.  It was written by a friend of mine who gave me permission to post it.  It’s worth the read.


I won’t go into the details that put my family in this unique situation but I got to experience both ends of the spectrum when it comes to financial security during my childhood years and I can assure anyone that it absolutely has an impact. Up until 5th grade my single mother and I lived with my grandmother and I had no idea that it was actually her and my aunts supporting us. I went to a great school in one of the richest counties in the country. I had plenty to eat and nice clothes to wear, help with homework, and someone to pick me up from school every day. I participated in sports, Girl Scouts, and other activities with friends so I had a normal social life. In 6th grade, my mom moved decided to move away on her own without the help of our family. She married a man she met in rehab, who was a loser in every sense, and had a couple more kids. Without the help from my extended family, I spent the rest of my school years, until I moved out at 16 struggling to even get to school each day. Luckily I already enjoyed learning and was pretty smart on my own without needing much additional help so my education didn’t suffer irreversibly, although I almost couldn’t graduate from sheer lack of attendance. So let me just share some of the things I dealt with trying to get an education while being poor, in no particular order:

Had to drop out of AP Calculus because they required that I buy my own 200$ graphing calculator.

Couldn’t play any school sports because you had to get a physical from a doctor and I hadn’t been to a doctor in years.

I couldn’t stay for anything after school because I had to pick up my baby brother at day care on my way home from school and watch him until mom got home from her many jobs.

Trying to do homework while watching two baby siblings, sometimes overnight when my mom was a 3rd shirt waitress.

Not having enough food to eat and food stamps don’t pay for diapers.

Being evicted every 9 months or so, so constantly having to spend time packing and unpacking.

Once we lived in a skeevy one-room motel (two adults, a 15 year old, toddler, and baby) with prostitutes out front. The owner was always trying to give me candy to come into his back office.

When we didn’t have a car, I had to do all the family grocery shopping myself on foot while mom stayed with babies or vice versa. Everything is 20x harder and longer without a car.

Sometimes living so far away from the school that I had to walk 30 minutes in the dark to the bus stop and then a 45 minute bus ride. That meant leaving my house at 6 am after being up with the baby. I typically slept through first and second period.

Being on the free school lunch program means eating whatever horrid nutrient deprived canned mush they happened to have.

Taking all your laundry to the laundry mat instead of just down the hall.

I started working at 14 on the weekends. By 15 I could work fast food so I was up to 30 hours a week after school also. By 16 I was allowed to work at Disney World so I added that on top of fast food and worked two jobs since I was given a car by my grandparents.

When my parents got evicted this time they moved out of the district but I had a car so it didn’t matter. But then my car broke down and we couldn’t afford to fix it. Since the school bus wouldn’t pick me up out of district I had to take the public bus, but even the first bus of The day at 5:40 got me to school 20 minutes late. After a week the school told me I wouldn’t be allowed to graduate if I was late anymore so I had to move schools in my senior year.

Saved up enough money to get a new car and found a friend that would let me live with them so I could transfer back to my school (the one in my mom’s actual district was terrible and dangerous) only to have someone tell the principal that I wasn’t living at home. They tried to kick me out of the school again saying that it’s illegal to go to a school that isn’t your district so I had to officially move out at 16 and have my mother fill out paperwork agreeing that my friend’s parents could make school-related decisions on her behalf etc etc all so that I could graduate from the safe, good school I had been going to for 4 years.

So, even though all of this was terrible, and I was horribly depressed a lot of the time, and I did a lot of drugs to escape, I am still aware that I benefited significantly from the help of my extended family, a very loving and supportive mother, some great friends, a couple of amazing teachers, a great job that gave me financial security, and a lot of white privilege. Most people, who are truly growing up in real poverty don’t have any of these things on their side. When I was growing up, no one had a computer so that wasn’t a thing yet. We lived in Florida so when we didn’t pay our bills and the power got turned off we weren’t freezing in the Detroit winter. It was always warm enough to walk anywhere I needed to go. We had well water so I was never afraid to drink it. And to top it off, my whole family was healthy so we never had to contend with trying to get health care. These are all things that typically plague people in poverty and the stress put on the kids in these families is immeasurable. When you have to decide between studying for a test or working an extra shift to put food on the table, it’s not even a choice.

And just to add an additional layer to the story, for the past couple years I have been a nanny for a family of two kids. I am now getting to experience the extreme other end of the spectrum in what it’s like for the very wealthy and the privileges that their kids get. I get paid an exorbitant amount of money to just be available to take their kids wherever they need to go and help with homework. They can participate in any after-school activity they want because they have unlimited resources both financially and time-wise because they have me. They go on ski trips, international robotics competitions, chess club, summer camp, national sporting competitions all over the country, they play musical instruments, they have a pool and are certified in CPR, they go camping regularly, debate club, etc. All of these things cost money and require a huge investment of time after school not only from the student but from someone that can drive them all over the place. If anyone thinks for even one second, that these things aren’t giving these kids an advantage in life they are crazy!! It is very well known that involvement in the arts and music helps the brain retain other information as well so the fact that they are so well rounded is already making them smarter. Athletics is making them stronger and healthier and giving them an exposure to teamwork, competition and strategic thinking. And it makes school fun and interesting; it keeps them engaged and exposes them to so many different paths in life. Not to mention the fact that it all goes on the college applications.

If I could boil it all down to one comparison, it would be this: A child in poverty might get a field trip to Central Park as the most special day in their school year and eat a hot dog for lunch (if they brought 2$) Vs. The boy I nanny for went to South America last month for his international robotics world competition finals where he spent a week meeting kids from all over the world, eating amazing food, staying in a hotel and battling actual electronic robots that he spent the semesters building with his own hands along with his team. If you don’t think one of those kids has a vastly different perspective on what his future might contain than the other, you are insane.