‘Don’t tell my mom I told you our lights are off:’ Uncovering the Experiences of Intergenerational Poverty on Children

“Poverty has an oversized footprint in rural Georgia,” according to the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education “Top Ten Issues to Watch in 2020;” and rural low-income families and children are carrying the weight of poverty with them into the classrooms. 

Children’s self identity and esteem is being molded by poverty conditions. 

Young people growing up in poor communities are generally alert to inequalities and injustices and to their own disadvantaged situations (Chapter 11 by Gillian Mann; Bissell 2009; Canfield 2010; or Witter). Research indicates that children perceive inequalities as indicative of wider differences in power and position. Moreover, children’s sense of agency and self efficacy, comparisons to their peers and ways of coping and adapting to the condition of being poor impacts their self identity, health, school performance and aspirations. They take on roles and responsibilities for managing hardship and risk related to their impoverished living conditions. 

Measures of self-efficacy, a sense of inclusion, self-esteem and educational aspirations all correlate with measures of the material well-being of the family in which they are growing up. These circumstances shape these wider dimensions of child well-being that ultimately affect them as adults and shape their future socio- economic status.

Mitigating poverty is a social and moral imperative. 

In a 2015 article by Rosenbaum and Blum entitled “How Healthy Are Our Children?,” the researchers denote that “the best way to promote children’s health today is to mitigate poverty, invest in education, and make our neighborhoods and communities healthier and safer.” (Rosenbaum & Blum, 2015).  They further believe that “poor health is disproportionately associated with poverty, as well as with minority status and residence in single parent households, the same households that are most likely to face deep and entrenched poverty.”

Social, emotional challenges of being poor are evident in the early learning years and such challenges manifest later in their K-12 experiences and beyond into adulthood. In other words, children as young as 1 to 3 years old who are met with social, economic, and health challenges will, in turn, be met with language challenges that further stunts their educational opportunities.  According to Sharkins, Leger and Ernest, “young children living in economically disadvantaged environments often begin school with fewer basic academic and social–emotional skills” (2016). 

Most children who suffer from poverty struggle with their academics as well. “These children are more likely to experience multiple family transitions, move frequently, and change schools. The schools they attend are less well funded, and the neighborhoods they live in are more disadvantaged” (Wagmiller & Adelman, 2009). The parents of these children have fewer resources to invest in their education, and are often occupied with survival: providing housing and food for their children. 

Geography is destiny for many children in poverty.

Upon examining the geography of opportunity, one can readily see evidence of concentrated disadvantages of poverty by zip code from the cradle to the grave covering housing, healthcare, quality early childhood education, ecological and environmental factors, food desserts, absence of public goods, living wage jobs, high rates of in-school discipline, expulsion and incarceration, transportation to elder care. In short, geography is destiny.

Thus, our concern must reach beyond test performance and grades. Empathy, kindness, peacefulness, responsibility, self-control, and perseverance are a few social, emotional traits demonstrated by students in K-12 learning environments. However, when you factor in poverty, such emotions and the ability to socialize may be compromised and compounded.  Teachers and parents alike must provide the support needed to help students handle the challenges of poverty. “Children who do not learn how to self-regulate their behaviors to respond appropriately to others’ needs and demands and to navigate the slippery slope of transitions will likely fall behind in school and struggle throughout their lives.” (Buckley, 2015).

We should be very concerned that Dougherty County; Georgia has five schools on the GOSA Chronically Failing Schools list: Morningside Elementary School, Alice Coachman Elementary School, Northside Elementary School and Turner Elementary — concerned to the point of collective action.

Broaden focus of child poverty.

“Evidence argues for broadening the focus of child poverty reduction to include the psychosocial costs of lacking the culturally specific resources required for full participation in society.” (Crivello, Camfield & Porter 2010). Maslow‘s Hierarchy of Needs is a theory that proposes three levels of needs desired for humans. It states that basic needs (physiological and safety), psychological needs (esteem, belongingness and love), and self fulfillment needs exist one at a time, in that order. This was later proven to hold error in that our esteem and self efficacy is not dependent on if our physiological needs are met. In like manner, we must help children to reach their full potential even if other needs are not met. Without doing so, we risk an enormous loss of human capital as we see a “failure to thrive” in multiple generations mired in poverty. Therefore, teachers, schools and communities must take a multistakeholder approach in finding solutions that inure to the benefit of us all. 

Only a multistakeholder approach stands a chance at changing current conditions.

This is a clarion call for parents, teachers, healthcare providers, business and industry, multi-faith community, researchers and policymakers to make evidence-based decisions and take action now to reduce the barriers caused by wealth-related inequality. R WEUIOP[]Pesearch shows that high ability poor students eventually show learning gaps when compared to peers from higher income households.

Positive reinforcement encourages children to continuously display good behavior for great rewards. School extracurricular activities teach discipline, reward work and self confidence. The arts, extramural sports, volunteer groups and student government, alongside after school programs have a positive effect. Children thrive in environments that support their ability to excel in their ambitions and what is in their power to control.

The Center for Educational Opportunity at Albany State University mission is  to advance educational research in order to strengthen and empower fragile communities, from the bottom-up. Center for Educational Opportunity staff contributed to this opinion. ctrforeduopp@gmail.com