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Poverty - What It Really Means for a Student

Mike Steele, President and CEO


We all hear the word poverty thrown around a lot. For example: “Poverty is the single biggest predictor of school dropout.” That’s true by the way. But in that context, what does poverty really mean? Well, 2013 federal poverty guidelines say that in a household of three if you make $19,530 or less, you live in poverty. For a four-person household, the number is $23,550. For five people it is $27,570 and so on.

Of those reading this, who among us can envision living at the poverty level? Those are just numbers; scary numbers, but what would that really mean if you are a Communities In Schools student? By the way, 91% of our families “qualify”.

Here is a tiny glimpse at poverty from a child’s perspective - poverty is not a ‘thing’; it is a truckload of things:

On my first day of school – no fresh haircut, no new clothes and no school supplies. No backpack….not much to put in it anyway. A few of the kids at school look really sharp; funny, I feel a little left out.

Nobody home when I get home from school except my little sister. Babysitting until Mom gets home from her part-time, minimum wage job; sometimes she has two jobs. No after school snack. Nobody to help with homework.

On the way home I wondered about food tonight; had a burger from the dollar value menu last night. Not much to fill a growing tummy. Pretty hungry at bedtime.

Bedtime? Well, not technically. No bed, just some blankets and a cushion from the couch on the floor. Sis sleeps on the couch. No A/C so it is kind of hot for sleeping anyway.

Time to go to school. Mom has already left to drop off Sis at aunt Mindy’s, then off to work. For me, off to school early for a good meal. It’s free for me and most other kids at my school. I could eat a horse. Can’t wait for lunch.

Electricity was off one day last week when I got home. The frig smelled really bad. Yuck! Mom must be out of money again. Hope she is okay. I try not to bother her too much.

Dentist came to my school today. Looked in my mouth and sent a letter home to Mom. Need to see a dentist. Never been to a dentist’s office. Probably won’t happen anyway. Doesn’t hurt ALL the time.    

Near the end of the month; hope we don’t have to move again because the rent is due. Ended up at a new school last time. Didn’t know a sole………scary! They moved me back a grade because I was behind. I try not to look at people much. I feel pretty bad about being so dumb. Maybe school is not my thing.

This story could go on, but you see the point. How could we expect a hungry student, with a gum infection, who didn’t get much sleep on the floor; a student who doesn’t have any friends and who worries about the rent and electricity and who feels dumb...to be successful in school?

This is all pretty depressing stuff, but take heart. School-based CIS social workers can help families address some of these obstacles and help students succeed in school and see a more hopeful future for themselves. Most Communities In Schools students come from generational poverty and nobody in their family has ever graduated from high school. Even so, last year 95% of our students graduated to become the first in their family. Graduation alone will open countless doors to these young people; doors that would have closed off opportunities for becoming self-sufficient. Even better news, 76% of CIS students went to some form of post-secondary education after graduation...more doors will open for them. Maybe most importantly, they will have their own children and the educational bar will be set much higher for them. Family trees will change forever.

As a community, the choice is ours. We can bemoan the hopeless state of public education and continue to pick up the public assistance tab for yet another generation, or we can help them become tax-paying citizens who pay their own way. Let me end on a high note. First, kids are amazingly resilient and second, this is not hopeless or cost prohibitive. Communities In Schools has been changing family trees all over America with remarkable consistency for decades. Working in partnership with schools, we can do this...and we will.

 

Mike Steele
President and CEO

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