This, “For many poor students, leap to college ends in a hard fall” is a very well-executed piece in The New York Times. It follows three talented, but terribly disadvantaged, girl students who make it into university but then manage to go no further, and it shows why education doesn’t always lead to social mobility; in fact, it very often holds poor people down while further elevating middle-class and upper-class people. How education systems can actively work against the poor is an area of injustice I find deeply concerning because it is frequently ignored.
By now, almost every policy-maker can acknowledge the returns to education as a social investment, but what they don’t always appreciate are the ways in which poor people find the path through education more difficult to navigate than do students from more wealthy families. Not because they’re somehow less canny, but because the institution is rigged against them. The concept of not being able to afford university fees is something most people can grasp, but the other kinds of barriers poor kids face in getting an education can easily look like disinterest, a lack of motivation, and mindless self-sabotage from the outside. This is dangerous when it comes to policy-making.
Reading that article by Jason DeParle I am struck by the number of times a lack of social capital (ie. inside knowledge and the prerogative to use it) disadvantages these three students as they try to succeed. Social capital is a type of capital that tends to get inherited and locked down by class. It can be difficult to observe because it won’t show up in a tax return. My own single-parent family lived below the poverty line while I was going through high school and university but we had one big advantage – my mother had come from a well-to-do family and she had the social capital from those beginnings to know how to navigate the system and to feel entitled to do so when push came to shove. I don’t want to down-play how difficult I found my time growing up in poverty or how lasting its effects have been for me, but social capital is a type of advantage I’ve seen up close and been gifted.. and I will never under-estimate it.
Some of the big policy messages coming out of that article in the New York Times include:
- low-income kids lack social capital which would otherwise help them navigate educational institutions and their place in them;
- low-income kids need to earn money while also studying full-time;
- low-income kids often have to leave their community and family to go to a good university and therefore encounter emotional disadvantage;
- low-income kids often provide the unpaid care services their families require at the expense of their own education and needs (and low-income families are less able to pay for therapies they need and so rely more heavily on unpaid care work in their own families, plus, being poor is stressful and physically depleting);
- low-income kids try not to achieve too much academically in order to protect their families from further expenses and a sense of rejection;
- low-income kids are expected to adapt to the culture and lifestyle of high-income kids when they attend university;
- low-income kids are disadvantaged by not being able to afford the extra-curricula help that high-income kids receive with their education;
- low-income kids go into debt to pay off their education but with the risk of lower chances of graduating and consequently lower chances of gaining a high salary job to pay off their debt;
- low-income kids are more likely to see education as a ‘selfish’ pursuit on their part; and,
- low-income kids lack a safety net when things go wrong.
And here are some recent Australian examples where similar experiences are holding poor children back in education – “Children hide poverty to protect parents, study finds”:
”Their demands were incredibly modest,” the nation’s leading poverty researcher, Peter Saunders of the University of NSW, said.
The study is the first in Australia to hear children’s accounts of what it is like growing up poor. Almost 100 young people from 11 to 17 were interviewed, as well as teachers and parents.
The children’s tendency to deny wanting what other children ordinarily had was a way to ”protect themselves from the pain of missing out and their parents from the anguish of having to say no”, the report said…
… The children felt keenly that their parents were not respected by school staff. Many were bored by and disengaged from the curriculum, and they were frustrated with teachers who could not maintain discipline and didn’t seem to care. The children appreciated enthusiastic teachers and meaningful curriculum but ”this type of opportunity for learning was too often missing from young people’s accounts of school”.
The increasing trend for schools to impose ”user pays” levies for some activities was also detrimental. One parent reported her fury at the discovery, after four years, that the school had a fund to help. Professor Saunders said the schemes were not widely advertised for fear that demand would outstrip supply.
Ms Chambers said some parents were keeping their children home from school on days they couldn’t afford to put food in their lunchbox, and often missed meals themselves to ensure their family was fed.