Low income lifestyle stresses child development

By Miranda Wilder
On May 2, 2014

Poverty within low-income areas is a countrywide phenomenon that not only affects childrens development, but also in some cases forms the basis for a life ridden with struggle, poor education, little income and low self-esteem. 

"Growing up in a poor family typically has detrimental consequences on children's health, educational attainment and earnings later in life," said Beth Mattingly, Carsey Institute's Director of Research on Vulnerable Families.

Elyse Hambacher, an education professor at the University of New Hampshire, has spent much of her adult life researching these effects of growing up in high-poverty areas and how the structure of the public school system - particularly in urban areas - is deeply flawed in more ways than one. 

"I think a lot of times, teachers fear what they don't know," she said. "So I think when they see negative images, stereotypes about certain people in the media, they unconsciously apply that to what they think about students . . . The [stereotypical] fear of African-American males may lead to teachers feeling that they fear those very young students."

It is not as if teachers purposefully discriminate against certain races or stereotypes, but as Hambacher puts it, it is impossible for anyone to be completely unbiased whether they realize it or not.

"Are we warmer to certain students than to other students?" she said. "I think most teachers aren't aware. It all goes back to our assumptions about what children can achieve and what certain groups of children can achieve."

There are specific instances that Hambacher has witnessed in her career where teachers will play unintentional favoritism by calling on students who they know will be able to answer the question, rather than giving students who may need more time the chance to think it through and get the answer for themselves, which may leave them feeling discouraged or inadequate.

Growing up in the incredibly urban city of Miami, much of Hambacher's research has naturally focused on poverty in urban areas. As a child, she was part of the Magnet program, one that exists in certain predominantly colored public schools, designed to better integrate all races.

"It has to do a little with where I'm originally from," Hambacher said. "Living in Miami, being bussed into a predominantly Haitian community, I was able to see those disparities firsthand. So that also got me interested in why poverty exists."

Hambacher completed her graduate degree in 2013 from the University of Florida in 2013. Now that she is located in New Hampshire, she has begun to explore how more rural areas are affected by poverty.

"I haven't really been immersed in these rural areas," she said. "A lot of folks talk about the deep-seeded poverty that there is." 

According to Hambacher, there is surprisingly much more economic decline in New Hampshire than she would have expected, particularly in the county of Coos, located in the northern part of the state. There are a number of reasons that contribute to this economic decline, including factories closing and people moving in search of more prosperous jobs and incomes. 

Rural areas sometimes have the disadvantage of being located in food deserts, or locations that lack access to the same amount of food an urban area may contain. Not all families are able to regularly obtain groceries, especially if they have no method of transportation.

"When you're in a rural area, the grocery store might be 20 miles away," Hambacher said. "If you're in these sort of food deserts, it becomes really difficult finding nutritious food to feed your family. They don't have these kind of options where they can buy fresh produce."

It is easier for low-income individuals to move around more freely in urban areas, as it is likely that there will be jobs available much more prominently in a city than a farm town. With rural poverty, however, it is more complex. Children are born into this poverty cycle in which families have low-paying jobs or may not have jobs at all. Considering they live in such rural areas, they are less likely to relocate and find available work. This tends to be a problem with rural areas, as generation after generation cycles through this constant state of poverty, incapable of affording to move, but unable to work due to job scarcity.

"One similarity [between rural and urban areas] is lack of healthcare," Hambacher said. "Women are unable to get prenatal care . . . Sometimes the first time they see a doctor is right when they go into labor."

In fact, children are oftentimes affected by poverty long before they are even born.

"For starters, things such as poverty cause stress in the mom who then has to work extra time to make ends meet and then neglects her child's needs because she's gone or too exhausted," said Barbara White, also a faculty member at UNH who researches the effects of poverty in early childhood development. "But what is more profound and difficult has to do with how early stress gets into and under our skin-it changes us." 

Basically, children who have developed in overly stressful situations, particularly situations of poverty, have a disadvantage from before the time they begin kindergarten. 

According to White's research, children who have survived through these conditions of poverty in utero statistically are more prone to illness. 

"They catch colds and other stuff more easily because their immune system is less able," she said. "Early stress can change the way your brain works and make children less neuro-developmentally capable." 

In other words, a pregnant mother's strain from living in poverty can cause serious disabilities in her child later on in life, including a possibly low IQ, autism, ADHD or other learning disabilities. 

Poverty does not only cause certain biological strains on children from a young age, but the public school environment that exists in many low-income areas has great impact on the future of these children and adolescents' success. 

"These really good teachers understand their circumstances, but they don't see poverty as an excuse for why they can't succeed," Hambacher said. 

As for the diversity of public schools in America, this can be both a good and bad thing. 

"More and more of our society is becoming increasingly diverse, especially in urban areas," Hambacher continued. "They're children of color, they're different from the way their teachers were brought up."

This is called a cultural disconnect. Something a teacher might consider misbehaving during school hours may be completely acceptable for a student to do at home. A student from a different ethnic background may consider his actions normal because that is the way he has been brought up, whereas a teacher may have different behavioral expectations in class. This causes frustration on the teacher's part, and discouragement and possible misunderstanding on the student's part. 

"The teacher in the classroom is the one that has the power," Hambacher said. "Maybe the student is rocking back and forth in his chair or getting up without permission. That might be fine at home, but the teacher perceives the student to be acting up." 

Hambacher even suggests that for some, the punishments or consequences that are dished out more frequently than the meals some of these kids don't eat, contribute to the school to prison pipeline. The direct similarities between public school policy and the current jail system are strikingly prevalent and cause some controversy as to whether school districts are doing it right. 

"Think about who's in our jails," she said. "Mostly African-Americans or people of color or Latinos. [They're] taking young people of color, giving them suspensions, expelling them from school and feeding them into the pipeline."  

Hambacher recalls her days working as a young teacher in the principal's office. A girl brought a nail clipper to school and was suspended for 10 days because it was considered a weapon. Hambacher worries that instances like these might send the wrong message to young teens, aggravating the situation rather than helping it. 

"It's just kind of warped," she said. "It's why some people say school is really like prison. A bell tells you where to go. You stand in lines. I think that some schools like to pretend that they're unaware of it." 

She feels that in some cases, this predisposes kids to feelings of failure. She says that the reason it is so common to see colored people pursuing careers in sports is because that's the only image they have seen for much of their lives. 

"African-American males excel in sports because I think they don't see their race being represented [anywhere else], but they do in sports so that's what they aspire to be," Hambacher said. "If you are implicitly telling them that they can't excel at academics, they feel they can only be good at sports . . . If you don't see your role models doing great things, you think, 'I can't do that.'" 

The fact that children attending public school in low-income areas don't have the same access to education, such as extracurricular programs, music lessons, sporting events and other resources automatically puts students of poverty at a disadvantage. 

For a time, Hambacher taught English at a public school in Japan, where the diversity between classes was kept to a minimum. 

"Even though there were differences between income levels in families, the Japanese do the best they can to mask it," she said. "They have these rules where every child has to wear a uniform; they all have the same or pretty similar shoes, they have to come to school with the same backpack, they have to eat the school lunches. Everyone is the same . . . You can't really tell which child comes from rich or poor." 

Hambacher found this method of public schooling, like most school systems, to have both benefits and drawbacks. This way, no child felt left out because he/she wasn't eating a five-star lunch prepared by a personal chef, and no one had to attend school in terribly shabby clothes compared to some of the expensive brands wealthier children may wear outside school. She did find, however, that there wasn't much room for individuality. 

"In our culture, we value critical thinking and self expression," she said. "I feel that in Japan, they don't value that as much." 

Without the freedom to look and act as an individual, Hambacher feels there wouldn't be nearly as much creativity and collaboration on unique projects or ideas. That does not change the fact, however, that she as well as many of the teachers she has worked with throughout her career, sense a need for reevaluation, reform and change. 

"I don't think that there's a pre-packaged solution," she said. "You don't do one, two and three, and everything is done. I think one of the important things is for teachers to do a little self-reflection . . . We need to make mandatory talking about these problems." 

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