Black Boys in Crisis: The Effects of Living in a Low Income Family

In this series, appropriately titled “Black Boys in Crisis,” I highlight the problems facing black boys in education today, as well as provide clear steps that will lead us out of the crisis.

In previous articles in this series, we have looked at large-scale hurdles hampering the advancement of African-American boys, such as housing disparities, lack of employment opportunities for their parents, and the cycle of poverty. Each of these issues is serious and should be addressed at a national level. However, African-American boys also face many challenges closer to home. In fact, parents and the home environment may play the most significant role in the academic success of African-American boys.

Social and Emotional Effects of Low Income

Children who grow up in low-income families are more likely to have stunted emotional and social growth compared to higher-income peers. The home environment of children aged three and under greatly determines how they will behave emotionally as adults. Part of this emotional growth happens during infancy. Parents in poverty, particularly mothers, often suffer from depression, are overstressed, and do not have access to adequate healthcare, making it more difficult for them to bond with their infants. I experienced this firsthand: my mother had significant mental-health issues, and our poverty meant that she was unable to get the health care she needed.

When babies form weak attachments with their primary caregiver, it can lead to a sense of insecurity in childhood and prevent their brains from forming a full range of emotions. Not surprisingly, living in poverty is one of the major predictors of children developing depression as teenagers.

Low-Income Homes and Chronic Stress

Growing up in low-income environments is also linked to chronic stress, a condition that has serious and long-lasting effects on children’s cognitive function, as well as their social and emotional health. Chronic stress is stress that repeatedly occurs over long periods of time. Some of the major causes of chronic stress for low-income children include living in substandard, unsafe, and overcrowded houses and neighborhoods; family instability, such as divorce or loss of a family member; and limited access to resources such as utilities, refrigerators, or ovens. Physical abuse, physical neglect, and sexual abuse are major stressors. Unfortunately, children from low-income environments are more likely than higher-income children to experience at least one of these forms of abuse.

A scientific research study conducted by the University of Rochester on children aged two to four found that children in low-income families were more likely to have excessively elevated or low levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Higher-than-normal cortisol levels can lead to decreased cognitive function, meaning that low-income children could have deficits in memory and problem-solving even before entering kindergarten. In addition to abnormal cognitive function, chronic stress is linked to difficulty concentrating and paying attention, loss of motivation and perseverance, decreased creativity, and impaired social skills and judgment. All of these skills directly correlate to success in school, and for African-American boys who already score lower on standardized achievement tests, the results can be devastating.

Lack of Resources

As we saw the previous section, the opportunity gap between the haves and have-nots is widening, as affluent parents are spending more on experiences and activities for their children that low-income parents simply can’t afford. But the effects of poverty on students are even harsher when you consider the basic resources that they lack.

One major but a seldom-considered resource that low-income parents cannot afford is time. In the first two years of a baby’s life, he or she needs between ten and twenty hours each week of positive interaction with a parent. This time, whether it is spent reading books, singing songs, asking and answering questions, or just playing, helps children develop the variety of emotions they will need later in life. Low-income parents (especially single parents) who work long hours at one or more jobs may not have the time to spend with their children. Once children are school-aged, they need daily interaction with books and words to become skilled readers. According to a 2002 study of kindergarteners’ interaction with their parents, only 36 percent of low-income parents read to their kindergarteners each day, compared to 62 percent of high-income parents.

Lack of access to physical resources presents another problem. Low-income students live with far fewer items than their higher-income peers. In low-income neighborhoods, the ratio of books to children is approximately one to three hundred, while in middle-income neighborhoods there are thirteen books per child. Though we live in an era when books are not as prevalent as they once were, the differences are still staggering.

But perhaps the most glaring inequity for low-income children is in their access to technology. Regardless of their school environment, low-income students have less access to technology than middle- or high-income students. According to data collected from the 2000 census, only 15 percent of homes where the annual income was between $20,000 and $25,000 (roughly the amount a family would earn if they lived in poverty) had a computer. Furthermore, of the 15 percent who had computers, well over half did not have access to broadband Internet.

To use computers with Internet access, low-income children have to rely on public resources, such as libraries or afterschool programs. But these resources are not without flaws. Computers at these sites are precious commodities. There are usually in far greater demand than supply, and the wait to use them can be long. In some afterschool programs, even if the computers are available, students may not be allowed to use them if there is no teacher available to supervise. Additionally, the public facilities often do not have funding to fix the computers if they get a virus or the hardware breaks, and sometimes the equipment is outdated and cannot perform the necessary tasks.

What the lack of technology means for low-income students is that, in addition to trailing in academic achievement, they are missing out on opportunities to learn the technical skills they will need to succeed in a highly competitive global workforce. Having limited access to Internet-connected computers means that they don’t have time to tinker or explore. They don’t have time to practice basic skills like typing or writing emails, or more complex skills like researching or coding. To compound the issue, teachers in low-income schools don’t use technology as effectively or as often as teachers in high-income schools.

Instead of using computers to design, create, and explore, many teachers in high-poverty schools use them to reinforce or practice academic skills. While study games and practice quizzes are excellent activities, they don’t make up for the creative computer time that many higher-income students enjoy at home. Students in richer families often learn to code on their own or start blogging or creating their own websites, tools that will be useful as they move into the job sphere. They learn to type and pick up word processing and image manipulation at home, whereas students from lower-income families must take classes to learn these skills. Many never do.

Lack of Parental Involvement

It is not breaking news that parents of low-income students are less involved in their children’s education than middle- or high-income parents. Teachers, school administrators, and parents recognize that the lack of parental involvement is an issue for students who are likely already at risk, but it is important to understand why many low-income parents are uninvolved.

An obvious reason for the lack of parental involvement is a lack of availability. Many low-income parents work one or more jobs, often outside of a typical nine-to-five workday. These low-paying and low-skill jobs often don’t allow for time off or flexibility to meet with teachers or attend school programs. Some parents may physically have the time away from work, but spend the majority of their time taking care of other children or family members.

Another obstacle is a lack of reliable transportation to get to school events. Add the physical difficulty of getting to school with many parents’ lack of confidence in the school system, and it is easy to understand why taking precious time to attend school events, teacher conferences, or field trips is not a priority.

A deeper-rooted obstacle to parental involvement is the cultural belief that schools don’t want low-income, minority parents to become involved. For many parents, the home and school operate in two disconnected spheres: parents are responsible for children at home, and teachers are responsible for children at school. Parents feel it is not their responsibility to teach their children what the school should be providing. Often, teachers in high-poverty schools do not do much to alleviate this cultural belief. Whether stated or just implied, many middle-class teachers of low-income students alienate parents through their language, sense of power, and lack of knowledge about their students’ cultures. When parents perceive a power difference between them and school staff, they often step away from the school system entirely.

Finally, some low-income parents purposefully disengage from their child’s schooling when they sense that the teachers do not respect them or their children. In a society where African-American males, a large percentage of the low-income demographic, are two and half times more likely to be suspended as white students, it is important for parents to see teachers focus on more than just negative behavior.

As you can see, living in a low-income household, with parents who are working hard to keep the bills paid, can be a stressful experience. How can we help black boys from low-income households succeed? How do we help their parents, who often work multiple jobs, balance being fully engaged with their child’s education while also keep food on the table?

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