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Poverty of Poor Kids’ Imagination

Sharon Astyk and her husband are foster parents for kids who need temporary placement. She writes about things she’s learned from the two boys who are living with her now, and who come from an impoverished background. Excerpt:

In their urban, poor and largely black school district (although K. and C. are multi-racial and this is part of both sides of their family), K. and C. hear the message “work hard, go to school, you can become something.”  All of my other children got the same message loud and clear.

The problem, of course is that most of the people in my kids’  lives are not “something.”  They have a series of miserable jobs they hate that end frequently due to unemployment – and these are largely irrelevant to education or training.  Nobody goes to school and works hard to get jobs cleaning office toilets, flipping burgers or selling auto parts.  Thus, most of my foster kids never really understood what the connection would be between their education, although many are bright kids who find school to be a haven from a hard home life.  The idea of education as a track to security simply does not connect.

Moreover, both children have learned, as have others in our care, as they told us, that work doesn’t help you.  Their experience is of having work be intermittent, jobs be lost on a regular basis, layoffs and salary cuts that stress their parents out.  Here are the bad things about jobs:

1.  When you don’t have a job, you are poor and don’t have enough money for fun stuff or food.  When you have a job (at least the kind their parents can get) you are poor and don’t have enough money for fun stuff or food.  The idea of work providing enough money to meet needs and get ahead is absent.   What work mostly means is that the parents aren’t around.

I can’t urge you strongly enough to read the whole thing. The stuff about parental jobs making children feel scared and abandoned is not something middle-class me would have thought about in a thousand years.

This post from Sharon about how little many of us really understand about the psychological and emotional lives of the poor reminds me of something sad and shocking that a white friend of mine who fosters kids — mostly poor black and Hispanic kids removed by the state from abusive homes — told me once about a conversation she had with one of her black foster children.

N., my friend, said that she was explaining to the puzzled and inquisitive kid how she and her husband could disagree without getting violent with each other, or ending the relationship.

The poor kid couldn’t get over it. He had never known any adults in his short life who had lived that way.

“How?!” he asked, in all sincerity. “Do you have to be white to do that?”


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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