Lessons from Poverty

Returning to my high school years, I remember an instance during which I was riding a jeepney with a classmate. This classmate realized how poor my family was and commented that my poverty was probably providing me with life's important lessons like resilience, perseverance and correct prioritization. Suddenly, poverty sounded like an advantage for me. I have not read the book by Sherman Alexie, "The Absolutely True Diary of Part-Time Indian", but I came across the following quote from this book:
“Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.”
Which view is correct? The past two articles in this blog, "The Poor's Lower IQ" and "Poor People Cannot Think Clearly" describe scientific studies that demonstrate how poverty impairs cognitive function. Sherman Alexie is perhaps closer to the truth.

I did grow up poor so my own life experience can address the question although this is not really a scientific way. It is only anecdotal and my experience is not necessarily universal. The studies that indicate detrimental effects of poverty center on worrying about financial matters. Thus, the effects of poverty on intelligence requires first of all an awareness of being poor. When I was in first grade, I did win first prize in a Math contest at Centro Escolar University but I was not really that smart. My parents managed to hide their poverty from me. As an elementary student in a private school, I was wearing a uniform different from those of the kids who are attending public school. I was also not spending so much time with children in wealthy families so I could not really see what I was missing. Though we were poor, my parents managed to hide completely their financial worries from me.

I realized we were poor much later on. First, there was a school transfer when I was in fourth grade. I enrolled in a parochial school in Quiapo that was charging a lower tuition. Then, there were projects in a home economics class that required students to pay for the materials. It was then that I noticed that my parents were worried whenever I brought news home that I needed money for a particular project. It was only at that point that my mind really became aware of our financial situation. My family was also forced to transfer to a dilapidated house. It was only at this time that poverty started to occupy my young and limited consciousness. I became conscious of not having as many clothes as other kids. Going through high school with a couple pair of pants with increasing number of patches with years makes poverty quite obvious. Even one of my high school teachers noticed that I was wearing the same pair of pants for several days.

But I did manage. Was I more resilient? Did I really develop perseverance? I could not really answer that question. If I do, it would only be my impression, not really based on evidence. There is a paper published in 2012 in the journal Educational Researcher that offers a possible explanation. The paper, "The Longitudinal Effects of Residential Mobility on the Academic Achievement of Urban Elementary and Middle School Students", studies the effects of school transfers. The study however involves schools in which seventy percent of the students are eligible for free lunch, indicating that most students in these schools come from poor families. Moving while remaining poor usually indicates necessity and not an opportunity. This is usually disruptive. Similar to my case, the event can easily become a catalyst to poverty awareness. Another paper in the same issue of the journal, "Early Reading Skills and Academic Achievement Trajectories of Students Facing Poverty, Homelessness, and High Residential Mobility", provides similar findings. The concluding paragraph of this paper is quite illuminating:
Homeless or highly mobile (HHM) students clearly face academic disadvantages compared with peers who are not poor and compared with peers who experience poverty but are not HHM. Understanding how first-grade achievement functions as a foundation of future achievement can inform efforts by educators and policy makers to promote early educational success for children at risk. Interventions to improve the academic achievement of HHM and other low-income students must begin early, emphasizing the skills that support learning in kindergarten and the early elementary years. These school readiness skills involve early academic skills, such as counting and naming letters, and also self-regulation skills that enable children to focus attention, follow directions, and get along with teachers and peers (Diamond & Lee, 2011). Early education programs that focus on school readiness skills and involve families likely will have the greatest potential to support academic resilience among high-risk children (Heckman, 2006). Students who begin first grade lacking these important learning skills may require intensive and specialized interventions to accelerate learning, with sensitivity to the issues faced by families who may not have the fundamental supports afforded by economic and residential stability.
Since the above papers were published in December 2012, my parents were clearly not aware of these findings. Yet, how they shielded me from poverty during my early elementary years and worked hard to provide me a quality primary education probably contributed significantly to my education.