Poor versus Poverty: Two Different Cultures

When I wrote about the cultural aspects of teaching in my Computers and Writing proposal, I was not talking about poverty per se. People can be poor without being part of the culture of poverty. But when I talk about low SES students and their culture, I am talking about those who are part of that culture.

What is the difference?

I grew up poor.

My parents married when my mother was a sophomore in high school and my father was a junior in college. He was also homeless and living in his car.

When I was little my father was a college student and went to school 21 hours a semester and worked 50 hours a week at minimum wage jobs. My mother worked on the weekends when my father was home to take care of the children.

My mother got pregnant with me because the doctor insisted that a girl as young as she was could not get pregnant and refused to give her birth control. But since my three siblings, all born before my mother turned 25, were all born on birth control of various types, it is doubtful that birth control would have helped.

Our family had five people in it and lived in a one bedroom apartment. My brother and I slept on couches in the living room. I was going through the trash in our apartment complex and found a pair of shoes that would fit my father, brand new in a box. He wore them to work for the next few years. I was five or six at the time.

We often did not have enough food to eat to feel full. My mother always said we weren’t poor because we always had something to eat. But I remember many times being hungry. And I remember the rare times when I was full after a meal, usually at my grandmother’s house on the farm. She used to worry because I didn’t eat much meat when she fixed it. Dad never told her it was because I wasn’t used to eating meat; he just said it was okay because I ate some of it.

When I was 12, my father got a significant pay raise and I never remember going hungry after that. My sisters, who were four and eight at the time, do not remember much of the poor years at all.

Despite the fact that I grew up poor, I did not grow up in the culture of poverty.

First of all, education was valued.

My father was a college student when I was born and attended law school after that. While neither of his parents had even completed high school, they had six children five of whom got college degrees because education was worth getting. It would get you off the farm and out of back-breaking labor that came without a guarantee of profit.

While my father’s parents had a third and eighth grade education, my mother’s parents both had college degrees. My grandmother, in fact, earned her master’s at Berkeley in the 30s. While my mother never got her college degree, she did attend several colleges while we moved around the country following my father’s career.

There was value seen in going to college, in making something better of yourself.

My parents did not teach me to read at home, but we always had books in the house and reading was valued. My father would come home from work and take my brother and me to the library. We would leave carrying as many books as our arms would hold. If we finished them all, he would take a break from work to take us to the library again to return them and get more. For several years my brother and I read eight to ten books a day.

In our house, the teacher was always right (even when she was wrong) and our job was to learn as much as we could. My father even stated it that way. “I go to work. You go to school. I do my job. You do yours.”

My parents encouraged us to do well in school, to go to college, to get a degree. One of their mantras when I was growing up was, “Don’t get married until you finish college.” It was assumed that I (that we) would go to college.

Second, the individual was valued over the group.

My extended family valued the individual. My father’s parents told their children to “make something” of themselves. My mother’s parents firmly believed that a person could improve their lot in life.

My mom was the first stay-at-home mother in her family in four generations, maybe more. She was countercultural to her family and chose to (mostly) stay home at a time when women were leaving the homes in droves to find fulfillment in their work. While she made odd choices (to them), the family valued her for her choices.

There are other differences between being poor and having a culture of poverty. But these two serve to illustrate the values and experience that I grew up with.

While I grew up poor, I did not grow up a child of poverty. I had mentors in my parents who had been there before me.

My parents went to college. They expected us to go, too.

My father worked hard to improve his lot in life. By the time they retired, my father was an executive in a multinational corporation. He had overcome his own background to succeed. And he showed us how to do that as well.

This is a departure from my normal topics of discussion on this blog. I hope regular readers will not be turned away by this soul baring information on my family. It was an attempt to discuss my background in relation to the online conference topic.

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