By any conventional standard, I was an extremely educated and intelligent child growing up. I read multiple grade levels above where I was. I always scored in the 97th+ percentile on every subject when they handed us that year’s ITBS. And in case you haven’t closed your browser in disgust at my shameless boasting, I’m spewing this rigmarole because I want to make a point: None of that was a result of superior genetics or natural talent. I was as smart as my parents wanted me to be.
I had a stereotypical Asian upbringing. Those Tiger Moms that inflamed public opinion a couple years ago? Well I had tiger parents. My parents force-fed me books at an early age. I learned multiplication tables when I was 5 years old. During the summer, my parents bought “activity” books that taught the next grade’s curricula so I could have a leg up on the other students. They bought me an electronic dictionary and thesaurus (in the early 90s), and they made me learn a new word every day.
My parents rode me hard (har har). I remember one time in middle school where my dad was tutoring me on trigonometry in preparation for the SATs and yelled at me, calling me an idiot. I remember bursting into tears and telling him that I just couldn’t get it. But we kept at it and eventually I did get it. I’m not passing negative judgment on my parents. They raised me in the way they thought best and, by and large, I agree with their methods.
But I’m bringing all this up because that’s what the kids of poor households are up against, the overachieving kids whose parents push them to be smarter, more knowledgeable, and harder working than the parents who either don’t care or have a hands off attitude when it comes to their children’s academic ability.
There are programs at all levels of government that try to give poor families a chance to get a good education, but we can throw all the money we want at the problem. It won’t solve it. DC Public Schools spends $17,468 per year for every student in the system and it consistently ranks as the worst public school district in America. DCPS’s student demographic is predominantly black and Hispanic, and the vast majority of students enrolled qualify for free or reduced school lunches, which means they come from impoverished households.
A lot of the times, those kids live in broken homes headed by a single parent, usually a mom. And when mom works 80 hours a week, she doesn’t have the time to come home and teach her kids how to read, do multiplication tables, or prepare for next year’s curriculum. It’s estimated that a child born to an upper middle class family hears 30 million more words by the time they reach the age 4 than a child born to a lower class family.
That word delta continues as the child progresses into adulthood. If kids aren’t exposed to educational material early on, the best instructor in the world won’t be able to teach them the advanced topics necessary to excel in college and beyond. The end result is that many of the school systems that serve these impoverished households become little more than glorified daycares until these kids turn 18, at which point they get dumped out of the system.
The rich families will blast Mozart to their unborn baby as it gestates in their mom’s uterus. They schedule playdates. Enroll them in pre-kindergarten. They hire tutors if their kid struggles in one area of school. They do everything possible to make sure their kids get ahead. There is simply no way for poorer households to compete with that level of commitment and dedication.
In an economy where education matters more than ever, it makes it impossible for the government to bridge the gap between kids born to rich, caring parents and those born into poor single-parent households. There is no government solution to this problem. Or if there is one, it involves forcible intervention on an unprecedented scale that would be unbefitting of any country that calls itself a liberal democracy.
Poverty breeds poverty. It’s is a vicious cycle that’s hard to break. The government is either incapable or unwilling to make a difference. And you can bet that those upper middle class families don’t really give a damn about the poor. That’s why they cloister themselves in expensive, exclusive neighborhoods with good school districts. That’s why they moved away from the urban center as it began to decay with crime. The well off will do the bare minimum it takes to salve their conscience and not one bit more.
To break that cycle of poverty, it starts and ends at home. Don’t look for a helping hand, because you won’t get one. There isn’t going to be a white knight riding in to save the day. You have to be the change you’re looking for. And that takes lots of hard work, discipline, and grit.
In short, you gotta step up.