Millions of Americans live in poverty. Some are thrown into poverty by illness or unemployment; others live in a seemingly endless cycle of poverty that spans lifetimes and generations. A disproportionate number of children—many of them our students—live in poverty. In 2010, 22 percent of children in the United States lived in poverty. The numbers for African-American and Latino children were even higher.
Too many people blame the individuals for the socio-economic inequality from which they suffer. But the causes of poverty—and the factors that make it so difficult to eradicate—are far more complex. They are embedded in economics, politics and discrimination.
“Lessons in Poverty” is comprised of four lessons with two overarching goals. First, the lessons aim to help students understand that poverty is systemic, rooted in economics, politics and discrimination. Second, the lessons provide evidence to show that poverty, far from being random, disproportionately affects Americans who have traditionally experienced oppression—African Americans, Latinos, immigrants and children.
Lesson 1 has students compare the government definition of poverty with the actual costs of living in their own communities. They come to see that someone can work fulltime and still live in poverty.
Lesson 2 explores the connections between poverty and unemployment. Discovering that there are not enough living-wage jobs available for everyone who wants one, students begin to see how poverty is caused by systemic factors, not individual shortcomings.
Lesson 3 defines the cycle of poverty, and distinguishes between short-term need and long-term poverty. Students identify which groups of Americans are most frequently trapped in poverty, and explore why it is so difficult for them to escape its grip.
Lesson 4 addresses the connections between race and poverty. Students focus on one close-to-home factor that perpetuates inequality: Advanced Placement courses. They question who has access to AP courses, think about how access or lack of access affect a student’s opportunities, both in school and beyond.
We encourage teachers to tailor the lessons to their students, to be sure that students who are experiencing poverty don’t feel stigmatized and to encourage students who do not know poverty first-hand to develop compassion for those who have been less fortunate. We also encourage students to take action to address issues of poverty and inequality.