I am a fairly frugal person, due more to our straightened circumstances than normal proclivity I’ll admit. I pinch pennies and cut corners. I forego personal purchases that most moms would consider normal expenditures. I defer maintenance on the car and house (um, trailer). And I stash aside whatever I can save for emergencies and for the benefit of the most important people in my life – my kids.
My biggest concern is that our situation is going to negatively affect my children for years to come. Studies on the effect of poverty on children are filled with alarming findings, such as these from the American Psychological Association:
- Poverty is linked with negative conditions such as substandard housing, homelessness, inadequate nutrition and food insecurity, inadequate child care, lack of access to health care, unsafe neighborhoods, and under-resourced schools which adversely impact our nation’s children.
- Poverty has a particularly adverse effect on the academic outcomes of children, especially during early childhood.
- Chronic stress associated with living in poverty has been shown to adversely affect children’s concentration and memory which may impact their ability to learn.
- School drop out rates are significantly higher for teens residing in poorer communities. In 2007, the dropout rate of students living in low-income families was about 10 times greater than the rate of their peers from high-income families (8.8% vs. 0.9%).
- Children living in poverty are at greater risk of behavioral and emotional problems.
- Some behavioral problems may include impulsiveness, difficulty getting along with peers, aggression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder.
- Some emotional problems may include feelings of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
- Poverty and economic hardship is particularly difficult for parents who may experience chronic stress, depression, marital distress and exhibit harsher parenting behaviors. These are all linked to poor social and emotional outcomes for children.
- Children and teens living in poorer communities are at increased risk for a wide range of physical health problems:
- Poor nutrition which is manifested in the following ways:
- Inadequate food which can lead to food insecurity/hunger
- Lack of access to healthy foods and areas for play or sports which can lead to childhood overweight or obesity
- Chronic conditions such as asthma, anemia, and pneumonia
- Risky behaviors such as smoking or engaging in early sexual activity
- Poor nutrition which is manifested in the following ways:
That’s a daunting list – and the items I copied are by no means the full inventory! I reassure myself that a lot of these findings are based on studies of families who live in long-term, chronic poverty, possibly even poverty that has lasted for generations. These are families with parents who are not well educated, may be in and out of work, and who may have to contend with domestic violence or drug and alcohol abuse.
My children are well fed. They came to me with food insecurities – I think they were always at least a little hungry in the orphanage – that took time and patience to resolve. I won’t let them go hungry again.
And my children are doing well in school. I am particularly proud of my oldest daughter who has made honor roll for the past 3 quarters at her middle school, and came home with straight As on her last report card! My middle daughter has endured even more changes and disruptions in her life, going to stay with friends for a prolonged visit and then returning home in the middle of the school year, but she has also continued to do well in school. And my youngest daughter is excelling at math and has improved her reading skills over the past year and appears to be on track for a successful transition to 3rd grade.
I do what I can to support my kids’ extracurricular interests – which lately involves driving my 8th grader to endless rehearsals and performances in a nearby community theater’s production of The King & I. She loves theater and this is her first venture into a stage larger than a school production. She’s doing a great job and I’m proud of her. It hasn’t been cheap though; this ‘free’ activity has been costly in terms of fuel expense as each trip (driving her to rehearsal, returning home, driving back 4 hours later to pick her up from rehearsal and returning home is a 42 mile circuit) takes over 2 gallons of gas! My middle daughter is a budding naturalist and thanks to a partial scholarship and a dip into my savings I was able to let her go to sea with her class on what was to be a 4-day educational excursion on a “Tall Ship.” They had to return early due to high seas but it was a thrilling experience for her. And I splurged recently and bought my engineering-minded son a small $10 Lego kit so he could indulge his urge to create and build.
So our situation is different. Being poor is still something of a novelty to us not the norm and my children have a parent with a love of learning, a graduate degree and strong work ethic. They are fed and loved and enrolled in school. Their interests and enthusiasms are supported to the extent they can be. There’s no substance abuse or violence in our home. I hope these things provide a cushion against some of the long-term effects of poverty.
But is our situation different enough? Poverty is like a flood that washes away the trappings of your normal life and when you become accustomed to that loss and try to rebuild you discover the waters have seeped in deeper than you imagined, causing corrosion and mold, and eating away at your foundation. We have gotten over not being able to afford to go out to dinner or refresh our wardrobes or take a vacation. My kids know we won’t be ordering school portraits or going to see the latest movie. This is the superficial disruption that I’m certain my kids will easily recover from once I have a steady income again. But there are other, deeper, issues that might not be so easily resolved. I know that living in such tight quarters, crowding both inside and out, create constant stress and increase conflict. I fear that my children’s relationships with one another are being formed in ways that they will carry forward into adulthood. Will they flee from each other, fed up with enforced contact and seeking distance, when they are old enough to leave the nest? Will the supportive, close adult friendships I want them to have with each other be possible?
What other ways will this period of poverty shape their lives? My son has had pneumonia twice since we moved into the trailer, and is just now recovering from a bout of bronchitis. This might be more related to the heart condition he was born with and the effects of going for so long without treatment but I wonder if our living conditions and lack of good constant medical attention might also play a role.
And what of opportunities that will go unrealized? Opportunities that would be considered necessary if we had the appropriate income – like the summer reading program that I know would benefit my son, if only I could afford the $334 fee. What if enrolling him in that program made the difference between his continuing struggle with reading and really enjoying sitting down with a book? And what of the opportunities that aren’t necessary, but oh so much fun and potentially life changing for a child – like vacations, or riding lessons, or summer camp? Am I closing off their world a little bit by not being able to afford these things?
Unfortunately it’s very difficult to ‘get ahead’ in our situation. My hard won savings have dwindled considerably this past month due mostly to emergency car repairs costing over $1500. My job prospects continue to be only prospects – the interview (2 hours over coffee at Starbucks) that seemed so promising hasn’t yielded fruit; and of the two recruiters who phoned me in the past week, one cut the conversation short after learning that I was currently unemployed and the other chatted at length but ultimately decided I lacked the necessary experience for the particular position they had open.
When I became a parent I promised myself I would do all that I could to help each of my children reach her or his potential. I had big dreams for all of them. I still do – it’s just going to be harder to get there.