Looking around the campus of an Ivy League schools, one wonders how students from such diverse backgrounds ultimately wound up at the same place. From having a mother who works in admissions, I grew up hearing that no matter where you came from, your socioeconomic status, and even sometimes your grades, all kids have the potential to attend a prestigious university. However, I find that hard to believe.
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With a combination of taking this class on homelessness this semester, growing up in a world where affirmative action and educational inequalities were often topics of conversation, and having personal interests in children in poverty, I wanted to explore if there were any correlations between the three. From my research, there seems to be a disparity in targeting homeless youth specifically. According to an article published by the U.S. Department of Education, one of the most direct ways to target homelessness is to educate their young.
In this essay, I will explore what it means to be a student in poverty and homelessness and how poverty limits educational opportunities. By examining a wide variety of sources, including the stories of several individuals and experts, I hope to offer a well-rounded perspective on the state of educational inequality for youths.
The term “poverty” and “homeless” must first be defined, so that we are clear on the pool of individuals to be discussed in this essay. According to Economic and Political Weekly’s definition, poverty is a combination of income poverty, human development poverty, and social exclusion. This holistic definition emphasizes the vulnerability of the poor and places some responsibility for mitigating poverty on society. It describes an extreme form of poverty, especially when all these elements of deprivation coexist. According to the National Health Care for the Homeless, homelessness is defined as an individual who lacks housing, including those who’s primary housing during the night is by a public or private organization, and those who’s housing is a place not meant for human inhabitation (such as a park, streets, abandoned building). Lacking in cultural, economic, and social capital, children in these situations, ages eighteen and under, have greater needs than “underprivileged” children. Lacking Bourdieu’s forms of capital, homeless students are automatically at a disadvantage.
Despite being one of the most developed countries in the world, the United States has one of the highest rates of childhood homelessness at 1.3M, according to the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness. Children raised homeless or in poverty face a number of disadvantages, especially when it comes to education such as poor physical health and motor skills, diminishing ability to concentrate and remember information, and reduces curiosity and motivation. Often, when parents have little to no education, their children will follow in their footsteps because they are not aware of what opportunities exist. Harris says that “being homeless robbed my family and me of an understanding of how the world works. Receiving a college degree will ensure that I can obtain the cultural capital necessary to help support my family and others affected by homelessness. It is important for me to be able to ensure that others understand how to navigate social systems and achieve success, while still offering active support.” Additionally, even if poor children are motivated and perform well in school, they lack the resources to attain better education in the future and lack the knowledge to seek out financial aid opportunities. Many educational institutions offer need-based scholarships which can sometimes be a full-ride; however, it is not well advertised for students to take advantage of. Without a decent education, it is difficult to break the cycle of generational poverty and lead rewarding, productive lives.
The lack of access to quality education, especially among homeless youth, is preventing millions of people in the Unites States from escaping the cycle of educational inequality, poverty, and homelessness. For most non-impoverished youth, cultural and economic capital were key factors, along with grades and test scores to get into good colleges. For homeless youth, they do not have the luxury of solely focusing on school. Latte Harris, a now graduate of Portland State University, grew up homeless. She recalled being stressed how to hide her homelessness while she was in school, but also being stressed about how to do well in school when her time was spent focusing on satisfying her family’s immediate needs while at home (1, Harris). She said that school was more important to her than getting a job because her grades felt like the only controllable thing in her life. She wanted to feel proud of something and grades and relationships with her teachers were a way of doing so.
A dimension of poverty and homelessness that Harris touches on is social exclusion. Social exclusion affects the level of human development and often the level of income, just as income and human development influence social exclusion. It is the relational aspect of social exclusion that adds a distinct value in identifying problems associated with poverty. This social exclusion impacts people’s ability to get jobs, have a social circle, and even do some of life’s most simple tasks, such as interacting with people in person on a daily basis. Aside from malnutrition and lacking funds to purchase food, social alienation is arguably the direst consequence of homelessness because it reinforces the cyclical nature of the problem by influencing every aspect.
An example of when all of these forms of capital come into play is exhibited in Shamus Kahn’s book Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School. Khan reflects on his experience at St. Paul’s High School and how his socioeconomic standing affected his social and academic life. Given, Khan did not grow up homeless, but he considered himself in the ‘extreme poverty’ belt. The causes leading up to Khan’s enrollment and his experience as a minority in his community left a permanent imprint on him and had a profound impact on his schooling. Although some may have seen him as a poor person of color in his childhood, the fact that he had a darker skin tone and his parents were from villages in Indian subcontinents meant nothing compared to his neighbors, who were brought up in worse conditions. Khan recounts how at St. Paul’s there were separate residence halls for those who were on financial aid (people of color) and wealthier upper-class people. Although the school had tried multiple times in the past to integrate rooming, it hadn’t worked. Khan writes, “Non-white students were sequestered in their own space, just like most of them were in their ethnic neighborhood back home” (2, Khan). Khan shows that even as time goes on, people continue to believe the same things they were taught when they were younger. Because the wealthy white kids grew up in a segregated neighborhood, they expected the same conditions in high school and beyond. This shows that is it difficult to make change when societal norms are firmly fixed in place. Change can also be impossible when social exclusion prevents socioeconomic crossover between cultural groups. Khan’s experience at his school emphasizes the social capital necessary to have academic success in a place, and his paucity of social connections and knowledge of elite social norms could have been a disadvantage to him.
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