Perceptions of poverty and how to overcome it

First, let me get one thing straight.

I’m not here to extend a confession as if someone is not reading, or as if I want any kind of sympathy or charity. I’m here to tell you about my experience with poverty, and how my thoughts and perceptions about poverty have evolved over the years. I’m here to tell you the truth about poverty.

I’ve been poor for all of my life, and currently just barely out of the running for state assistance benefits. I make about $100 too much to be considered “at poverty level” or “the highest need.” Yet, when I file my taxes I still qualify for credits intended for the poor. In fact, for the past few years, I belonged in the State Assistance Club. When my son was born I enrolled in the WIC program so I could get extra food benefits, only to drop out completely after several months of being limited in the things that I could buy at the store. Cheerios, plain only, in a certain size. Only a certain type of tuna, not all types. Only block cheese, whole wheat bread only, etc…you get the idea.

From approximately 2014 to 2016 I was on food stamps. Or I should say rather—we were on food stamps, my family and I. We subsisted on an income of less than $2000 per month. Our rent was about $1000 per month, cheap by Portland standards. At least we had that on our end. That, and financial aid money from my husband’s school kept us afloat.

Then in the summer of 2016, I got a job that I coveted for so long—an accounting position at my alma mater, Portland State University. It wasn’t so much the fact that it was an accounting job, it was more so the opportunity to work at a university that I enjoyed being at so much during my undergrad years. Even though it was a part time position, things were moving in the right direction. But we still qualified for food benefits.

It wasn’t until I got a full time position that put us out of the race for food stamps. Although my husband graduated last June, he’s still on the job hunt and things are still hard, especially when there are no longer financial aid money to utilize.

There have been many days in the past where I’ve felt shameful about my lack of prosperity in life. During my four years working for a local credit union, I handled a lot of accounts. Numbers flashed before me every single day. High numbers, that is. I helped a lot of individuals from my generation and knew exactly how much they made. I also knew how much they spent, and the numbers were both equally monstrous. Often, I’d sit there next to the quiet hum of the computer, and browsed through people’s accounts during slow times. Those who were around my parents age, I understood if they had a lot of money. But for those who weren’t, for those who were younger or my age, I’d stew in silence at how much they had and how much they made, and wondered what was wrong with me, why was I still stuck in the position of bank teller, a position that only pays a few dollars above minimum wage. After all, wasn’t I a college graduate? What the hell was I doing there wasting my time looking at other people’s accounts? Why wasn’t I out there earning more money??

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This attitude unfortunately was born out of self pity, and it’s not something I feel great about admitting. And that’s the thing that is worse than being poor—your attitude about being poor. I grew up in poverty, and one of the things I’ve realized lately is that poor folks are perceived poorly by their upper middle class peers. You’re lazy. You sit around all day and complain about why you’re so poor, why the whole world is against you, why God hasn’t given you a piece of the pie yet, when in reality you haven’t so much as gotten off your seat and made some changes. In reality you haven’t experienced an enormous amount of rejections and disrespect yet. In reality you’re scared, and you don’t know what to do, how to make the changes happen.

Without realizing it, I trapped myself in the mindset of a true poor person—someone riddled with self pity, not self confidence. Someone who fits the stereotype, which is ironic because I’ve been trying to avoid stereotypes all my life.

This epiphanic realization came to me recently following the publication of Elizabeth Kolbert’s article in the New Yorker. It was called “The Psychology of Inequality” online, and “Feeling Low” in the print version. In the article, she discussed something called a “tax on the poor”—the fact that people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to play the lottery versus those who are not. And they play it so much that it feeds into the system, thus becomes an informal, unwritten tax. Poor people put their money, whatever little money they had, into a bucket for a chance at a larger bucket of money, never knowing that the odds are stacked against them.

That example reminded me of my father immediately. I exclaimed in my head, “my dad used to do that all the time!!” We were always poor when we lived in Vietnam, but he never failed to play a game or two. Even after we came to America, he remained an avid lottery player. He never won anything except for $50 one time. And I’m certain he must’ve spent thousands on those lottery tickets.

So it goes without saying that when you’re poor you hope to get rich and any chance, no matter how small, is worth trying. But as Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in her article, research shows that even for those in the 1%, the truly rich do not consider themselves rich, nor do they acknowledge that they are rich. Instead, they dismiss their prosperity as something minute, something that they worked hard at earning, something less in comparison to their peers. For example, “My neighbor has a private jet that takes him anywhere he wants. That’s rich.” Never mind the fact that they have a million dollar mansion with four new vehicles and a half a million dollar income.

This proves that no matter if you’re rich or poor, you will never be in perfect alignment with how you actually are. When you’re poor, you submit to a lot of self pity and when you’re rich, you submit to a lot of self entitlement.

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I’m glad that I don’t work at that credit union anymore. If I am, I would still be subjecting myself to the same level of self pity. I’ve come to realize that the first step in getting out of poverty is changing your way of thinking. It’s not saying “hard work will do you good!” because it’s easier said than done. It’s not hoping and wishing that others will understand you. It’s the mindset. It’s taking the “feeling low” factor out of the equation and refusing to let it back into your head. I know that I’m not always going to be low income. I’m going to be middle class someday, and it may not happen as soon as I would like but I know it’s going to happen because I’m going to try. And I feel like I’ve accomplished something here today by admitting that hey, I used to be that person who was jealous of her peers and engaged in a lot of self pity, but now I’m not. I can only do what I can, and as long as I’m trying that is what matters.

Want your kids to be a better reader? Talk to them more

One chilly Thursday morning in January, I dropped my daughter off at her preschool. After saying goodbye to her, I ventured into the Family Resource Room, nestled to the side of the school’s main lobby paneled with wall to ceiling glass. It was there that I saw three women strike up a conversation with each other. All three appeared to be in their mid-to-late thirties with short brown hair and average height. As they talked among themselves I overheard one of them saying that they were a little early for “SMART time,” meaning reading time; hence, that’s why they were waiting in the room.

SMART stands for Start Making A Reader Today, one of the largest and most successful nonprofits in Oregon. Every year, they bring together thousands of individuals into elementary school classrooms to read books to children from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds. However, it should be noted that SMART tends to focus mainly on inner city schools, lower performing schools, and schools with a high concentration of minorities and children of color, including African Americans.

The three women continued talking amongst themselves about a variety of subjects, one of which I caught was the perils of obtaining childcare. One woman noted that someone she knew had to take their kid to work once a week because of a babysitter snafu…and the talk went on. As typical as their conversation seemed to be, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “It can’t possibly be that the only type of people who care about reading are white, middle class women.”  Where is everyone else?!? I imagined that if any of them had children of their own, their kids must be at least 15 years old. Perhaps their kids have already left the nest, and they’re feeling lonely. Or perhaps they’re not that old. Maybe they’re just stay-at-home moms who have the means to go volunteer every week at an inner city elementary school filled with African American children, just to make themselves feel better about contributing to society.

Later that evening, I talked with my husband about this observation. Our conversation quickly molded into the subject of storytimes at the library, something I do on a regular basis. He asked me if this racial representation also applies to storytimes. The thought of who attends storytimes isn’t necessarily something that I think about often; it was only when he brought it up that I began to realize that yes—the people who typically bring their children to storytimes are white, middle class women! Most likely stay-at-home moms, sometimes fathers. Oftentimes, they look much older than me. But then again, I look like I could be my kids’ babysitter.

I’m no stranger to literacy. I’ve been reading to my daughter since she was about 14 months old, and now at the age of four (almost five), she is a fantastic reader. She is well beyond the reading level of her peers, so much that her teacher this year was beyond surprised because she is only one out of two children who can really read amongst her 15 classmates.

Of course, I’m not here to brag about my child’s reading abilities, because that would seem selfish. Research has shown that reading to your child at an earlier age sets the stage for their academic and professional development later down the road. It enforces certain skill sets such as critical thinking and analysis, as well as written communication. The sooner the better, they say, so they don’t fall behind. That is why I began when Lily was just a year old, and why I’ve also introduced books to my son, who at 17 months doesn’t appear to be too much into books yet—however, he is slowly starting to engage with them.

According to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, an organization that collects data for educational purposes, they noted in their July 2017 report that about 43% of adults read at Basic or Below Basic levels, as compared to 57% of people who can read at Proficient or Intermediate levels. Digging deeper into this statistic, you might be surprised to find out that Hispanics are part of the majority—41% of them read at Below Basic level, followed by African Americans at 24%. This is really troubling, because a large majority of minorities and people of color cannot read good enough to be able to do basic, everyday tasks such as signing a form, balance a checkbook, compare ticket prices, and use a TV guide to look for certain information, according to the National Center for Education Statistics report.

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At Lily’s school, the evidence is there—roughly 34% of the student population is African American, followed by 30% Hispanic, the rest is variety of multi-racial, Caucasian, and Native Americans. On a global scale, approximately 757 million adults are illiterate. Girls account for the majority of this illiteracy rate, with two thirds of the world’s women unable to read. This is startling because there are many more girls than there are boys in the world, and girls play a pivotal role running the household as well as in the real world. Women can conquer the world by owning their own businesses, doing their own taxes, and managing their own employees.

I’m not saying that educating boys aren’t important—I’m simply saying that the gender educational gap has been long withstanding. We all know that many girls, particularly in the poorest parts of the world, such as the Middle East and Africa, have less advantages when it comes to obtaining an education. And part of obtaining an education means learning how to read. It all comes down to granting independence for girls, and unfortunately, many countries are not ready to do so.

Of course, the problem is not just a global problem. It’s also a United States problem. By the age of five, one third of children entering kindergarten lack the skills necessary to be successful in school, and this number increases dramatically by the time they’re in fourth grade. The disparity comes from a lack of early literacy. Language development is the most pivotal from birth to age three, when babies’ brains are the most malleable because they’re developing fast; hence, vocabulary development plays a role in reading achievement by third grade, according to SMART.

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Reading was a big thing for me growing up—I had a father who was a voracious reader. Despite the fact that we lived in a poor country with limited resources, he read the newspaper every single morning, and he’d read books every chance he got. Thus, I can attribute my love of reading to him. Both of my parents believed in the value of an education, but my dad was key in developing me into a lover of books.

Luckily, the skills that I gained from reading at an earlier age helped me in my English studies after my family immigrated to America. Due to a miscommunication, I was enrolled in a regular classroom, not an ESL class, and it was there that I sat with a volunteer reader (none other than a blonde hair, blue-eyed white middle aged woman whose name I’ve long forgotten) who read books to me as a way to help me learn English (this was after they figured out my lack of English skills and it was too late to put me in an ESL class), and later on, encouraged me to read by myself.

It was that kind of support that gave me the confidence to further learn English on my own. During my free time at home, I watched TV shows with subtitles on, listened to American music on the radio, and read as many young adult novels as I could possibly get my hands on, always with a dictionary in tow. That method proved successful, for I became proficient in about a year and a half. It’s still my preferred method of language learning today—to immerse oneself in the culture and language with as little assistance as possible. I believe that an average person like me has the brain capacity to figure things out when I didn’t have too many resources, like an after-school tutor.

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After the conversation I had with my husband, and the realization about the scarcity of non-white parents showing up at story times and children’s events, I began to question why. WHY are there hardly any people of color volunteering to read in schools? Despite what I do, why am I still a minority, both at the physical level and the cultural level? Are there any underlying reasons as to why this is happening?

I read that the first three years of a child’s life are the most critical for language development. Babies learn from the words that they hear and the touches that they receive from their caregivers. Research has shown there is a link between vocabulary development and socioeconomic backgrounds. By the time they’re three years old, babies from poor families will have heard 30 million words less than their more affluent peers. A Stanford University study found that amongst 18 to 24-month-old children, there is a language gap between the rich and the poor. The rich were defined as those with an average annual income of $69,000 per year, and the poor with an average income of $23,900 per year. The study found that children who came from higher socioeconomic backgrounds understood more words by the age of two than children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The reason why? They speculated that children from lower income families had parents who talk less to their children, hence the 30 million word gap by age three.

“The greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school. TV talk not only didn’t help, it was detrimental.” – Tina Rosenberg, The New York Times “The Power of Talking to Your Baby.”

Unfortunately, this word knowledge disadvantage continues well into fourth grade. Kids from lower income backgrounds tend to fall behind their more affluent peers, and the struggle becomes harder as they get older. More children continue to fall behind by the time they enter grade school, with minorities and people of color fall into this category the most.

Now, let’s think about this for a second. Is it really true that white, middle class parents talk more to their children or is it because they have the means to hire nannies, and require the nannies to speak and play with their children, thereby relinquishing the responsibilities of teaching their children about language? I may not be rich, but I am aware that “rich” parents are rich for a reason—they work long hours to be able to provide for their families, and unlike their lower class peers, they actually have the ability to hire help. Tutors, nannies, enrichment classes—you name it, they can afford it, whereas low income parents are struggling every day to pay for the bare necessities like food, shelter, and clothing.

It’s not to say that low income parents don’t have the time to talk to their children—it’s how they talk and what they say. Parents who are on welfare typically have multiple children, and oftentimes, their talk involves an authoritative or scolding tone, such as, “Stop hitting your brother!” or “Clean up your toys!”

I’m going to declare right here and now that I do not consider myself part of that trend. As with many parents, my husband and I exhibit a certain level of authority when it’s necessary, and other times, we talk a lot as a family. I’m not a big talker but my husband is, and this was passed down to my daughter. So, while I think there are some truth to the study and the statistics above, I also think that it is not representative of a lot of families in America, especially ones who are minorities. Just simply talk to your children more sounds great in theory, but one must take note of the privileges that rich kids have—being that their parents are more educated and have less children; therefore, the stakes are higher for these kids.

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I wondered to myself –what would’ve happened if I didn’t have a parent who was so into reading? I would’ve become a statistic, a stereotype. Of course, the statistics mentioned above do not reflect wholly on the number of low income parents out there who are avid readers and writers. And my experience at my daughter’s school is in no way reflective of the reality of literacy, but there is some truth to it, I believe.

In a way, I am a statistic, but I’m trying not to become the obvious statistic—that because I don’t make that much money means that I don’t have the time or money to give the gift of reading to my children.

As an adult or parent, regardless of your socioeconomic background, I believe we can ALL play a role in supporting children’s literacy. We need to. Our future depends on it. For birthdays and holidays, instead of giving them the latest gadgets or toys, give the gift of books instead. And instead of going to the mall, a compendium of material things, head to the nearest library for story time—they’re free events that allow children to socialize with each other and hear stories. Finally, instead of simply tucking your child in bed at night, make time to read to them. They say that it only takes 20 minutes of reading each night to a child at least 3 times a week for it to make a difference in their life.

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Every night, we ask my daughter to pick out books—usually 3 books, because that takes up 20 minutes of reading—from the stack of books that I choose based on her reading level at the library. It’s a ritual that we’ve done for years and will continue for many more. As a working mom nowadays, I don’t have as much time to take her to the library as I used to, but I make an effort to go at least once a week for story time and other children’s related events. She gets incredibly excited each time, and I believe it’s a culmination of the hundreds of times that I’ve taken her in the past.

This past Christmas, we gave my newest nephew a book—his first one. Even though he’s only three months old, I’m hoping that his parents will read to him, thereby instilling a sense that reading is important for learning and developing the mind.

Remember that kids don’t care where you get the books from. You can scout the library stacks, go to Barnes & Noble children’s section, browse through Amazon’s enormous selection, or get it at Goodwill—it doesn’t matter. It’s the fact that you are giving the gift of books that matters more. Lastly, when gifting books or reading to a child, it’s important to be as excited as possible and allow them to ask questions. You may not realize it, but kids do model their behavior after you (the adult), so if you’re not excited about books, then why should they be?

Reading sets the stage for future success. We can’t allow kids, especially ones from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to fall behind simply because we don’t talk to them enough or read to them enough. It’s our job as adults to propel them towards common core skills that are going to be useful for them to function in society.

The last time I saw my father

I don’t come from a superstitious background, and certainly do not consider myself a psychic of any kind, but there were several moments in my life where I felt like I could see into the future. One of those instances was the last time I saw my father.

It was early 2003, the year that I graduated from high school, and my father had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He was anything but stoic. Passionate, smart, and gregarious—that’s how I’ve always known him. He was what you would call “The life of the party.” But on that day at the airport in early 2003 (I forgot the month) when I went to say goodbye to him because he was going back to Vietnam for medical treatment, his face was forlorn, and I could sense a level of sadness in his eyes, I knew right then and there that it would be the last time that I would ever see him.

And I was right. He died several months after he left, in late April of 2003.

Now, as I write this 15 years later, in early January, during the month that he would’ve turned 77, I can’t help but feel angry. I’m angry because he told me a lie—that he would be back for my high school graduation. I’m angry that I foolishly believed he would get better. Little did I know that doctors gave him less than six months to live. (He was in the last stages of the cancer).

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Dad and me, when I was about 16

When he was alive, my dad was really good at promises—or rather, breaking them. It was something that truly irked me as a child and is still a pet peeve today. He’d tell me that he would do something for me, and later on, failed to follow through. Like the one time he told me that he would take me on an adventure in the city, only he didn’t have the proper accommodations lined up, so he gave up. Or the many times he said he would get me a gift, but he never did.

The one gift he did give me was love. I felt it in my very first memory. When I was about four years old, I became very ill. To this day, I’m not quite sure how I got so sick or what plagued me, but I do remember that he and my mom made the decision that saved my life—they took me to the hospital, where I stayed for almost two weeks, until I got better. It was during my time at the hospital where I remembered my father visiting me every single day (my mom was working all day), and each time he came he always brought soup. After all, soup is a healing agent, he believed. He also brought toys and candy, which made me very happy.

For all his caring acts aside, he was not a perfect man. He carried with him a history of alcoholism, prison time, infidelity, and the inability to hold down a job. Despite all of that, I didn’t held a grudge against him, because he was truly kind to everyone and committed to his community. He volunteered at our church frequently and always gave money to the less fortunate even though we were pretty poor ourselves.

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My father’s grave, circa 2009. What a bunch of grumps we are.

I came into the world to parents who were much older than average. My mom was nearing 40 and they already had two kids. Unlike the relationship he had with his sons, I felt like our relationship was different. My parents wanted a girl, and they got one. Thus, my father was never one to shy away from showing off his little girl. On his shoulder I went, and he’d swing me around our village as often as he pleased, which I’m certain is how I developed my fear of heights—being on his shoulder wasn’t as fun for me as it was for other kids. I was shy, timid, and scared. Mainly, I wanted to be left alone, to play by myself.

Not only that, he had a sense of humor that only exemplified his true comical nature. He was not afraid to play jokes on little kids. One of the jokes he always played on my cousins was calling them over to him with the promise of a “treat” and when they came, he would ask them to extend their hand, and when they did, he would let out an enormous (and often smelly) fart, which made them run to their moms and dads crying.

It sounds like a jerky thing to do, I know–we both knew it, but he and I always rolled over laughing. Deep down, I knew he would never do that to me, because I was his daughter.

I wish I knew more about his earlier life, but I don’t. I only know that he was the first child who survived out of the 15 or so siblings that his mom gave birth to. He had three older sisters who all died in infancy. Later on, he was married to my mom in an arrangement between their parents when he was in his late teens. I feel like his marriage with my mom is still something of a farce. He cheated on her with another woman and didn’t treat her very well when he was drunk, and I’m sure she was not an angel either, but they both learned to love each other over time.

Their love is the kind of strange love that I didn’t quite understand when I was younger. I don’t even know how I was conceived. They always told me it was a “miracle” from God.

It wasn’t until many years later, on the anniversary of his death, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw my mom hold back some tears that I understood the fact that their marriage lasted not because they were madly in love at first, but because they fell in love in the later years. My mom eventually forgave my dad for cheating on her, but she never forgot. She was angry at him for a long time.

Now, when I think back at that time at the airport in 2003, the last time I saw my father, I become angry at myself, as much as my mom was angry with me for not showing any emotion following his death. I’m angry because I didn’t tell him that I love him, and I didn’t hug him. I’m angry because our last exchange was him telling me to do well in school, and that he would be there for my graduation, because that was the last lie he ever told, the last promise he broke. But I wondered if he truly believed that. I think he did.

My mom doesn’t quite understand why I didn’t fall apart and cry over his death. When he left, I knew he would be gone forever so I developed a numbing mechanism, if you will. I pushed all the sad thoughts away and told myself that it is what it is—I couldn’t do anything about it. I was still mad at him for not taking care of himself. After all, if he had gone to the doctor sooner, or smoked less, or did this and that, then he would still be alive for my high school and college graduations.

Still, I don’t want to degrade the dead. I want people to know that he was a good father to me, that he did what he could, and he contributed to society with what he had—his brain. One of his poems still hang around in a frame at my mom’s house, above the makeshift mantel that includes photos of both of my grandparents, all long gone by now. His memory still lives in me no matter what.