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The Myth ofthe

Instead of accepting myths that wonder the kids are unprepared to leam."
At Janet's invitation, 1 spent dozens of hours in her class-
harm lo'w-income students, we room, meeting her students, observing her teaching, helping
her navigate the complexities of an urban midwestern
need to eradicate the systemwide elementary classroom with a growing percentage of students
inequities that stand in their way. in poverty. 1 observed powerful moments of teaching and
learning, caring and support. And I witnessed moments of
intemal conflict injanei, when what she wanted to believe
Paul Gorski
about her students collided with her prejudices.
Like most educators, Janet is detennined to create an envi-

s the students file out of Janet's classroom, I sit ronment in which each student reaches his or her full poten-
in the back comer, scribbling a few final notes. tial. And like many of us, despite overflowing with good
Defeat in her eyes, Janet drops into a seal next intentions, Janet has bought into the most common and
to me with a sigh. dangerous myths about poverty.
"I love these kids," she declares, as if trying to Chief among these is the "culture of poverty" myth—the
convince me. "1 adore them. But my hope is fading." idea that poor people share more or less monolithic and
"Whys ihai?" I ask, stuffing my notes into a folder, predictable beliefs, values, and behaviors. For educators like
"They're sman. I know they're smart, but. . ." Janet to be the best teachers they can be for all students, they
And then the deficit floodgates open: 'They don't care need to challenge this myth and reach a deeper understanding
about school. They're unmotivated. And their parents—I'm of class and poverty.
lucky if two or three of them show up for conferences. No
Roots of the Culture
of Poverty Concept
Oscar Lewis coined the term culture of
poverty in his 1961 book The Children
oj Sanchez. Lewis based his thesis on
his ethnographic studies of small
Mexican communities. His studies
uncovered approximately 50 attributes
shared within these communities:
frequent violence, a lack of a sense of
history, a neglect of planning for the
future, and so on. Despite studying
very small communities, Lewis extrap-
olated his findings to suggest a
universal culture of poverty. More than
45 years later, ihe premise of the
culture of poverty paradigm remains
I the same: that people in poverty share
I a consistent and observable "culture."
:• Lewis ignited a debate about the
S nature of poverty that continues today


"Culture of Poverty"
But jusl as important—especially in
the age of data-driven decision
making—he inspired a flood of
research. Researchers around the
world tested the culture of poverty
concept empirically (see Billings,
1974; Carmon, 1985; Jones & Luo,
1999). Others analyzed the overall
body of evidence regarding the culture
of poverty paradigm (see Abeli &
Lyon, 1979; Ortiz & Briggs, 2003;
Rodman, 1977).
These studies raise a variety of ques-
tions and come to a variety of conclu-
sions about poverty. But on this they
all agree: There is no .such thing as a
culture of poverty. Differences in values
and behaviors among poor people are
just as great as those between poor and
wealthy people.
In actuality, the culture of poverty
concept is constructed from a collec-
tion of smaller stereotypes which, however false, seem to
have crept into mamstream thinkmg as unquestioned fact. MYTH: Poor parents are uninvolved in their
Let's look at some examples.
children's learning, largely because they do not
value education.
MYTH: Poor people are unmotivated and have
weak work ethics. The Reality: Low-income parents hold the same attitudes
about education that wealthy parents do (Compton-Lilly,
Tiie Reality: Poor people do not have weaker work ethics 2003; Lareau & Horv^at, 1999; Leichter, 1978). Low-income
or lower levels of motivation than wealthier people (Iversen parents are less likely to attend school functions or volunteer
& Farber, 1996; Wilson, 1997), Although poor people are in their children's classrooms (National Center for Education
often stereotyped as lazy, 83 percent of children from low- Statistics, 2005)—not because they care less about education,
income families have at least one employed parent; close lo but because they have less access to school involvement than
60 percent have at least one parent who works full-time their wealthier peers. They are more likely to work multiple
and year-round (National Center for Children in Poverty, jobs, to work evenings, to have jobs without paid leave, and
2004), In fact, the severe shortage of living-wage jobs means to be unable to afford child care and public transportation. It
that many poor adults must work two, three, or four jobs. might be said more accurately that schools that fail to take
According to the Economic Policy Institute (2002), poor these considerations into account do not value the involve-
working adults spend more hours working each week than ment of poor families as much as they value the involvement
their wealthier counterparts. of other families.


MYTH: Poor people are
linguistically deficient.
The Reaiity: All people, regardless of
the languages and language varieties
they speak, use a full continuum of
language registers (Bomer, Dworin, May,
& Semingson, 2008). What's more,
linguists have known for decades that
all language varieties are highly struc-
tured with complex grammatical rules
(Gee, 2004; Hess, 1974; Miller, Cho, &
Bracey, 2005). What often are assumed
to be deficient varieties of English—
Appalachian varieties, perhaps, or what
some refer to as Black English Vemac-
ular—are no less sophisticated than so-
called "standard English."

MYTH: Poor people tend to abuse

drugs and alcohol.
that does exist—the culture of ciassism. The implications of deficit theory
The Reality: Poor people are no more This culture continues to harden in our reach far beyond individual bias. If we
likely than their wealthier counterparts to schools today. It leads the most well convince ourselves that poverty results
abuse alcohol or drugs. Although drug intentioned of us, like my friend Janet, not from gross inequities (in which we
sales are more \isible in poor neighbor- into low expectations for low-income might be complicit) but from poor
hoods, drug use is equally distributed students. It makes teachers fear their people's own deficiencies, we are much
across poor, middle class, and wealthy most powerless pupils. And, worst of less likely to support authentic
communities (Saxe, Kadushin, Tighe, all, it diverts attention from what people antipoverty policy and programs.
Rindskopf, & Beveridge, 2001). Chen, in po\'erty do have in common: Eurther, if we believe, however wrongly,
Sheth, Krejci, and Wallace (2003) found inequitable access to basic human that poor people don't value education,
that alcohol consumption is sigtiificantly rights. then we dodge any responsibility to
higher among upper rniddle class white The most destructive tool of the redress the gross education inequities
high school students than among poor culture of ciassism is deficit theory. In with which they contend. This applica-
black high school students. Their finding education, we often talk about the deficit tion of deficit theory establishes the
supports a history of research showing perspective—defining students by their idea of what Gans (1995) calls the un-
that alcohol abuse is far rnore prevalent weaknesses rather than their strengths. deserving poor-—^a segment of our society
among wealthy people than among poor Deficit theory takes this attitude a step that simply does not deserve a fair
people (Diala, Muntaner, & Walrath, funher, suggesting that poor people are shake.
2004; Galea, Ahern, Tracy, & Vlahov, poor because ol their own moral and If the goal of deficit theory is to
2007). In other words, considering intellectual deficiencies (Collins, 1988). justify a system that privileges economi-
alcohol and illicit diTigs together, wealthy Deficit theorists use two strategies for cally advantaged students at the expense
people are more likely than poor people propagating this world view: (1) drawing of working-class and poor students,
to be substance abusers. on well-established stereotypes, and then it appears to be working
(2) ignoring systemic conditions, such marvelously. In our determination to
Tiie Cuiture of Ciassism as inequitable access to high-quality "fix" the mythical culture of poor
The myth of a "culture of poverty" schooling, that support the cycle of students, we ignore the ways in which
distracts us from a dangerous culture poverty our society cheats them out of opjiortu-


nities that their wealthier peers take for garten but allow those families that can prepare ourselves for bigger changes,
granled. We ignore the fact that poor afford to do so lo pay for Full-day serv- we must
people suffer disproportionately the ices. Our poor students scarcely make il • Educate ourselves about class and
effects of nearly every major social ill. out of eariy childhood without pacing poverty
They lack access to health care, living- the price for our culture of classism. • Reject deficit theory and help
wage jobs, safe and affordable housing, Deficit theory requires us to ignore students and colleagues unlearn mis-
clean air and water, and so on (Books, these inequities—or worse, to see them perceptions about poverty.
2004)—conditions that limit their abili- as normal and justified. • Make school involvement accessible
ties to achieve to their full potential. What does ihis mean? Regardless of to al! families.
Perhaps most of us, as educators, feel how much students in poverty value • Follow Janet's lead, imiting
powerless to address these bigger education, they must overcome tremen- colleagues to observe our teaching for
signs of class bias.
• Continue reaching out to low-
income families even when they appear
The myth of a "culture of poverty" distracts unresponsive (and without assuming, if
they are unresponsive, that we know
us from a dangerous culture that does why).
• Respond when colleagues stereo-
exist—the culture of classism. type poor students or parents.
• Never assume that all students have
equitable access to such learning
issues. But the question is this: Are dous inequities to learn. Perhaps the resources as computers and the
we willing, at the very least, to tackle greatest myth of all is the one that dubs Internet, and never assign work
the classism in our own schools and education the "great equalizer." Without requiring this access without providing
classrooms? considerable change, it cannot be in-school time to complete it.
This classism is plentiful and well anything of the sort. • Ensure that learning materials do
documented (Kozol, 1992). For not stereotype poor people.
example, compared vnth their wealthier What Can We Do? m Fight to keep low-income students
peers, poor students are more likely to The socioeLonomic opportunity gap from being assigned unjustly to special
attend schools that have less funding can be eliminated only when we stop education or low academic tracks.
(Carey, 2005); lower teacher salaries trying to "fix" poor students and start • Make curriculum relevant to poor
(Karoty, 2001); more limited computer addressing the ways in which our students, drawing on and validating
and Internet access (Gorski, 2003); schools perpetuate classism. This their experiences and intelligences.
larger class sizes; higher student-to- includes destroying the inequities listed • Teach about issues related to class
teacher ratios; a less-rigorous above as well as abolishing such prac- and poverty—including consumer
curriculum; and fewer experienced tices as tracking and ability grouping, culture, the dissolution of labor unions,
teachers (Barton, 2004). The National segregational redistricting, and the and environmental injustice—and about
Commission on Teaching and America's privatization of public schools. We movements for class equity.
Future (2004) also found that low- must demand the best possible educa- • Teach about the antipoverty work
income schools were more likely to tion for all students—higher-order of Martin Luther King Jr., Helen Keller,
suffer from cockroach or rat infestation, pedagogies, innovative learning mate- the Black Panthers, Cesar Chavez, and
dirty or inoperative student bathrooms, rials, and holistic teaching and learning. other U.S. icons—and about why this
large numbers of teacher vacancies and But lirst, we must demand basic human dimension of their legacies has been
substitute teachers, more teachers who rights for all people: adequate housing erased from our national consciousness.
are not licensed in their subject areas, and health care, living-wage jobs, and
• Fight to ensure that school meal
insufficient or outdated classroom mate- so on.
programs offer healthy options.
rials, and inadequate or nonexistent
Of course, we ought not tell students • Examine proposed corporate-school
learning facilities, such as science labs.
who suffer today that, if they can wait partnerships, rejecting those that require
Here in Minnesota, several school for this education revolution, every- the adoption of specific curriculums or
districts offer universal half-day klnder- thing will fall into place. So as we pedagogies.


of poverty and African-American culture:
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minority education. Anthropology and welfare among poor urban black women. University, St. Paul, Minnesota, and the
Education Quarterly, /9(4), 299-326. Work and Occupations, 23(4), 437-460. founder of EdChange (;
Compton-Lilly, C. (2003). Reading families: Jones, R. K., & Luo, Y. (1999). The culture 651-523-2584;