Both my mom and dad grew up in extreme poverty. Neither one of them went beyond a 6th grade formal education. Their childhoods and youth were one of intense struggle and suffering. Their trauma was compounded with the loss of family and social support as they immigrated first to Spain and then to the United States.
My dad lost his life in a work accident when he was 48 years old. He did dangerous work in a sugar mill, exposed to heavy machinery, poor working conditions, and long hours. His dream was to get us all out of poverty. My mom developed heart disease in her mid-thirties and by age 39 had open-heart bypass surgery. She had a second one 13 years later. Her health was compromised way before her surgery, and she struggled with her health until she passed at age 77.
Poverty strips people of their physical and mental health. The consequences of poverty are transmitted generationally, even when poverty is superseded by an earlier generation.
I mention this as a context for my interest in this topic and to encourage you to read a recent report by the Brookings Institution on race and poverty in the US. The findings are dramatic and shocking. Here’s one insight:
Black adults in their 30s are over 16 times more likely than white adults to be in the third generation of poverty in a row. In fact, Black Americans are 41 percent more likely to be in third-generation poverty than white Americans are to be poor.
Although this post may seem out of place, understanding the world around us is critical for our wellbeing. We don’t live in little bubbles. Even when we try, the world crashes in on us unexpectedly.
For me, the trauma of poverty was something I experienced in early childhood. I am thankful I was able to move away from the insecurity of poverty by the time I was 10 years old. I am grateful for my parents and the efforts they made to get my sister and I out of the cycle of poverty. I’m aware, however, that their efforts may have been for nought if they were in Black bodies in this country. I am aware that many of the students who are in my classes at Miami Dade College are still within the grips of deep poverty, often struggling with food and housing insecurity. I am deeply aware that each student I work with in prison is there as a result of trauma, often trauma induced by poverty.
When we talk about racism, people often get confused with the notion of personal racism and quickly point to how many things have improved since MLK. But that sort of thinking avoids the essence of racism, which is economic and structural in nature. Racism in the US has always been about wealth and the theft of wealth. (Slavery is just one of the most evident forms of this.)
Poverty is a terrible life sucking vampire. It destroys health. It limits human expression and creativity. Likewise, it leaves marks not just on past generations, but present and future ones. In this country, poverty and race go hand in hand.
Here’s the link to the page with the report. I hope you take some time to read. Education is a doorway out of poverty—the kind my parents experienced and the kind that is of the mind and imagination, the result of looking the other way and staying comfortably sealed in a bubble.