What does it mean to be poor in America?


Recently, I finished Matthew Desmond's book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City and I think the conversation is both important and relevant in adult education. Below are a few powerful passages: 

  • "Evictions... [embroil] not only landlord and tenants but also kin and friends, lovers and ex-lovers, judges and lawyers, dope suppliers and church elders. Eviction's fallout is severe. Losing a home sends families to shelters, abandoned houses, and the street. It invites depression and illness, compels families to move into degrading housing in dangerous neighborhoods, uproots communities, and harms children. Eviction reveals people's vulnerability and desperation, as well as their ingenuity and guts."
  • "If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out."
  • "Poverty could pile on; living it often meant steering through gnarled thickets of interconnected misfortunes and trying not to go crazy. There were moments of calm, but life on balance was facing one crisis after another."
  • "The persistence and brutality of American poverty can be disheartening, leaving us cynical about solutions. But ... a good home can serve as the sturdiest of footholds. When people have a place to live, they become better parents, workers, and citizens."

As we often work with adult education students who are in the most vulnerable stages of their life, facing substandard housing or homelessness. In a 2001 study, Attitudes Toward the Poor and Attributions for Poverty, author's Cozzarelli, Wilkinson, and Tagler state that "Americans believe there are multiple determinants of poverty but that individualistic or 'internal' causes are more important than external causes." Basically, we recognize there are systemic issues that cause poverty but we expect an individual to 'overcome' these barriers and move toward self-sufficiency. 

So, what does all of this mean for adult education? How do we maintain or mission of increasing literacy and numeracy skills of adults when they are struggling with poverty? How do we design effective programming when students are dealing with income inequity? 

I'd love to hear your thoughts on how we aid students in these situations.



Many adult basic education programs have long recognized that significant numbers of the learners they serve face significant challenges (and opportunities) in their lives. These challenges can include not just a lack of basic skills but health problems, inadequate housing, criminal records, disabilities, lack of transportation, limited work history and employability skills, discrimination, and others (like the ones Kathy Tracey alludes to in the previous post).  

Those adult educators (often in collaboration with other agencies) have intentionally provided contextualized instruction and other support services that help learners develop basic skills, background knowledge, self-efficacy beliefs ("I can do it if I try."), and support systems that they can use to navigate those challenges and make use of assets (internal and external) available to them.  

This approach has been developed  in various ways over several decades by various types of adult basic education programs, including the community-based adult education programs of the 1980s, programs serving former inmates, programs supporting people with disabilities, and job-readiness and career pathway programs (among others). This approach was central to the Equipped for the Future adult literacy system reform initiative of the National Institute for Literacy, which was based on the premise that adults come to adult literacy programs with the hope of improving their ability to more effectively perform work, family, and/or civic roles. Creative adult educators worked within that conceptual framework and were guided by the research that underlay EFF to teach component sub-skills of reading and other basic skills in ways that were engaging and relevant to learners' lives.  

My sense is that many adult educators are eager to have training and other supports (e.g., engaging, easy-to-use curricula; mentoring networks; adequate funding) so they can adapt such a learner-centered approach to the particular learners they work with.                                            

Paul Jurmo                                                                                                                                                             www.pauljurmo.info

I've heard such good things about Evicted from others who've read it. My first job after high school was working at a legal aid clinic for low-income families in San Bernardino, CA. For the next several summer and winter breaks, I completed clients' paperwork for guardianships and responses to eviction. It was incredibly eye-opening to hear about the awful conditions people had to live in, and the horrible treatment by landlords. 

On another note, about 10 years ago my colleague and I did some research on residential mobility in family literacy programs in PA. 

-research brief: https://ed.psu.edu/goodling-institute/research/research-brief-finalC-1

-article: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/254025712_Poverty_Residential_Mobility_and_Persistence_across_Urban_and_Rural_Family_Literacy_Programs_in_Pennsylvania

We address the prominence of individualistic explanations for poverty and program persistence in this article: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/286722605_Individual_and_structural_attributions_for_poverty_and_persistence_in_family_literacy_programs_The_resurgence_of_the_culture_of_poverty