Last month St. John’s held its usual observation of Poverty Education Week, a week dedicated to helping students understand the unfairness and strife of poverty. The school wants us to empathize with the struggles of those in poverty and see that they are intrinsically worth no more or less than anyone else. As much as I like the idea behind this week, I think the execution comes up short.
Think about all the poverty week lessons you can remember. Are there more than two or three? Are there any from earlier school years? Herein lies the problem: Poverty Education Week lacks the impact it needs.
I think the most important thing Poverty Week needs to address is the practicality of what’s being taught. It’s important that students understand the value of every person and the inhumanity of poverty, but just having sympathy is about as useful for solving the problem as a bucket of water is for putting out a raging wildfire. What needs to be seen more in Poverty Week is practical education; showing students why poverty is such a problem across the country (and world) as well as ways they can affect real change.
Here’s a way to break down what needs to be taught in the classes students are taking. Math classes can show how the relationship between wages and costs has worsened over the years. History classes can teach how American wealth inequality has changed throughout the years and link that to modern-day problems and solutions; the Gilded Age and the Great Depression stand out as good examples of America’s struggles with wealth. These classes can go on to teach students who to contact about fixing things in their area, and the whole school can recommend reputable places to volunteer until things are better on a larger scale.
I like this solution because it divides the work of helping students understand poverty across their classes and the whole week as well as linking that to the work they would already be doing in those classes, making it productive on two levels. Knowing what makes poverty such an issue and learning methods to solve it will do a much better job equipping students to push for change during and after their years at St. John’s.
Mr. Maloney’s Justice in Modern American History class effectively did this throughout poverty week. Instead of having a single lesson, Mr. Maloney spent an entire week teaching us about poverty. He introduced the class to the Spent game and assigned the movie Pursuit of Happyness, which is an excellent example of the self-perpetuating nature of poverty. To address the history of poverty and possible solutions, he assigned a news story by Malcolm Gladwell about a homeless man who cost Reno, Nevada one million dollars from repeated hospital visits which shows how America’s methods for dealing with homelessness are flawed. This article describes how most homeless people are only homeless for a couple days, and the exceptions need more targeted help that solve homelessness. I learned more about poverty in this class than I had in the past four years. If the whole school’s efforts were directed that way, imagine how much more effective our poverty education would be.