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Homeless in Suburbia

As more suburban students face homelessness, schools have a crucial role to play in ensuring their safety and fair treatment.

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Provide services. After the problems have been identified, advocate for ways to address them.

Conyers, Jeffco’s homeless liaison, says one of the simplest things educators and support staff can do is to simply remain alert. A student’s sudden poverty is likely to show up in increased absences, exhaustion, mood changes, change in performance and an unkempt appearance.

Also, educators should understand that the families of these students now face the daunting task of navigating the labyrinthine social-service network—a disorienting and often embarrassing task. “These former middle-class families don’t know how to apply for food stamps, they don’t know where to begin,” Conyers says. “There needs to be more hand-holding.”

Combating the “Culture of Poverty”

Educators grappling with the new poverty in the suburbs often turn to popular writers such as Charles Murray and Ruby Payne. They will find themselves misled.

According to The New York Times, “The libertarian writer Charles Murray has probably done more than any other contemporary thinker to keep alive the idea of a ‘culture of poverty,’ the theory that poor people are trapped by distorted norms and aspirations and not merely material deprivation.”

Murray reinforced that idea in his 2012 book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. One of his long-held beliefs is that social programs make the problems of poverty worse, not better. But Murray’s libertarian beliefs leave him little room to do more than call for less government. “I don’t do solutions very well,” he says.

Payne, an educational consultant, has had a more direct impact on schools. Her work is rooted in a long-held view that much of American poverty is generational, with children growing up in families that have been mired in the underclass for two or more generations. Although her outlook is popular, critics argue that her characterizations are overly simplistic, even bigoted, and harm relations between teachers and students.

According to Payne, children whose families have been poor for generations tend to value relationships over achievement, believe in physical fighting to resolve conflicts, view the world through a strictly local lens and value food for its quantity rather than quality.

Low-income children run into problems, says Payne, because their schools are run on the hidden rules of the middle class. These rules hold that work and achievement are the driving forces for decision-making, that fights are conducted with words rather than fists, the world is defined in national terms, and food is valued for its quality rather than quantity.

Paul Gorski, an assistant professor of integrated studies at George Mason University, says that Payne’s approach—considered a “deficit” model because it focuses on what low-income children lack—doesn’t hold up. The increasing diversity of the poor in the suburbs, he says, makes such an approach even harder to justify. “The suburban poor are diverse, and becoming even more diverse, so the stereotypical version of the poor, urban person just doesn’t work anymore.”

Gorski says that educators need to move away from a focus on the “culture of poverty.” Instead, they should look at more structural issues, such as the lack of resources in some schools that teach the poorest children. Today, that includes suburban schools struggling to address the needs of a new wave of impoverished children.

“We talk about education being the great equalizer, yet our poorest students are in the least equipped schools,” he says. “We don’t need to fix poor people. We need to fix the system.”

David McKay Wilson, a regular contributor to the Harvard Education Letter, traveled to India in 2003 to interview workers enslaved in bonded labor in the state of Tamil Nadu.

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