Growing up in poverty

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Note to reader: This was my submission to the Guardian International Development Competition. As I did not make the shortlist I thought I’d post it here. 

Nelson Mandela once proclaimed that “Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.” Last year World Bank President Robert Zoellick announced that the target to halve global poverty had been achieved. Yet critics argue that serious issues with surveys used to support this claim undermine its credibility. To understand how we can better engage the poor youth of today, I spoke to three people who grew up in poverty, to see how it has affected their lives in adulthood.

We begin with a woman named Trisha from the US. Almost a quarter of all children in the industrialised nation grow up in low income families. She tells me she was considered “white trash” growing up on the outskirts of Lubbock, a medium sized city in the state of Texas. While both her parents were well educated, her father began to suffer from poor mental health at the age of four, leaving the burden of child rearing on her mother. This put enormous strain on her, and she would sometime­­s work two or more jobs at minimum wage.

They survived on mostly handouts – “We went to soup kitchens and churches for free meals, and got government food, and some food stamps.” She explains that “anytime anything unexpected happened…there was never any wiggle room, and my mother wrote hot checks to cover them.”

Trisha, now thirty, still lives in a trailer with her husband and two children. “Our car is broken down, and we rarely have extra money for anything.” She confides that at a point, she felt as if her parents “gave up… and just tried to keep things from getting worse…My mother is 65 and working part time as a cafeteria lady, with no retirement to speak of. I don’t want that for me, and I don’t want that for my family. I feel like I’m a little too old to change things…[but] I keep trying to think of ways out of this rut.”

In comparison to Trisha, Hernan is a young man who grew up in Argentina. The countries official poverty rate almost doubled to 47% during the 1989 currency crisis, and continues to fluctuate during the country’s volatile economic cycles. His father was a waiter and drug addict, his mother a housewife. Both had failed to complete high school, which Hernan says motivated him to study and become a scientist.

“The first time I dreamt of becoming a scientist I was 8 or less. I read relativity theory… Not understanding more than a few words, but [that] was enough…Einstein is my all time super hero. I decided to copy, by all means his rebellious [spirit].”

While the poverty rate fell to 16% by 1994, the consequent Tequila crisis left Hernan’s father unemployed. During this time, he “was forced to work in the streets, selling toy cars at the age of thirteen for money.” Despite all the odds however, the young Argentinean persevered, attaining several degrees and a string of well paying jobs. He now works as a computer scientist for Microsoft.

When asked what he found most difficult about growing up poor, he said “Everything cost you more. If you got money, talent doesn’t matter. I made my way through college because I’m somehow gifted at math. So, I always earned financial aids. Some of my friends, with talent for… music, literature or even politics, didn’t get any kind of luck.”

The last person I spoke to is a young man named Aman who now also works with computers. He was born in Bahrain, but moved to the Indian state Kerala at the age of thirteen. The World Bank estimates that around one-third of the total Indian population fall below the international poverty line, while almost two-thirds live on less than $2 a day. Soon after his arrival in Kerala, Aman’s parents divorced, and he ended up living with his amputee father.

“With a single disabled parent and no means of income, my brother and I worked through all of school and college. We rode auto rickshaws, we did door-to-door salesmanship for curry powders, we worked at telephone booths, sold lottery tickets, and for a while I even sold liquor in the black market.” He says he felt ashamed by his poverty, and would go to great lengths to hide the fact he was poor from his peers.

Growing up in a low income family clearly has a dramatic effect on a person later in life, both economically and psychologically. While Hernan and Aman were ultimately able to escape the poverty trap, their struggles were exacerbated by growing up in low income families. Trisha has not been so fortunate, and I can’t help but wonder what she might of achieved if her and her family had been provided with more substantial government aid. If in a nation like the US income inequalities did not exist, every family would earn around $200,000 a year. While in 2012 Gross World Product per capita was approximately $12,400, it is estimated that 1.3bn people globally still live on less than $1 a day.

From speaking to Trisha, Herman and Aman, it is apparent the most important factor to a child’s success is investment in their education. Without support for poor households, children are often forced into work at an early age. Research is clear – poverty is the single greatest threat to child’s well-being. Currently there is a lack of effective policy dealing with the issue, even in developed countries, were income disparities continue to grow. Yet there is promising progress. For instance, a new pilot study at Panthbadodiya in India has shown that supplementing a family’s income at regular intervals can dramatically improve a child’s education, and the family’s general wellbeing. Academic performance improved in 68% of the families, and the time they spent at school almost tripled.

Collectively we can still improve the prospects of those children born into such unfortunate circumstances. As Hernan so eloquently puts it – “Impossible? It’s just a word.”

By Suhail H. Patel

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