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Don Roach: The Power Of Poverty

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


You can’t focus on learning if you don’t have food in your stomach.

You can’t do as well on the SATs if your family doesn’t have the money to enroll you into a preparation class.

You can’t succeed if you don’t come from a two family home.

You can’t a private school if you family makes less than X, unless you get some sort of athletic scholarship.

We have all heard these comments coming from very well-intentioned and smart people. The basic reasoning behind such statements is if you don’t have particular resources, there is a glass ceiling to your success. With said resources you’d be able to succeed. These folks usually then tell you a governmental program can bridge the gap between where one is and where one needs to be because obviously governmental assistance is the answer to all of our problems, right?

Being poor should not be a Hall Pass to unproductivity

If you’re a parent on welfare with children in the educational system, many of the well-intentioned people who are trying to help you are keeping you locked into a cycle of failure by telling you and your children that because you find yourself with less money than your peers, this means that your children will not succeed.

All you have to do is look at the statistics I showed you last week which clearly illustrate that the more affluent the neighborhood the better graduation rates and median SAT scores. So why even try, Providence student? Why waste your time Central Falls budding McDonald’s worker (if you’re lucky)?

This type of thinking is asinine, in my opinion. If you’re a young person in poverty you need an education more than young people who aren’t in poverty. An education will get you access to worlds you don’t even know exist. An education can be your ticket out of poverty. Still, many people are telling you that your poverty is the reason why you can’t get an education and why things like standardized testing are not fair to you.

It gets me upset that we give kids with the most unfortunate situation a free pass when it comes to education by telling them how much they don’t have. That has to stop and we need to raise the level of expectation for these students. Period.

The Power of Poverty (PoP)

Memo to those people I meet along this educational crusade: I have zero tolerance for the type of thinking I described in the preceding paragraphs. Zero is probably too kind. I understand that the median income in providence is a little over $40 thousand whereas in communities like Barrington it’s over $100 thousand. Sixty thousand is nothing to sneeze at when it comes to clothing, food, shelter, and security.

But, this type of thinking bothers me for two reasons – it tells our children that if they’re poor, it’s ok and expected for them to fail within our educational system and two it doesn’t show our children how to leverage what I’ll hereafter call the “Power of Poverty” (PoP).

To describe PoP, let me start with my favorite verse from the Bible, Lamentations 3:27. The verse says simply, “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.” As a young man the most significant burden I had to bear was the death of my mother when I was 15. It was a life altering experience and at the same time my family was going through significant economic issues. Through no fault of my parents, the late 80s recession just destroyed our personal finances. This verse comforted me because I questioned why in God’s green earth would it be good to go through so much pain as a young person?

But the answer I came up with was that pain can produce power that is far greater than whatever circumstance you find yourself. I’m not intentionally trying to preach to you, but you can be poor based upon your circumstances but still rich in your mind. Your situation does not have to define who you are and when it comes to education, many of us have either ignored or not realized that the “tough” situations that some young people go through can be leveraged for their good.

The ability to do more with less and the appreciate that comes from receiving a well-earned gift is something I believe (and you all can disagree) is more appreciated by someone who hasn’t had it handed to him or her. For example if you’re a person who didn’t have any heat at one point time and you’re sitting in an office and it’s a little chilly – are you really going to care? I doubt it.

The power comes from the ability of many students who have to deal with a whole lotta crap just to come to school to focus and engage in the learning at their school. At school all you have to do is listen, learn, and think while at home you may have to deal with a number of issues that most people take for granted.

Use your situation as fuel

To summarize what I’m saying – on my educational crusade, I will not harbor any opinion that says poverty is the root cause and the impediment to educational excellence for those students who are failing. I am not ignoring poverty as a factor that can cause some to stumble. Instead, I am telling parents, teachers, and students to leverage students’ home situation so that they can achieve their highest potential. Rather than looking at it as a negative, use it for fuel.

Many look at me today and say I’m successful, but back in 1993 I had choice. I could choose to live in my circumstances and feel sorry for myself, complain that the system, the world, or God wasn’t fair, and listen to those that said I should be satisfied with what I had. Or I could use those same issues, questions, and complaints as gasoline fueling the vehicle that would lead me out of those circumstances. If I had stayed in my circumstances you wouldn’t be reading this today and I’d probably be in jail, in a ditch, or on some street corner in South Philly. I’m not superman or have any quantifiable gifts above what any other student sitting in Woonsocket has today.

No, the only thing I did was believe that there is power in poverty. I chose to wield that power rather than be consumed by it. We need to give that same choice to our “underprivileged” students today.

If we do, I expect many of them to make the same choice I did.

Don Roach can be reached at [email protected]. He really does love the book of Lamentations.


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Mr. Roach: Anxious to hear how you will address the sociopolitical realities that affect students. How will you address the inequities in "have vs have not" school districts, school budgets that look only at the bottom line and eliminate needed services such as mental health professionals or even insurance companies that will not fund programs such as in-home counseling programs?

I would also challenge you for actual examples of "If you’re a parent on welfare with children in the educational system, many of the well-intentioned people who are trying to help you are keeping you locked into a cycle of failure by telling you and your children that because you find yourself with less money than your peers, this means that your children will not succeed."

In reality the "well-intentioned people" are giving of themselves on a daily basis by opening up their wallets to pay for needed school supplies for students, snacks for students, clothes for students, food, etc. On a daily basis these "people" are opening up their hearts by coming to school early in the morning, staying late in the day, contacting parents on their own time, etc.

You are not the only one on a campaign to ensure that students achieve and thrive. You are not the only one to work diligently to help students gain the resilience they will need to succeed.

Comment #1 by barnaby morse on 2013 09 18


My main message here is that if you focus on what you don't have you won't be able to leverage what you do have. Essentially, change the paradigm.

From a per pupil spending basis, many of the 'poorer' districts spend more than "haves" districts. For example, during the 2010-11 school year Providence spent about 16,800 per student, while Barrington spent about 12,700.

I'm definitely not the only one on a campaign. But I do believe I am bringing a different perspective and I am going to challenge the notion that just because these children are at a monetary disadvantage does not mean they have to remain at an educational disadvantage for the rest of their lives.

Comment #2 by Donn Roach on 2013 09 18

The population at highest risk in school are the young men--examine the statistics. I have talked with Ph.D candidates interviewing High School students across the socio-economic spectrum. What they learned was that the biggest factor for success in HS and going to college was a consistent encouragement by parents--Mom to be specific. One thing consistently missing in many of the "disadvantaged" neighborhoods was parental involvement, and If you don't have this, all the feel-good programs in the world will yield little success. Just look at the money we pour into these schools--with poor results. But you won't hear this from those people in these jobs as it is employment--a jobs program if you will.

Comment #3 by Mike Govern on 2013 09 18

Good stuff, Don.

Kids should know that if they have the will to break free, and can find the strength not to conform to the mentality of victimhood, they can and they will succeed.

Comment #4 by Art West on 2013 09 18

75% of black children are now born out of wedlock.

its time for every black leader in this country to stop making excuses and tell young blacks to stop this activity.

we know we will never hear this from jesse Jackson or Sharpton but it really pains me when the local black leaders cry about everything else but don't advocate for change from within. I think that's why there is this racial divide that has gotten much worse with Obama.

Obama - be a real leader - start telling young blacks they need to get their act together. his inaction has set back blacks in many ways to the 1960's......he is a politician in an empty suit if there ever was one.

Comment #5 by john paycheck on 2013 09 18

Nobody should care more about your education than you. Mr. Roach is right. We need to shift the paradigm. Our society invests over $150,000 per child and frankly all to often we do not get our money's worth. If every student gave us a return like Mayor Taveras and Treasurer Raimondo Rhode Island would be a far better place. There are many causes, but I lay it on the parents more than any other place. My mother raised 5 boys in the projects from the time I was 11 until I left for college. My moms expectations of me along with sports helped keep me in school and out of trouble. Other friends with a disengaged parent(s) are still in the same economic situation and few graduated H.S.
But, without a doubt my success is primarily my success and it should be. Nobody else relies on it. All kids should be taught this.

Comment #6 by Redd Ratt on 2013 09 18


Comment #7 by lupe fiasco on 2013 09 19

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