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A Publication of WTVP

Poverty and the Trauma of Shaming

What can adults do in the lives of children experiencing the impact of poverty? 

by Anni K. Reinking, Ed.D. |
Anni K. Reinking

As an educator, researcher and author, I focus on the impact of poverty on students. Through my work, I had a parent tell me the following story…

“I was attending my son’s school’s PTO meeting. The president was presenting our yearly budget and explaining how much money the PTO spends on snacks for classroom parties. It was then suggested that each student brings $2 to cover the cost of the snack, instead of the PTO paying for it. The overall consensus was that this was a good idea.

“I sat there and remained silent. When my son started school, he qualified for free lunch because of our family’s low income. I was a stay-at-home mom, but had recently started working a new job. I kept thinking about the $2 each child was going to be asked to provide to enjoy their classroom party.

“After the meeting, I spoke with the PTO president and asked, ‘Is it mandatory for the children to bring the $2? I think some parents would be willing to donate snacks for the entire class.’ She and the other committee members reassured me that if the child does not bring the money, they could still participate in the party. I was glad because I did not want any child to be left out because they do not have $2.

“I still left feeling disheartened because I know some parents will feel obligated to send money in with their child. Regardless if they do not have it, they will ‘figure it out’ just so their child does not look like ‘the poor kid.’ That $2 may be gas money, grocery money or emergency fund money, but the PTO was asking parents to use it for a holiday party snack.” 

The Impacts of Poverty

This story happens over and over in schools around Illinois and the country. It illustrates the common occurrence of families and students living in poverty being “shamed” due to their circumstances. These situations can hit anyone at any time, and it has become even more relevant during the pandemic. As the author bell hooks once stated, “Shame produces trauma. Trauma produces paralysis”—a figurative paralysis that impacts a child’s brain development and future academic trajectory. 

Living in and experiencing conditions of poverty impact the development and engagement of the prefrontal cortex. This is the “learning center” of the brain, which develops quickly during early childhood. In addition, poverty impacts the development of trusting relationships and positive interactions—all of which are essential to the development of the whole child. 

Connected to economic shaming is both food and behavior shaming. Food shaming often results in a student going without food, or being identified in some way to their peers that they receive free or reduced lunch. One school in the Midwest requires all students who receive free and reduced lunch to stop by the office every day before lunch to get their hand stamped. That stamp has resulted in bullying by other students, as well as being denied portions of lunch due to financial barriers. 

Several years ago, after teaching a graduate course focused on students and families living in poverty, I worked with a former student who is advocating to eradicate lunch shaming in schools. You can visit the website he created at endlunchshaming.com

Food shaming often goes hand-in-hand with behavior shaming. Extended hunger can make anyone feel frustrated, impatient and outright angry. Essentially, it is difficult—and sometimes close to impossible—to be able to learn or be on our “best” behavior when we are hungry, scared, insecure, unsafe, thirsty or tired. When students living in poverty are hungry, they often display more challenging behaviors: what society refers to as “hangry.” These challenging behaviors are regularly seen as a problem with the child, resulting in isolation, embarrassment or further bullying. 

Advocating for Change

So, what can adults do in the lives of children experiencing the impact of poverty? It is important that adults work to support resiliency qualities, build relationships, and counter any other negative impact that is within their locus of control. Additionally, it is important to evaluate one’s personal mindset regarding families living in poverty. 

Beliefs about poverty are born from assumptions, stereotypes, myths, lies, overgeneralizations and misinformation. According to Paul Gorski, a lead researcher in multicultural education: “What most people believe about poverty is at best incomplete and at worst dangerously biased.” Negative assumptions about children and families living in poverty are often built through the cycle of socialization—specifically through the reinforcement of messages through institutional and cultural structures. 

Why must we reflect on our personal beliefs? Our beliefs color how problems are viewed and which solutions are created and enacted upon. If we view poverty as a problem to be solved, we focus on a reactive solution, rather than on preventative or proactive action. 

So, that is the first action: reflect on your biases and be honest with yourself regarding your thoughts and resulting actions. Second, advocate for change focused on prevention and not reaction. Prevention in every community may look different, but when mindsets are focused on strengths, proactive movement will occur. There are many good resources that provide more information on this topic if you are interested.  PM

Anni K. Reinking, Ed.D, is a member of the Peoria Public Schools Board of Education and co-author of The Economic and Opportunity Gap: A Toolkit for Educators Working with Students Living in Poverty. Visit akreinking.com to contact her or for more information.

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