English teacher opens discussion on poverty

English teacher Sarah Gray expains corporate personality tests, that major coperations like Walmart require their workers to take. The tests tell the corporation if the workers are suitable for employment. The tests encourage lying and reduce turn over. (Photo by Serenity Barron)

Addie Conway
Opinion Columnist

“There is [poverty] in Webster, but we don’t really see it,” said Reeba Varghese, a junior in Sarah Gray’s A.P. English class.

It’s an issue not discussed in Webster: poverty, but poverty exists everywhere, especially with the still current economic downturn, including in Webster Groves.

“I live in an area where it is mostly middle-class people who can afford housing in Webster, which is one of the nicer and richer communities in St. Louis. Poverty is a necessary thing to discuss, because it’s a growing issue that’s getting even bigger day by day. They talk to us about different issues like sexism, gay rights or racism but don’t talk to us about poverty,” continued Varghese.

Gray wants to change that. She began a unit with her junior students on poverty and is using the book, “Nickel and Dimed” by Barbra Ehrenreich. The book discusses several issues, including what it’s meant to work full-time in America and still be unable to get out from under the poverty line. She also issued a questionnaire to students before previously reading the book, to get background information about students and their thoughts or experiences with poverty.

“Originally it was a choice [between English chair person Rita Chapman and me] about what to bring into A.P,” said Gray. “There’s always been a mixed response, but I felt it was something students need to know about. There are a number of reasons people don’t discuss poverty. I was surprised [with the questionnaires] about how much students thought about the questions. The students were really aware of their families’ finances, and more students than I thought were affected.”

“It is an issue,” said Sammi Jernigan, junior in Gray’s class. “Poverty can hit anyone, from people who live really nicely, to those that are struggling every day. Poverty is about people who have been handed a bad situation, not that they have been lazy or using drugs.”

“A lot of students don’t want anyone to know that their families are struggling financially,” said crisis counselor Anne Gibbs. “There is no geographic trend. Poverty is prevalent everywhere. Poverty doesn’t have a limit. Shame is a big reason why people don’t see poverty very much. People are embarrassed to say if they need help.”

In 1988, the McKinney-Vento Act was signed into legislation. The Act was further revised in 1990, 1992 and 1994, with minor changes in 1998. The Act stated students who were homeless, which could conceivably be considered as living with another family, not just living on the streets or in a shelter, had the right to continue going to the public school they were previously enrolled in.

“The McKinney-Vento Act states for students who are classified as homeless, the school has to provide free education. The school also has to provide transportation as well. By bouncing to different districts every few months, a student’s education gets harmed and this act was to make sure that didn’t happen,” said Gibbs.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the city of St. Louis 26 percent of people are below the poverty line and the median income level is $33,652. In St. Louis County, 9.6 percent of people are below the poverty line and the median income is $57,651. In the entire state of Missouri, 14 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and the median income is $46,262 and in the United States, 13.8 percent of people live below the poverty line, with the median income being $51,914.

In the 2011-2012 school year, 286 students (roughly 20 percent) were involved with the free and reduced lunch program, and 12 students were classified as homeless.

“People in Webster have to talk about [poverty] because it exists all around us. As people get to know more people who have lost jobs, people begin to see an acute sense of poverty,” said English and French teacher Jeff Stein. “Poverty has an immediate impact on the quality of life, especially for kids. I think people are making much more careful decisions [about where they spend their money].”

“From reading the questionnaires, [poverty] are really on student’s minds,” said Gray. “Students have been affected in different ways and students realize that with how the economy is today, there is huge implications for student’s futures. It would be a really cool thing to have poverty discussed in the community. People could offer tips that are helpful in both a practical sense but also in a community sense, because it lets people know they’re not alone.”

Programs on local, state and national levels help those dealing with poverty. Webster-Rock Hill Ministries has both a food pantry and a soup kitchen: the Salvation Army has free or reduced clothing, and Provident Counseling which offers free counseling for youth.

“We all need to be aware that poverty is something that affects students across the district,” said Gibbs. “Even when the economy improves, it is important not to forget about them.”

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