When I was a college student, I remember watching a movie about a homeless girl who made it to Harvard. It was a true story. It made me cry; yet I wondered if it was really so sensational that it would be a Hollywood story. I come from one of the poorest countries in the world. I am very much familiar with the face of poverty. But back then, little did I know how it engulfs the entire life of the poor, their hopes and aspirations.
Poor people often do not have an aspiration because they know that it will only break their hearts. Yes, there is a social ladder that they could possibly climb. But the bottom rungs of that ladder are too far apart. Or maybe the poor are so stunted by malnutrition that they just can’t reach the next rung. They could strive and jump. But most probably they will fall through the gap facedown.
It is a common wisdom that education can push anyone up the ladder. I saw people expressing their annoyance about why poor people do not send their kids to school despite free education? Well, the path to success through education is not unconditional. It is full of loopholes. Schools that poorer children go to are also poor. In those schools, quality of education tends to be much worse than average. Uneducated parents stressed out with their constant battle with poverty are not much of a help. Many poor kids learn almost nothing after years of schooling.
Even if a poor kid somehow rises from the ashes and get a chance to go to a good college, where would the money come from? I read a news about a poor kid who got admission in a leading public medical college in Bangladesh. Any middle-class parent would be overjoyed by the child’s success. But the parents of that kid were concerned and sad because they did not know how they would pay for his education. Even he somehow manages to scrape by and completes his education, what is the guarantee that he would get a good job? Would he be smart enough and speak good English like his middle-class friends? Does he have the social network that is crucial for landing him a job? Who knows?
With all these ifs and buts and the opportunity cost of sending the children to school, poor parents often make the choice of sending them to work instead of school. May be they make the best possible decision for their children? May be they don’t want that their children to be educated with a lifelong aspiration to transcend only to become a part of the “ant tribe”, as they are called in China, disillusioned and heart-broken.
Education is just an example. Invisible obstacles litter the path to success for any poor anywhere in the world. So it is insensitive to make blanket comments about the poor judgment of the poor, as many of us often do. We need to be more sensitive about their situations.
For policy makers it is absolutely important to wear the shoes of the poor to have a better understanding about their world and to be able to make real poor-friendly policies. It is not just about giving out food stamps, it is about creating an environment of social mobility where poor people can be assured that if they work hard they can reach their destination.