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Hidden Obstacles

March 10, 2019

Physics classroom, Lake Howell High School, Author Steevven1 (CC Attribution 4.0 International)

He who oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker, But he who honors Him has mercy on the needy” (Prov. 14: 31).

An interesting book called Bridges Out of Poverty by RK Payne, et al, explores the hidden obstacles that keep people in poverty, including the values with which children in poverty are raised.

Contrary to the assumption of many better off, the values of the poor are not frivolous.  Nor are they intentionally self-destructive.  They stem rather from survival techniques which go unrecognized by the middle and upper classes, and are often counter-productive toward upward mobility.

The goal of the book is not to criticize these values but to identify them, so that government agencies and others can relate more effectively to those struggling with poverty.

What Bridges Out of Poverty has to say about obstacles to learning is particularly striking.


Basic survival is a driving force.  Is there enough food for another day?  This urgency places the focus on the present.  The future may never arrive.


Life is chaotic for the poor.  Situations constantly arise over which they have no control.

Planning, scheduling, and prioritizing are not, therefore, taught.  As a result, children cannot follow directions and cannot fully complete tasks at school.  This can be remedied.  But learning new skills takes time.


Language itself can be an obstacle.  According to Bridges Out of Poverty, those raised in poverty use casual language almost exclusively.  The formal language used at school and work may be completely unknown to children and adults alike.

Catholic school teachers, for instance, tend to speak as if school were a shared experience.  “We must pay attention” or “We must study”.  Public school teachers create more verbal distance from their students.  “Which of you can answer that question?  Anyone?  You there.”  In college, teachers are likely to speak in an even more detached manner.  “One must be prepared.  One must study.”

All this is foreign to the poor.

Problem Solving

Broken families, drug and alcohol abuse, can all deprive a child of the nurture required.  Such difficulties are not, of course, limited to the poor.

In the absence of a concerned individual to interpret the world for a child (to explain cause and effect), the child does not develop a systematic way of exploring the world.  As a result, that child will only “see” 50% of what is on a given page at school. 

This deficiency interferes with the collection of reliable information about the world, and continues into adulthood, making problem solving difficult.  It is not though a reflection of low intelligence and can, with care and attention, be remedied.

These are only generalizations.  And they do not address the overriding obstacle of racism.  Still, they show how much a child from a poverty background has to overcome, over and apart from limited resources.

The Christian Role

What should this mean for us as Christians?

Christ made no distinction on the basis of race, class or income.  Children are our most precious resource.  Each is unique and deserving.  We must invest the time and effort needed to provide them the best possible chance for a future.


  1. Thank you Anna for this powerful and important article.

  2. This is so relevant to the context in which I live, which is a poor area of a small Central Asian republic. Thanks for sharing these thoughts. Like you said, so many of these things are “unrecognized by the middle and upper classes,” and so those of us from these backgrounds who work with the poor definitely have a lot of learning to do.

  3. Well-written and insightful!

  4. Thanks for a very enlightening post.

  5. In recently becoming acquainted with an educated, bright, funny, qualified, but homeless woman, I’ve become aware of another huge obstacle – a Catch 22. She applies for a job and is told that she can’t be hired without a background check, which is impossible without an address. But even government subsidized housing requires some source of income, however small, in order to get a residence – an address. So, once a person is in that situation, how in the world can she prove herself and climb out?

    • There is Legal Aid available to the homeless at no cost which can pursue benefits such as Food Stamps (SNAP), Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, and Social Security Disability. While government agencies are required to verify citizenship and residence, there are multiple ways to verify identity for instance date of birth, parents’ names, and social security number. For Social Security purposes, missions, homeless shelters, even public lobbies where the homeless may spend their time can be used as an “address” when verified by witnesses. The rules for state agencies vary from one state to another. Some states allow a friend or relative’s address to be used. For more information, see the Homeless Law Blog and/or contact the Social Security Administration or your local Welfare Dept. directly. I hope this helps!

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