What do you think of when you hear that word? I think of preconceptions of individuals based on a perceived group truth. I think of unfairly judging someone because you think some quality they possess automatically defines them as a person.  I think, with sadness, of how even I have to actively fight against believing in stereotypes.

We have all heard the typical schoolhouse stereotypes: cheerleaders are all airheads, popular kids like to drink and party, jocks are dumb, members of the band like to sleep around, only boys play videogames, geeks are socially awkward… the list goes on. And though many of us understand that you can’t judge an individual based on stereotypes, we often do it anyway. The truth is, when you believe something to be true, it’s a lot harder for it to be disproved in your mind than it is for it to be proved.

One thing our education system is struggling to do is close the socioeconomic gap of achievement. Kids from affluent families often go further in education than those from poor families. To solve the problem, we need to get to the root of it—and unfortunately, too many of us harbor stereotypes about poor families and students that keep us from a real solution.

In his book, Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap, author Paul C. Gorski examines some of these poverty stereotypes—and then destroys them.

1. Poor People Do Not Value Education

Most teachers determine parental attitudes about education based on how involved a student’s family is. That’s a fair point of concern, but unfortunately many judge that involvement based solely on in-school participation—forgetting that involvement can also take place at home. Lower income families have actually been found to engage in more home-based involvement than affluent families. Plus, low-income families often have a harder time attending school events due to the inability to take time off work, find or afford childcare, or lack of reliable transportation.


Image: Michael (my_new_wintercoat) via Flickr

2. Poor People Are Lazy

Believe it or not, this is a common stereotype. If someone is poor, then they obviously are lazy, have poor work ethics, or are just not willing to work for a better life, right? Wrong. Poor working adults work, on average 1.2 full time jobs, or 2,500 hours per year, often a combination of multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet. As for working up the food chain, well, most of these jobs are in careers that don’t have many benefits or opportunities for advancement. Additionally, about twenty percent of jobs today pay wages that are poverty-level or lower, making it even harder to work up and out of poverty.

3. Poor People are Substance Abusers

Actually, wealthy people are more likely to be alcohol abusers than poor people. As for youth, the research isn’t definitive—some studies have found predominantly privileged white students to use alcohol at a greater rate than African American and low-income students. Other studies found the two groups’ alcohol use to be equally distributed. There’s also little evidence to support the claim that poor people abuse other drugs more than wealthy people. That’s not to say that drug and alcohol use is not a problem, but rather that it exists in both groups—but low-income people do not have easy access to recovery options.

What do you think of these poverty stereotypes? Have you bought into them before, or do you know someone who has? Stereotypes can be hard to overcome, especially if they seem logical or have been harbored for a long time; but setting those stereotypes aside is essential for closing the gap. For further reading and to see the other two poverty stereotypes, check out this excerpt from the book on the Washington Post, or purchase Gorski’s book on Amazon.