Stories about life in Liddonfield housing project and its impact on the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Upper Holmesburg. These true stories reveal how government policy affected the lives of real people, from the project residents to area homeowners during the 5 decades of Liddonfield’s existence. Stories and articles are written by a former resident of the project.


Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline

Oct 1, 2012

Three Things Low-Income Parents Must Stop Telling Their Kids

by Rosemary Reeves

Imagine if from the day you were born, you were raised to expect the absolute minimum out of life.  Your mom and dad repeatedly told you that if you had what you need to survive, it was enough.  You learned to eat small meals and walk away from the table not quite satisfied.  You were taught that one pair of shoes was all you required and never mind that they were worn out.  The housing project your family lives in is falling to pieces.  There are holes in the walls and cracks in the ceiling that water drips through whenever it rains.  Your parents tell you not to complain, though, because you should be glad to have a roof over your head.  Throughout your childhood, you are conditioned to have not so great expectations, to accept the least and the smallest and never, ever to ask for something more.  Do you think you would do well when you grew up?  

Poor kids are often subject to this kind of psychological conditioning by their parents, who use it as a survival strategy.  It is torture to hear your children ask for more when you cannot give it to them.  It seems compassionate to teach them to be satisfied with less, to spare you and your child the pain of longing for things you cannot have.  Also, the parents were raised that way themselves and are passing on the thought process to their own children. 

This “expect the minimum out of life” thought process carries over into the classroom if it is not challenged.  When most poor kids get a minimum passing grade in school, they believe they have done well.  I have heard many low-income parents say, “I’ll just be happy if my child graduates high school.”  They hope their children go to college, but they don’t expect it.  When they graduate or drop out of high school, low-income parents often say, “I’ll just be happy if my child gets a job.”  

By the time these children from low-income families grow up, this thought process is firmly ingrained in their minds, so they think getting a job – any job – is a significant accomplishment.  In keeping with what they have learned from the passing down of not so great expectations, they are able to survive on minimum wage by living in low-rent substandard housing and eating small meals once or twice a day.  They become parents themselves.  They know their family should be getting more out of life, but they can’t stand their children crying and complaining, so they tell them to toughen up and be glad for what they have.  These low-income parents don’t realize it, but they are psychologically conditioning their children to live a life of low expectations.  In doing so, they are unknowingly preventing their children from escaping poverty.

Middle-class children are taught to have high expectations and that is one of the significant reasons they tend to have superior grades in school.  Their parents teach them that the minimum is never enough.  The thought process that is passed onto middle-class children is to aim high and expect much out of life and much from themselves.  If a middle-class child gets a barely passing grade, most likely he is shown disapproval and told to do much better.  His parents teach him to be the best he can possibly be, to compete, to excel and to win.  Middle-class parents have a strong emphasis on winning.  They teach their children they are winners and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Unfortunately, the only time most low-income parents emphasize winning is in sports.  If it doesn’t involve football or basketball, the words “you are a winner” is never uttered on their lips.  The football field or the basketball court is a great escape from the hopeless reality of their everyday lives.  Also, in sports, low-income folks are on an equal footing with their competition.  It doesn’t matter how much money they have, but who is the fastest, the strongest and the most talented.  Sports is the one area where they feel they have a good chance of winning and they are right.  Many star athletes were born into poverty and made millions with their career in sports.  Poor children feel confident, strong and equal when it comes to athletics.  However, they lose all confidence in themselves and their ability to compete and win in the everyday world, because their parents have taught them that sports are fun but the everyday world is full of limitations they simply must accept.

What happens when they leave the exhilaration of the sports arena and go home?  At home lurks all the depressing reminders of their poverty.  There are no winners within those four walls and so they forget to say, “You are a winner!” to their children otherwise.  They forget to encourage them to compete, excel and win at school and in the working world because they themselves have been unable to compete, to excel and to win.  They could if they can manage to override the thought process that was passed down to them from their own parents.


“Just be glad for what you have.”

Don’t ever tell your children that, when they have very little!  In essence, you’re telling them they deserve only the bare minimum out of life and that will damage them, possibly beyond repair.  Tell them instead, “We do not have much right now, but we will come up with a plan to make things better.”  Afterwards, sit down with your child and include them in the planning.  Show them how you use math when creating a budget or how to come up with a plan to save a little each week to eventually get what you want, even if it’s only a dollar or 50 cents a week.  

“God will provide.”

Low-income parents often place too much emphasis on faith and too little emphasis on math and science.  Teaching your children to rely on a higher power to solve money problems instead of taking active steps toward self-sufficiency will hold them back.  This often used phrase teaches low-income kids that the appropriate response to money problems is inaction.  Faith alone does not pay the bills.  Faith alone will not get you decent housing, your next meal or a good paying job.  Putting the power in God’s hands leaves everything up in the air.  It teaches your child to play a waiting game.  There isn’t a millionaire on the face of the planet that made his money by believing “God will provide.”  You must teach your children that power can be found within themselves and to harness that power through knowledge.  Encourage them to read a variety of books, not just the Bible.  

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

This was a favorite of my mother’s.  She always said that you had to be important to know someone important and us “little people” would never get ahead because of this reason.  False!  If only Mom knew better, it would have saved me years of low-paying jobs in adulthood.  While it is true that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” these are words of wisdom, not defeat.  Knowing someone influential will indeed help you get ahead, but influential people are not hard to meet and socialize with, despite the fact that you may be low-income.

As a low-income parent, you should get your kid into a free leadership program as soon as possible and you should become involved in your local civic group.  This is where you meet the people who influence neighborhood politics.  Don’t be intimidated, even if you think you’ll be the only low-income person there.  You may be poor, but you are a citizen and entitled to have your say in matters concerning your neighborhood.  It doesn’t cost a thing and the more you contribute to civic meetings the more you will become influential yourself.  Be polite at all times and be helpful.  Don’t just complain about bad stuff in the neighborhood.  Contribute some ideas for the group to consider.  Introduce yourself to everyone and remember their names, who they are and what they do.  Your association with them may help you get hired by word of mouth in the future.  Put your civic group activities on your resume or job application and ask an influential member if you can use them for a job reference.  Meeting influential people is a lot easier than you think.  All it takes is some spare time, an outgoing personality and commitment.  All of those things are free.  

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