Ghetto Life the Psychology of Poverty

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ghetto children internalize failure

The following article is based on my personal experience living in the ghetto, growing up with black children and university research work as a therapist in counseling psychology.

Note: I use the term black because Montrealers do not refer to themselves as Afro-Canadians. The term black is the favored term. Also, I do not want to leave the impression that no one leaves the ghetto, because there are many prominent black and white people alike from Montreal who have left the ghetto. I will talk about a few of them in my next article.

This article deals with the issues of ghetto life and the psychology of poverty and presents a ghetto community in Montreal, Quebec

The harsh reality of ghetto life produces attitudes that are quite unfamiliar to middle class people. These attitudes are viewed as defeatist and are actually transferred upon the ghetto dweller so that they appear to be lazy, always looking for a hand out, and most importantly refusing to work. What the middle class person does not understand is that these attitudes come from years of being rejected, years of struggling and never getting ahead, years of finally internalizing that you are useless and unable to do anything; even if you try you will NOT be given a break anyhow.

Much research is being done in this area and psychologists are starting to understand the psychology of poverty. For example, middle class parents instill in their children from the onset, that when they get a good education and when they work hard enough they will indeed succeed in any career path of their choice. This ideal is hardly ever questioned as it is a given in most cases, especially if the children will be in a position to take over their parents company, become a partner in a firm, or follow the tradition handed down to the them when they come from a family of doctors or military etc.

The poor have a tradition to live up to as well. They have the tradition of being on welfare. They have the tradition of never completing a good education because they have no resources available to them. They have the tradition of knowing that even if they do strive to work hard, who will hire them with such limited skills anyhow?

I watched all these ideologies materialize when I was growing up. That sad part is, forty years latter, not much had changed.

Ghetto life in Montreal: Past and Present

In my ghetto community families struggled all the time to survive. There was a glimmer of hope if you were white, but if you were black like the majority of the community, that hope was taking away from you. You had to battle the additional reality of racism in the work place.

What I just said may have been my past, but it is still currently true. I have just painted a picture of just about any ghetto reality in America, but remember I am from Quebec, and we had yet another hardship to overcome which is how to be English speaking in a French environment? This aspect alone levels the playing field for all ghetto dwellers alike. In the rare occasion that a black person could speak French and I do mean rare, they did indeed obtain gainful employment before a white person who didn't.

Looking at the harsh reality of ghetto life, it is no wonder that psychologists found attitude differences among ghetto and middle class communities. Middle class children grew up looking towards the future as something they could create for themselves and make as good as they wanted it to be. Poor children grew up first wondering if they would grow up at all, or be shot in a gang fight before they reached the age of majority.

The other reality was how to survive on a day-to-day basis, before even dreaming about the future. Poor high school students live with the reality of watching their parents struggle day in and day out to put food on the table and most of the time that food does not stretch far enough. Many a young child and high school student alike have gone to school hungry because there was not even a slice of bread in house for them to take with them.

Again psychologists have found that children do not perform well in school on an empty stomach. So put all these factors together and you have that the poor do not dream of the future being in their control as their middle class counterparts do. The poor are more concerned with the immediate concerns of staying alive, not being shot in a gang war, and putting food on their tables. They do not perform well in school because of being hungry much of the time. This in turn, hinders their ability to graduate and puts them in a position that will limit their ability to find work. Their main interest of surviving on a here and now basis is far removed from the middle class ideology that a good education will bring a good future.

An education holds little hope for the poor. They do not see how the school system can teach them the lessons about getting a job; be it any job in an all too tough world. Studies have shown that grade 9 is a crucial point in ghetto schools. Most of the dropouts happen at this time. It is also the time that ghetto children question their reality and they find it wanting indeed. They have no dreams! Even if they finish high school, a university education is so far removed and out of reach that most don't even bother to inquire how it could become possible. Dreaming about a future does not cut it. The ability to put food on the table the fastest way possible today, and not in the future, is their reality and theirs alone.

The high school dropout does not see where learning about our political system would ever get them a job in politics, or how learning about the human anatomy would ever help them become a doctor. These options just don't exist for poor ghetto kids and if they happen to be black and English speaking only, like here in Quebec, they just don't see themselves growing up and being gainfully employed anywhere, anyway, and anyhow.

These youth are so demoralized and angry that they fight back the only way they know how. They quit school, loaf around, grow up to continue the tradition of being a welfare family as their parents before them and/or they turn to a life of crime.

For example, after I had left the ghetto to get married I would consult with Lavenia who remained behind and she would let me know what was happening in the community since I had left. One day we went through the list of all the people we had known in elementary school and what became of them. The results were shocking even for us. Just about every black girl we knew with the exception of one or two was, or had been a prostitute, while many of the black boys became pimps. Many of the black and white boys alike, had been in jail for robbery and other charges.

The vicious cycle of poverty continued for yet another generation. The poor have resigned themselves to believe that this is the only future that they can look forward to and so they live their lives one day at a time.


James R. Coffey
Posted on May 29, 2011
Donald Pennington
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Janet Hunt
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