Poverty and Life Skills

by Kay Lynn

Infant swimming

My 1-year-old grandson has been taking infant swimming classes like the kids of Steve @Brip Blap. He thought maybe some Americans don’t know how to swim because they live in city. I don’t think that’s the reason.  It is more likely because of their socioeconomic background.

Just like my grandson, my siblings and I took swimming lessons; just at an older age.  I didn’t know anyone that could not swim.  That changed when I joined the Navy at the advanced age of 19.

Navy Swimming Challenge

One of the essential tasks in boot camp was to be able to swim across an Olympic size pool after jumping off a high diving board.

The purpose is to see if you could survive, at least a while, in the case of falling off or abandoning a ship at sea.  Some girls never could make it across the pool and were literally booted out of the Navy because of it.  Most of these were African Americans from poorer backgrounds.  They didn’t have the benefit of childhood swimming lessons and trips to the ocean.

In case you think it is because of  race alone let me tell you about my grandmother.  She never learned to swim until she was 40 years old.   Grandma never did become a great swimmer but she was able to enjoy the pool and beach the next 40 years of her life.

Doing Something About It

Cullen Jones, Olympic Gold Medalist, is African American and addressing the disparity.  He traveled the country this summer with his Make a Splash initiative promoting low cost and free swimming lessons.

His goal is to give all kids swimming skills regardless of their ethnic or economic situations.  His personal story of near drowning as a child showcases the importance of kids being water safe.


Although all Americans are rich compared to many countries, it doesn’t seem that way when you learn there are so many people that don’t know how to swim or kids that have never been to the local zoo (let alone an amusement park).

Are there other life skills poor children don’t learn?

photo credit: spilltojill

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Little House September 1, 2010 at 8:52 am

My guess to your question would be lots of skills are missing from children who grow up in poverty. I would extrapolate that skills such as riding a bike would be limited, any outdoor activity where money is involved would be lacking.

Education is another factor, many communities with high poverty also have a high drop-out rate, meaning these young adults have limited skills which inhibits their ability to get a decent paying job.

Two semesters ago I took a class on ethnicity in schools and many of the books I read focused on the poorer African-American communities. It was heartbreaking reading about schools that were practically falling down (and should have been condemned), yet those students had no choice but to attend them. It clearly pointed out that racism is still prevalent today, but it’s almost scarier because it is kept quiet and hidden.

Kay Lynn September 4, 2010 at 5:59 am

Little House, I do believe it is out there. I think it’s kept quiet but culturally Americans are ashamed and like to think we’re past that (we elected a black president after all).

Jeff @ sustainablelifeblog September 1, 2010 at 9:04 am

Some very large universities (University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill) have a swimming requirement to get their degree! It kind of stinks that the students need to know how to swim to get a degree, but it could save them (literally) in the long run.

Kay Lynn September 4, 2010 at 6:01 am

Jeff, that’s amazing that swimming is required for a college degree of all things. Although I agree everyone should know how to swim, financial education would be more valuable life-long. If they could require them all to take a personal finance course (maybe taught by PF bloggers) that would hopefully make a big impact on their financial life.

youngandthrifty September 1, 2010 at 7:21 pm

I think there are tons of opportunities that children growing up in poverty miss out on.
Have you read the book by Malcolm Gladwell, called “Outliers”? It’s so good. It talks about how a lot of children who end up being doctors or lawyers grew up with opportunity. They grow up being assertive and being able to speak for themselves.

I think interpersonal skills could be a skill that children growing up in poverty may lack, they don’t get to go to day care, they stay at home and watch TV, don’t get to go to summer camps, or have skating lessons, hockey lessons etc.

They dont’ get the skills of knowing how to eat well, they may eat fast food all the time because their parents don’t have the time to cook since they’re working two minimum wage jobs.

The list goes on, unfortunately!

Kay Lynn September 4, 2010 at 6:03 am

Young and Thrifty, thanks for the book recommendation. I will make sure to read it. Reducing povery is one of my passions (which is why I like John Edwards and am so disappointed in him but that’s another story). I think my country has overall lost the motivation to do anything about it.

Dr Dean September 2, 2010 at 5:51 am

I think culture has more to do with it than poverty. There have been free or low-cost swimming lessons in our community for years-buy many don’t take advantage.

It is sad, that so many lives are lost needlessly. Hopefully, the efforts by Cullen Jones will help.

nicole September 2, 2010 at 9:02 am

Swimming is a BIG priority for my family because my mother’s grandfather drowned. It’s just what you do at age 3. No infant lessons for us… we would have if they were offered.

I agree with youngandthrifty that Outliers is a good read on this subject.

Everyday Tips September 2, 2010 at 11:27 am

The list is endless regarding what those in poverty miss out on. Here is a few, although I am sure I am generalizing:
1. Access to fresh fruit/produce, depending on where you live
2. Ability to go out and exercise freely. So many parks I see in Detroit are not safe, and very poorly maintained.
3. Any type of art/music lessons
4. Travel sports. My kids play travel soccer in the suburbs, but I don’t know if Detroit has many (if any) travel soccer teams. Not saying this is a necessity by any means, but I am sure many kids never meet their athletic potential, which could lead to scholarships, because of lack of exposure.
5. Lack of financial education, as there are not many positive role models if you live in a poor neighborhood.
6. Lack of knowledge of what is really ‘out there’ or what you could grow up to be. Again, lack of examples really limits the imagination and knowing what really is possible.

I will leave it there as I know this comment is getting long. I grew up without much and I there is a lot of poverty fairly close to where I live, and it just makes me so sad.

Mrs. Accountability September 3, 2010 at 9:54 am

I don’t necessarily believe that not learning to swimming is directly related to being poor. At least not in my family. Also, it may be different in Arizona because our weather is so very hot there are a lot of swimming pools and it is one of the main sources of entertainment during the summer. When I was growing up we were poor, I was the oldest of seven. We never went swimming but I had friends whose parents would drop them off at the local swimming pool and that is where they spent the day. Our religion prohibited us from spending time in a swimming pool with the opposite sex, so I think that was more of an influence on my parents than being poor. Now when *my* children were young we were living below poverty level, but still I managed to save the $50 for a summer’s worth of swimming for our entire family at the public swimming pools. In fact, I even managed to save up the money to pay for visiting the fancy pants water parks two summers in a row – I just put aside $20 a month until I had enough for our passes. Thankfully I was heavily influenced by my sister who took her children swimming every single day during the summer when the public pools were open. I followed her example and started doing the same. Not one swimming lesson between the eight of our children, either. We taught our children to swim, and in fact my son with Down Syndrome was such a natural born swimmer that by observing him, and spending time in the water, *I* learned to be a very good swimmer – I could barely stay afloat prior to then. When my youngest was 3 years old, he passed the test for going off the diving board (one had to be able to swim the width of the pool in the deep end before using the high dive). If a “poor parent” wanted his or her children to learn to swim badly enough, it could be accomplished. At least in Arizona – as I said there are so many people with swimming pools it would be easy enough to find someone you know with a pool or save up the money to take your child to the local pool during the summer. Perhaps it’s just not a priority for some families.

Kay Lynn September 4, 2010 at 6:11 am

Mrs. Accountability, although swimming pool are common in your (and my) state they aren’t in all parts of the country. In the town my mom lives in I never saw any home with a private pool and there was one public pool. I think probably many poor parents aren’t good at saving up for things like swimming passes, school yearbooks, etc so many kids just never have the chance.

The swimming program I mentioned noted that because the parents and grandparents don’t swim it never becomes part of their culture.

Donna Freedman September 5, 2010 at 7:26 am

People who grow up in poverty may not learn to “play the game,” i.e., to tailor behavior to suit the situation. If you grow up in a neighborhood where instant reaction to aggressive behavior is required for survival, then you learn to lash out. If you grow up in a neighborhood where police abuses (real or imagined) are common, you have an innate distrust of authority.
Scenario: You get stopped by the police and they ask you to get out of the car. Your immediate reaction is a mix of anger and fear — and it shows. The situation escalates, with the cop shouting at you to get out of the car and keep your hands in sight. Your rage increases because you haven’t DONE anything and they’re treating you like a criminal.
If you fall back on the behavior that’s been programmed into you since you were old enough to walk, you may end up in jail for resisting arrest or something.
And if you happen to have been stopped by one of those real-life abusive cops? You may end up injured or dead.
A few years ago I was in the Seattle airport after a travel snafu. I was exhausted and worried that I would miss the last bus back into town (it was very late on a Sunday). I knew that it would be hard to get up and go to school the next day, and I was worried about having to pay to take the shuttle home.
I didn’t have a bus schedule so I went out to check the time on the signs. As I walked back into the airport I was so irritated I was talking out loud: “I loathe and DESPISE so-and-so Airlines!” (I won’t say which one because I don’t wanna get sued.)
As I stomped over to see if my luggage had arrived I heard, “Excuse me” but it didn’t register. I kept walking. Then I heard: “EXCUSE ME! Ma’am! EXCUSE ME!”
When I turned, I saw two Seattle police officers.
“Yes?” I said.
“How are you doing tonight?” the male officer said. The female officer moved slightly off to the right, watching me narrowly.
“I’m not doing very well at all,” I said. “My flight was delayed and I got back late and for all I know, they’ve lost my suitcase.”
“You flew today?”
“Yes, I just arrived.”
The female officer spoke up. “You flew today and you don’t have any LUGGAGE?”
“I do have luggage. I’m WAITING for it,” I said.
“Can I see your ticket?” the male cop asked.
Suddenly it hit me: They thought I might be mentally unbalanced. They’d heard me talking to myself and saying something nasty about an airline.
I knew that my next move was very, very important, unless I wanted to be sitting in the back of a cop car.
“It’s in my backpack. I’ll get it out,” I said. Moving slowly, I put the backpack on the floor between us, unzipped it all the way so they could see inside, and pulled out my wallet. The officer read my ticket and said, “Why were you in Philadelphia?”
“My dad’s 70th birthday,” I said. “And now I’m really tired and I know I’m going to be exhausted in class tomorrow and I’m afraid I’m going to miss the last bus.”
The female cop was still watching me closely. I tried very hard to look like a responsible citizen (hard to do when you’re wearing faded jeans and a 20-year-old coat.) The male officer said, “It’s really not safe to take the bus at this time of night. Why don’t you take the shuttle?”
“I can’t afford the shuttle,” I said.
The two officers exchanged a look. The male said, “You know they accept credit cards, right? You don’t have to pay cash.”
My instinct was to say, “If I thought I could afford a shuttle we wouldn’t be having this conversation!” But because I knew how to play the game — i.e., tell them what they wanted to hear — I said, “You know, I never thought of that. Thanks!”
The carousel was moving by then, so I said, “I’ll go over and see if they managed to get my suitcase here. Good night.”
I walked off very slowly, got my bag, turned to wave at the officers and went into the ladies room. Sixty seconds later I came back out and they were gone. I went out to the bus stop and hid behind a tall pillar, just in case they looked out later.
To recap:
If I’d showed extreme anger, or said something snide like “Why don’t you go out and find some REAL crime to handle instead of harassing a taxpayer?” I would potentially have been in big trouble.
Instead, I knew how to go along to get along. But that’s because (a) I was raised to respect authority, (b) I’d recently discussed the poverty/police issue in a college class and (c) once I’d calmed down I was able to speak in a soft voice using big words and complicated sentence construction.
Not everyone gets that kind of survival training.

Kay Lynn September 5, 2010 at 1:44 pm

Donna, that is a perfect example of the things that middle class people learn/know yet disadvantaged wouldn’t. I’m sure I take so many of these types of life skills for granted that it’s hard to think about them. I know how to behave in nice restaurants, how to dress for an interview and so on.

In terms of your story, it reminds me of the black professor who was locked out of his house after returning from a trip. Only, he was too tired to shift into being reasonable when the cops were questioning him and it really escalated.

Funny about Money September 5, 2010 at 11:39 am

In Southern California, all high-school kids had to demonstrate proficiency in swimming before they could graduate. Every high school had a big swimming pool, and every one of us was made to take swimming lessons in P.E., regardless of whether we already knew how to swim.

One of the goals we were given was to be able to dive or jump safely from the height of an ocean-going boat and to be able to swim away from it quickly. The theory was that if you lived near the sea you were likely to take the occasional boat ride. And of course, in those days commercial airlines ditched in the sea every now and again. So it wasn’t just to keep us from drowning in backyard pools…the rationale also entailed some degree of emergency preparedness.

Were any lives saved? Who knows… But I do know that when a ship or plane goes down, it creates a kind of downdraft that will pull anyone near it deep underwater, and so if you jump off a sinking vessel, you need to swim straight away from it, at a 90-degree angle, as fast as you can.

My cleaning lady had a sister who drowned when she slipped and fell into the Salt River during a picnic. She drowned because her old-country Mexican parents felt it was inappropriate for girls to swim — it was not what “nice” girls did. Rachel, the surviving sister, made it a point to see to it that both her children learned to swim at an early age and could swim well. She took them to the YMCA, where the cost of children’s lessons is nominal. Don’t most Y’s have pools?

Kay Lynn September 5, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Funny about Money, my kids went to high school in San Diego County where there are not pools. The upkeep and liability keep many schools from building them these days so they didn’t have swimming in PE.

I think that most, if not all, Y’s do have pools. They probably also have programs for low to no cost lessons for low-income kids. Maybe it is a combination of poverty, culture and access.

SimplyForties September 5, 2010 at 3:41 pm

I grew up in an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C. and ugh, I remember those swimming lessons. De rigueur for me and everyone I knew, every summer until I left home to go to college.

If you haven’t already, check out “Poverty” by Ruth Lister. Written to help teachers deal with students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, it’s an eye-opening look into why and how we’re different. Pretty amazing stuff.

Kay Lynn September 10, 2010 at 6:00 pm

Thanks, SimplyForties for the book recommendation. I now have two on my list from this post. I think people grow up often thinking that everyone’s frame of reference is the same and it’s amazing how different it can be even in the geographic region based on race, money and other factors.

Mrs. Accountability September 5, 2010 at 4:36 pm

This discussion reminded me of another incident when my children were young. I credit my mom for reading books to all of her children from a very young age. As a result we all love reading and have a love for books. My sister and I did the same for our children. Every week we went to the public library and checked out a pile of books, constantly rotating the pile. My sister bought dozens of books on sale at thrift stores. When she had to suddenly move to another state, I was tasked with clearing out her apartment. She’d left several boxes of books behind, and I offered them to a neighbor who I also considered to be “poor”. His child was four, and he declined any of the books, stating that they didn’t “do” books and were leaving that to the school system. I couldn’t believe he said that, and still don’t.

Kay Lynn September 10, 2010 at 6:02 pm

Mrs. Accountability, that is so hard to fathom. I grew up with parents that read which made all of us kids want to read. I loved Christmas when I would get a new stack of the Bobbsey Twins or other books.

To this day, I am a book lover. Sadly, my kids don’t have that habit despite growing up being read to and surrounded by books. In their case it has to be generational versus socioeconomic differences

Barb Friedberg September 9, 2010 at 1:30 pm

Kay Lynn, The point you raised in this post is crucial. So many skills/opportunities that middle class folks take for granted are denied the poor. ie swimming, tennis, ice skating, money management, horse back riding (does anyone do this anymore?), travel, etc. The more skills one has, the more able he/she may be in dealing with the challenges of life.

Kay Lynn September 10, 2010 at 6:14 pm

Barb, I think some kids do still do have horseback riding lessons, but I don’t know any. My middle class upbringing seems pretty rich compared to most people mired in poverty.

I went to see theatre productions, sporting events, movies and out to restaurants. My parents paid for swimming and tennis lessons. All of these things create well-rounded adults that learn teamwork, how to converse about a variety of topics and have confidence.

I am looking forward to reading the books reommended on this thread.

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