Born into poverty

01 Dec

On November 2, in a comment for one of my Blog posts, Dienne wrote, “You also conflate [meaning ‘confuse’] being ‘poor’ with deep poverty and clearly you have no experience of the latter.” Source: The Ravitch Transformation—an educated awakening

After I read Dienne’s comment, I thought she was right.  It took a few days before the light went on inside my head, and I called my 82-year-old sister, who said we were all born in poverty—I also arrived in poor health with a severe learning disability. I knew about the poor health and the learning disability but I had forgotten about the poverty because it was my life and as a child—and even later—I never thought about being poor or disadvantaged even though we were. I just didn’t think about it.

When my mother met my dad, she was a single parent with two young children—my older brother and sister. She met my dad before World War II, and survived with the help of the federal Food Stamp Program that issued the first food stamp in 1939. Source: Snap to

My sister was born in 1931; my brother 1935, and me in 1945.

Before the Food Stamp Program, California—always a progressive state—had a welfare system that served single women and children in the 1930s, and my mother took advantage of that lifesaver too.

Due to the Great Depression [late 1929 – early 1940s], my mother and father dropped out of high school at age 14, but they left with a lifesaving skill known as literacy. Both were avid readers. My dad read westerns and mysteries. My mother read romances but without the graphic sex. The romances she read went as far as holding hands and that was about it. During the Great Depression, unemployment reached 25%.

Before World War II, my dad was unemployed most of the time, and he was an alcoholic who often vanished for weeks at a time when on a drinking binge. He worked a number of odd jobs: for instance, at Santa Anita race track mucking out horse stalls; trekking into the local LA mountains to fill huge burlap bags with oak leaves he sold to nurseries, and in an ice cream factory. At one point he was so desperate he was caught breaking and entering and charged with burglary. I found the arrest record among my mother’s papers after her death.

During the war, he worked at the Long Beach Shipyards but that job ended with the war and the curse of unemployment returned leading to more serious drinking and long absences. To survive, my mother earned what she could from housekeeping and doing laundry.

A few years after I was born, a family friend—my Catholic godfather—helped my father get a job in a concrete company where the workers belonged to labor unions. The higher pay allowed my parents to buy their first—unfinished—house.  

That house was in Azusa, California. When we moved in, it had no doors; no windows, and no finished walls. The only room in the house that offered privacy was the one bathroom that had plywood nailed to the open two by four framing. The outside of the house was wrapped in tar paper—so I lived in a tar-paper shack.

Each pay day, my dad drove home in his used, rusty pick-up truck loaded with windows and doors for the house. The furniture came last.

Then—just as it looked like we were joining the blue-collar middle class—there was a strike when the union demanded better pay and benefits followed by unemployment when my dad was fired along with others after the strike ended.

I was born into poverty and my father earned good money in construction when he worked and when he didn’t work—which was often—he collected unemployment and drank. He stopped drinking in his late 50s and died at age 79. My mother died at 89. My brother, who spent 15 years in jail, lived to be 64, was an alcoholic, a smoker and illiterate. My brother and his large family lived in poverty and bought food with the help of food stamps.

But I was the youngest, and my mother made sure I learned to read after the public schools tested me and said I was too retarded to learn to read or write.

At home, using a wire coat hanger as a painful motivator, my mother taught me to read; I graduated from high school; joined the U.S. Marines; fought in Vietnam and went to college on the G.I. Bill breaking the cycle of poverty that I was born into. Because I learned to read—against the odds—I’m hooked on books and have been learning about the world from National Geographic Magazine for as long as I can remember.

Yes, Dienne, I did not grow up in extreme poverty but I tasted the poverty and didn’t notice the so-called bitterness. Maybe that explains why I felt more comfortable teaching children who lived in poverty during the thirty years I taught in the public schools—I wanted to be a catalyst that might help lift some out of poverty by teaching them to read and write like my mother taught me. I just couldn’t use a coat hanger, but I could tap into the tough pit-bull discipline the Marine Corps instilled in me.

I have a problem with Dienne’s comment about me having no experience with “deep poverty”, because I doubt that many Americans have much if any experience with deep/extreme poverty like we find in India or Africa. According to a piece published in the Washington Post, “The number of [U.S.] households in extreme poverty is 613,000, or 1.6 percent of non-elderly households with children.”

But almost 50 million people in the U.S. live in poverty, and 43% of those whose literacy skills are lowest live in poverty.  Source: News With [Note: You may want to click this link and read the post to discover one of the challenges teachers in America’s public schools face—something they have little or no control over regardless of the unrealistic goals and demands that were set by Presidents Bush; Obama and Congress]

To break the poverty cycle, there must be an early intervention starting the moment a woman living in poverty discovers she is pregnant. The intervention must include proper nutrition [including health care that I would have never received if my dad had not been a member of a labor union] and by age 18 months, the child must be introduced to books, magazines and newspapers with weekly trips to the library where there are active literacy programs that could be adapted to serve these children. The intervention should include mandatory workshops for the parents to teach them how to be better parents. This intervention must include regular supervision that only relaxes its vigilance when the child is reading at or above grade level after sixth grade.

Next Sunday, December 8, 2013, I will post my review on this Blog of Diane Ravitch’sReign of Error” [already posted on Amazon]—a book that I highly recommend every literate American read and every illiterate American listen to. We must declare war on ignorance of public education in the U.S., because there is a deliberate campaign backed by billionaires who inherited their great wealth [the Koch brothers and the Walton family, for instance] or were born into the middle class and then became billionaires [Bloomberg & Bill Gates], who have one goal: destroy and strip the democratic process from public education in the U.S. These individuals have no clue what it’s like to live in poverty and how it impacts a child’s ability to earn an education and escape poverty. I was a horrible student in the public schools, but I was also an avid reader—I just didn’t read what teachers assigned as homework. Ravitch not only exposes the plot to destroy America’s public schools but she also offers a detailed road map to improve the public schools more than they have already improved in the last century.


Lloyd Lofthouse is a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam Veteran,
who taught in the public schools for thirty years (1975 – 2005).

His third book is Crazy is Normal, a classroom exposé, a memoir. “Lofthouse presents us with grungy classrooms, kids who don’t want to be in school, and the consequences of growing up in a hardscrabble world. While some parents support his efforts, many sabotage them—and isolated administrators make the work of Lofthouse and his peers even more difficult.” – Bruce Reeves

Lofthouse’s first novel was the award winning historical fiction My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. His second novel was the award winning thriller Running with the Enemy. His short story A Night at the “Well of Purity” was named a finalist of the 2007 Chicago Literary Awards. His wife is Anchee Min, the international, best-selling, award winning author of Red Azalea, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year (1992).

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6 responses to “Born into poverty

  1. gertrude

    December 3, 2013 at 23:15

    Forcing parents into failing public schools when there are good alternatives available does not fit with the American ideal of “liberty and justice for all.” If we truly believe that every American is entitled to a good education, we should allow parents to send children to any good school regardless of whether it meets in a church basement, a diocesan campus, or a living room. And we shouldn’t condemn them to poverty for exercising their right to that choice. Therefore, we should look for ways to relieve some of the financial burden in exercising this choice, which is the subject of the final chapter.

    • Lloyd Lofthouse

      December 4, 2013 at 07:51

      What final chapter are you talking about?

      As for forcing parents into (so-called) failing schools, there are no failing schools. There is only the perception of failing schools based on flawed, standardized test scores and two laws: No Child Left Behind signed into law by President G. W. Bush; Race to the Top signed into law by President Obama. Then of course there is the propaganda war paid for by billionaires such as the Koch brothers; the Walton family; Bloomberg, and Bill Gates. Both of these flawed laws say that schools and teachers are failures unless they have prepared 100% of the students they teach to be ready for college. Such crap! No other country in the world does this because it is impossible and had never been done in human history.

      And parents have always had a choice. This idea of school choice is bull shit propaganda.

      If you don’t like the community and schools in one school district, find one you want your kids to go to and move. That’s what we did. And it wasn’t the school that made our choice for us. A school is only a bunch of buildings where teachers and staff go to work each day to teach students that come from the local community. The test scores come out of that community the students live in. The test scores come from homes where kids live in poverty; where almost have of the adults in America are illiterate.

      There are 13,600 public school districts and 98,817 public schools to choose from. Most if not all schools that have students who do not do well on the two federally mandated standardized tests are located in or near barrios and ghettos where there are large concentrations of Americans living in poverty. Because those schools have democratically elected school boards made up of parents and concerned citizens, the schools and teachers are monitored to see that they are doing the job they were paid for, and the schools reflect the moral and family values of the local communities.

      For twenty-seven of the thirty years I taught, I worked at schools surrounded by poverty and dangerous multi-generational street gangs. Close to 80% of the students qualified for free or reduced breakfast and/or lunch. Seventy percent were Latino [now that ratio is 80%] and many of those students come from homes where only Spanish is spoken and most of the parents came to America illiterate in their own language. If you visit most of those homes, you will not find books, magazines or newspapers.

      However, fifteen minutes away there was another high school in the hills of Diamond Bar, California. That high school was in a upper middle class area that was mostly white or Asian.

      When the annual API scores were released in the media, the students at Nogales in my English class, who earned a 3 on that scale, laughed until I told them if we swapped teachers from Diamond Bar High School with Nogales High School, the scores wouldn’t change. One, five or ten years later, Diamond Bar would still be a 9 and Nogales a 3 even with those teachers from a successful public high school teaching at Nogales. Because the scores on annual standardized tests are not earned by the buildings or the teachers at a so-called failing school. They are earned from the students who come from failing communities riddled with poverty, street gangs, shootings, killings, drugs, etc.

      The first school I taught at under a contract in that district was an elementary school in an area so violent that it had razor wire on the roofs to keep vandals from getting on the roofs at night and on weekends and chopping through the roof to break into the school so the gang could loot anything of value. On Mondays the teachers arrived to discover the parking lot littered with glass because the gangs had shot out the lights. Once, we arrived to discover the classroom doors riddled with bullet holes. Another time, we arrived to discover someone had used sledge hamper to beat off all the classroom doorknobs breaking the locks so the district had to call every local locksmith the rush to the school and fix the problem so we could open on time and teach. The area was so dangerous that the local police did not patrol those streets at night.

      Diamond Bar High School scored a 9 on the state API rating of 1 to 10 with 10 being the highest. Nogales High School where I taught was rated a 3 on that same scale. The students earned those ratings, not the teachers or the schools.

      And concerned parents don’t have to live there if they don’t want to. Those parents will find a way to live close to a Diamond Bar high school where the streets are safer; the dangerous street gangs and poverty is miles away. That’s what my wife and I did so our daughter would always be attending a public school where the students did well on standardized tests.

      But today, the language of Obama’s race to the top turns almost every public school into a failure because that language says teachers/schools must be successful with 100% of the students or be considered failures. There is no way for the public schools or teachers to win with a law like that. School choice exists for parents who care. It has always existed. It exited for my wife and I, and today, our daughter is in her fourth year at Stanford. Our daughter attended public schools where few of the kids came from poverty, few were on free or reduced breakfast and/or lunch, few if any belonged to dangerous street gangs and the behavior problems in the classroom were few. She attended those schools because we were careful to live in communities that made sure that the public school environment was a place where kids show up in school ready to learn because the parents do not live in poverty; are supportive and literate.

      The United States can fire all the public school teachers who teach in America’s dangerous barrios and ghettos, close all those public schools and let Wal-Mart open strip mall schools, but the kids who were always a challenge to to teach will not change. It will just get worse because the teachers who were willing to teach in such an environment will be gone and the people Wal-Mart will hire will be horrified and quickly leave and the turnover rate among teachers will be an epidemic. I taught in one of those communities for 27 years of the thirty years I was a public school teacher. Each year, I would be threatened at least once by a gang banger.

      By the time I retired in 2005, I was getting kids whose parents had me as a teacher when they were teens and by then the parents were mature enough to know the truth. When a kid from one of those parents walked into my classroom, that kid behaved because the parents supported me—even parents who once had belonged to street gangs as teens. Because by then those parents knew that this tough-as-nails [former U.S. Marine and Vietnam vet who grew up in poverty] wanted only a brighter future for their kids, a future those parent threw away which is why they still lived in the barrio in poverty.

  2. Dollie

    December 18, 2013 at 14:50

    Those living in poverty suffer lower life expectancy . According to the World Health Organization , hunger and malnutrition are the single gravest threats to the world’s public health and malnutrition is by far the biggest contributor to child mortality , present in half of all cases.

    • Lloyd Lofthouse

      December 18, 2013 at 18:31

      And poverty, hunger and malnutrition have a big impact on a child’s ability to learn in school.

      ABC ran a piece on this topic in 2011 and from what I’ve been reading it’s getting worse for kids.

      “As many as 17 million children nationwide are struggling with what is known as food insecurity. To put it another way, one in four children in the country is living without consistent access to enough nutritious food to live a healthy life, according to the study, “Map the Meal Child Food Insecurity 2011.”

      “Those hungry children are everywhere, and with the uncertain economy, the numbers are only growing, experts say.”

      What does the President and Congress do to solve this? Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Obama’s “Race to the Top”, and these two programs did nothing, nada, to deal with the millions of children living with “food insecurity”—hunger and malnutrition. What those programs did was punish teachers and public schools if the schools did not achieve 100% success with every kid by the age of 17/18 and have them ready for college. Hunger, poverty, violence, poor parenting be damned. Teachers succeed or the feds will kick them in the ass and out of a job. Then we’ll have more poverty and more kids living with “food insecurity”.


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