“Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong…”

Reinforcing cycles and feedback loops are part of the “systems approach” to describing phenomena — an approach that underlies many of the most interesting conceptual frameworks in population health. In class, we’ve seen clues about how poor maternal health can influence child health and development, which can lead to generation-spanning cycles of poor health. Social mobility is key to breaking free from these health disparity “traps.” A PHS 795 student draws our attention to an article from the Washington Post (with a rather attention-grabbing headline) about a self reinforcing cycle of social economic status and educational attainment. They write:

Often times, there is a large focus on the reinforcing cycle of inequity that low socioeconomic status (SES) families and individuals are caught in. An example of this cycle involves a low SES infant being born with the higher likelihood of health problems/ vulnerabilities, being raised in high stress environment, going to a school with lower quality education, engaging at risky health behaviors at a younger age, having less access to social capital and opportunities for employment or education, not having the resources in engage in healthy behaviors, and then experiencing worse health outcomes while receiving lower quality care when illnesses occur.

What often gets neglected in discussions of inequity is the reinforcing cycle of privilege experienced by high SES individuals. The existence of this cycle can reinforce inequities experienced by low SES communities by creating a silo of privilege that the low SES communities struggle to break into.

In this article, an example silo of privilege is presented in the context of the academic world. Despite better academic performance compared to poor performing, high SES students, low SES students encounter multiple hurdles that interfere with improving their SES.

 a Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than …


America is the land of opportunity, just for some more than others. That’s because, in large part, inequality starts in the crib. Rich parents can afford …



4 thoughts on ““Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong…”

  1. This question of equity was discussed in Malcom Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast, in his series about education (episodes 4-6). The episode Carlos Doesn’t Remember describes a young man who was a gifted student, who had help from philanthropist Eric Eisner’s YES program, but faced adversity that still threatened his ability to succeed. The “silo of privilege” was especially visible in experiences Carlos described, like attending his new school for gifted students, but without his mentors realizing he didn’t have shoes even close to the right size. These types of examples make evident the many, many small things that make up a privileged experience, like not having to worry that you won’t have the right materials or clothes to function easily in everyday life (and on top of that, someone is advocating for you to attend good schools, recognizing the value of stable school attendance, and so forth). The episode draws similar parallels to the article, explaining that policy often can’t adequately make up for the gap in experience between low SES students and high SES students. This brings to mind UW’s recently developed program (Feb 2016) The Open Seat, which is a food pantry for college students; it’s a troubling reality to consider the diminished odds of success for students attending UW while struggling with food insecurity, and likely housing instability, and potentially other challenges. Even getting to college isn’t enough to ensure success, and policymakers are hopefully learning to keep that in mind (although Wisconsin’s cuts to higher education funding say otherwise).


    • That is quite a striking title. The data and graphic are striking as well; however, I am not surprised about the data based on our discussions in class. Poverty is so complex and definitely runs deeper than the clothes you can afford and the roof (or lack thereof) that hangs over your head. The additional stress of growing up poor can obviously take its toll on the body. We discussed in class how stress can make you resilient or can wear on your body resulting in an allostatic load. With chronic stress, cortisol level are almost always elevated, which over time could predispose someone to a variety of other health problems. It’s sad because this shouldn’t be the case. If someone works hard, they should be able to even out the playing field, but it looks like that is impossible.


  2. While less dramatic of an outcome than the effect mentioned in the article, students who grew up with a family income less than 185% of the Federal Poverty Level experience a smaller increase in income from graduation to age 61 than their cohorts who grew up in a family with an income above 185% of the Federal Poverty Level



  3. These are all salient points from my classmates. SES is such a complex issue with many interrelated factors that affect children and individuals throughout a lifetime. However, this article really underscores the need to keep this issue salient and in the public eye. Too often, non-white individuals in poverty are overlooked and do not get the assistance or attention they deserve. Many times, the issues only become seriously addressed when they start to affect the white middle-class. I specifically consider the recent opioid epidemic that has received much attention and prompted government officials to intervene. In the past, drug abuse was an issue that primarily affected low SES communities and thus was not adequately addressed. However, once the epidemic moved to the white middle-class, the issue become one of empathy and treatment. This is a sad, but true and common theme when looking at other examples of issues that affect low SES communities but do not get the attention that they deserve. It is difficult to offer immediate solutions, but keeping these issues relevant by having conversations and discussions about the need for more intervention is a step in the right direction.


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