Bastardizing the Idea that Poverty Isn't Destiny

I was writing a paper for my course on wealth, poverty, and the history of development, and I realized that I was expressing the idea that poverty isn't destiny, i.e. that nations' lack of wealth does not inevitably determine their future. Once that phrase came to mind I started questioning my thoughts, because another work that took criticism of "poverty as destiny" as one of its major points was Waiting for Superman, a film that I roundly criticized last January. After further consideration, however, I stood my ground in my paper: Poverty, unequal institutions, or even colonial legacies do not invariably determine a nation's historical trajectory. After all, nothing about history is inevitable; it's a fallacy to believe as much.

I realized that when Waiting for Superman or the broader neo-liberal education "reform" movement use this concept of non-inevitability, they have really entirely bastardized it. When one says, for example, that the poverty present in a nation like Mali does not destine it to languish forever in want, that doesn't mean that Malians shouldn't be attempting to raise themselves out of poverty. In fact, the realization that poverty isn't their destiny should inspire even greater effort to achieve wealth and a better future.

When the Waiting for Superman types criticize "poverty as destiny," what they are really doing is trying to discredit those who point to widespread child poverty in the United States as a major source of problems in education. What they're saying is, because poverty doesn't necessarily destine a child to fail, we should pay attention to other things instead - like gutting schools, persecuting teachers, and making even more standardized tests. By using a buzz-phrase that sounds empowering, they are really seeking to ignore the elephant in the room and blind us all to its presence. The entire point of realizing that poverty isn't destiny is to dedicate oneself to conquering it.

I truly believe that poverty isn't destiny, and that kids who grow up disadvantaged - or countries that are currently suffering - can succeed when given the right opportunities. That being said, poverty is very powerful. It limits and tears down people's capacities, and it has lingering effects in history and in individuals' lives that should never be underestimated. It cannot be overemphasized how families' comparative lack or abundance of resources significantly affects a child's ability to succeed in school. Poverty doesn't determine a child's destiny, but ignoring it certainly could.