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    Kevin Clark

Are Kids Better Off Poor?

young girl in snow

Recently I’ve been listening to the latest book by the ever-interesting Malcolm Gladwell. The book is titled David vs. Goliath and is about the fact that sometimes what we consider advantages are not really advantages. Sometimes what we consider disabilities are not really disabilities.

One of the things which Gladwell talks about is whether it is a great advantage to have rich parents. Now, it’s obviously a great advantage in some ways, in that you don’t have to worry about going hungry or not having clothes to wear to school. You can count on being able to go to college—especially to that college with a building named after your parents.

But is growing up rich an advantage in every way?

Born with a Silver Spoon

To answer this question, Gladwell talked to a movie producer in Hollywood who is now among the ranks of the super wealthy. But he was not always such. Growing up in Minnesota, his family was not wealthy, and he had to work for everything he wanted. Early on, knowing that he could not have the things he wanted unless he paid for them himself, he became a budding entrepreneur. This work ethic has served him well in life.

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The children of the Hollywood producer will never need to work a day in their lives. They can have anything they want; or more specifically, they can have anything their super wealthy dad is willing to buy for them. Ordinary families tell their children that they cannot have everything simply due to lack of money. For the super wealthy, that’s just not true. As Gladwell asks, how do you tell your children that you can’t afford to give them something, when you have a Ferrari sitting in the driveway in front of your mansion?

Being truly poor is not good for parenting. The truly poor do not have enough to give to their children. Constantly struggling for money often does not lead to family peace and harmony. But for purposes of being a good parent, too much money can be just as bad, or perhaps worse.

MTV used to air a show called My Super Sweet 16 which chronicled the 16th birthday parties of children of the super rich. (Please don’t judge me—I happened to catch an episode or two while flipping channels.) The parties are something that must be seen to be believed. They are lavish affairs costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, in which money buys the child’s every desire. At the end of the evening, already having blown enough cash to fund a homeless shelter for a year, the parents are expected to give a stunning gift to the guest of honor. The gift is usually a car, such as a BMW, a Hummer, a Porsche, a Range Rover, a Lexus, or a Mercedes Benz. No one ever seems to get a Hyundai or a Kia.

To watch My Super Sweet 16 is to weep for these children, their parents, and their future. How will these children ever understand the importance of responsibility and hard work when they will never have to take responsibility or work hard? How will these children learn compassion for others, when they will never feel what it is like to struggle?

Given the choice of a child growing up in a family which barely has enough money to put food on the table every night, and a family which spends half a million dollars on a sixteenth birthday party, there can be little doubt that a child is better off with the poorer family.

Learning in the School of Life

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Like most people, I suspect, my family was not wealthy growing up. My parents didn’t have such middle class accoutrements as bank accounts or credit cards. When we needed to buy something, my mom would pull the money from an envelope of cash. Once the envelope was empty, that was that. There were times when we did not have enough money for food. And if we did have enough money for food, there was precious little left over. Our clothing was largely given to us in grocery bags by families at our church or school. (My brother Daniel coined a phrase for this: “You gotta wear what they give you.”)

It wasn’t the clothes or the food that I remember most, though, but the cold. We often didn’t have enough money to heat the house for the whole winter. We are told these days to keep the thermostat at 68, which always seems chilly to me. But it’s not as bad as getting out of the shower when the temperature in the house is 48 degrees. For a while, we tried to heat certain rooms with a kerosene heater, which did work, but put soot into the air, so that we all had black rings around our nostrils.

Yet, we lived through it. We learned to do with less, and not to expect that everything we wanted would be given to us. We all knew, as well, that bad times were only temporary. I think we seven boys always believed that we would go to college, get good jobs, and raise families.

And so we have. All my brothers and I are far from the relative poverty that we endured growing up. For a while, I ran my own successful software company, which allowed me to build a nice house on 20 acres of land. Now, working at Seton (and writing brilliant blog posts in my spare time), I’m certainly not rich. I worry about how I will pay bills. I worry about how I can send all of my children to college. But my kids don’t wear second-hand clothing. They don’t have black rings around their noses. They don’t have any idea what it’s like to be poor.

I’m glad my children don’t know poverty; and yet, sometimes I’m not so glad. Because just as necessity is the mother of invention, struggle is the mother of hope—hope that hard work can bring success, hope that tomorrow will not be as bad as today, hope for a better future.

Most Catholic homeschooling families are not wealthy. Homeschooling usually means that a family has a single income. Combined with an openness to life, to choose Catholic homeschooling is often to choose relative poverty.

But know that you are giving your children so much more than the material things other families might give them. And that even your lack of ability to give them everything they want is a gift in itself.

(Note: My new novel Will of God is now available on Kindle. The story, set in the Plymouth Colony in 1665, explores the consequences of a tragic incident on a man, a family, and a community.

About Kevin Clark

Kevin Clark
Kevin Clark graduated from Christendom College with a history degree, which he promptly put into use by working in the computer field. He has owned a software development company and now is the Director of Computer Operations for Seton Home Study School. His writings have appeared in Reflections, The Teaching Home, Hereditas, The Annals of Ste. Anne de Beaupre, and Catholic Men's Quarterly. See his Bio › See his Books ›
  • Michelle A

    I really enjoyed this post! Thank you!! The saying…..less is more….really is true!

  • Lulumt

    I was raised in an upper middle class home growing up and I took everything for granted. These days my family and I struggle financially, but we definitely believe in the value of a good Catholic education. Instead of excess and material things, we send our daughter to Catholic school. Being a family with a single income is definitely tough, but we know we are building a good foundation with what we teach our daughter. There is tremendous value in necessity and struggle. How do you buy drive and the will to succeed for a child? There is no such thing as a perfect family, everyone’s journey is a little different, but in our heart we know we are making the best possible choices for our family at this moment. Faith, compassion, creativity, no amount of money can buy them. Raising a child who has those qualities and a good heart defines success for us.

  • Abril

    I’m an American living abroad in Mexico. I was raised in a middle class home, have a Master’s degree, and never dreamed that I would one day face the relative poverty in which I live today… but you are so right! I work (for this year, then back to homeschooling… just wanted my daughters to perfect their Spanish) in a small, private Catholic school in our neighborhood, a prestigious school that my daughters are only able to attend because they have a full scholarship. They receive gifts on their birthdays and Christmas. We eat healthy (we’re vegetarians, and I buy as much organic food as possible), but that’s our family’s only “luxury.” We don’t even have cable TV. So, while my nephews in the US are playing Grand Theft Auto and eating at McDonald’s, my daughters are reading, playing outside in our open-air courtyard, and eating locally grown fruits and veggies. And I have no doubt that we’re all more compassionate as a result of this experience, besides. Great article, and thanks for the encouragement!

  • Mary Ederer Whelan

    I am a teacher! I think whether kids have a lot or a little is less of the issue. I think whether rich or poor, there needs to be taught an attitude of gratitude. It all goes back to parenting. I have seen kids with a little or a lot and there is the attitude of I don’t have what someone else does. They never seem the kid who has less. I think parenting is everything. Parents are the most important teacher the kid has Do not expect society to help you out here. They won’t! Society thinks whoever dies with the most toys wins! Especially American society!

  • Katie

    Thank you for this article. I needed to be reminded of a few things. I am a single parent homeschooling my four children, helping my disabled sister and my aging parents, one of whom is also disabled. It’s hard, but I am grateful that I am the one doing the caregiving and not the one being cared for. We are struggling to have enough groceries in the house most of the time, to pay our bills, and worry about what we will do for transportation when our old car will not run anymore. However, we have a nice warm house, clothes on our back, wonderful family members and friends. Every year, by some miracle, we have Christmas presents and by God’s grace are able to get through another year of homeschooling. We just need to remember to count our blessings.