Snow White Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Laughter, pleasure, malice, and the pursuit of adult fun

Words Rich People Use That Poor People Don't

It's not about reading The Poky Little Puppy. It’s about privilege and poverty.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, poor people need to read to their children because, “by age 3, the children of wealthier professionals have heard words millions more times than have those of less educated, low-income parents, giving the children who have heard more words a distinct advantage in school (nytimes.com/pediatrics-group-to-recommend-reading-aloud-to-children-from-birth)."

Is this a surprise to anybody? I mean, are we shocked to discover that “60 percent of American children from families with incomes at least 400 percent of the federal poverty threshold — $95,400 for a family of four — are read to daily from birth to 5 years of age, compared with around a third of children from families living below the poverty line, $23,850 for a family of four?”

I don’t think so.

If you’re living below the poverty line, you don’t have a whole lot of time to read to your kids. This is because, if you’re living below the poverty line, you are trying to feed your kids, trying to keep your kids clean and healthy, and probably trying desperately to move to a neighborhood where your kids are not likely to be shot, stabbed or strangled by drug dealers.

I teach reading and writing for a living; it’s not that I don’t know the importance of books and language. I support literacy at any age and under any circumstances; I’ve done fundraisers for early literacy programs (I’m especially devoted to readtogrow.org) and believe that the sooner everybody gets a book in his or her hands, the better off we’ll all be.

And I was raised in a poor family, so I get that part of it, too. Sometimes my parents read to us, sure. But often they were way too tired and simply fell asleep on the bed next to my brother and me between the first and second page of The Poky Little Puppy. They worked all the time, remember?

That didn't allow my poor parents massive amounts of leisure or even actual conscious time during which they could pick up, say, Winnie-the-Pooh and explain while reading the classic children’s work that Christopher Robin wasn’t wearing blue braces on his teeth, but that braces are what the British call suspenders—even if they knew that, which they wouldn’t have, because how would they have known such a thing themselves?

There are BIG class differences in America. We don’t like to talk about them. (We certainly don’t like to talk about race and wouldn’t like to say about the picture illustrating the article in the NYT “Hmm, there’s a white doctor next to a black woman with her child, and the white doctor is holding a book as if to say ‘See how this is done?’”).

There are lots of terms underprivileged tots don't know as well as their upper-class counterparts and I'm not sure reading to them—as important as it is—will truly close the gap. How about giving their parents more access to well-paying, stable jobs?  

But if we were going to talk about some of the specific words that those children of wealthier professionals have heard words millions more times than the poor kids have heard—if we really wanted to make the list detailed—that list might include the following vocabulary terms marking the differences between rich kids and the poor kids:

--trust-fund

--inheritance

--off-shore

--hedge fund

--investor relations

--private wealth management

--commodity strategies

--pooled investment vehicle

--grandfather's canoe

--tennis camp

--kale

--au pair

--lacrosse

--yoga

--gap year

--unpaid internship

--Aspen

--amenities

--the longer back nine

--cotillion

--dermatologist

--coxswain

--tartan

--escrow

--heirloom tomato

--orthodontist

--Hermes

--equestrian program

--calligraphy

--Chilean seabass

--entrepreneurship

--Aubusson rug

--regatta

--chevre

--palate cleanser

--personal trainer

--board of directors

--Canyon Ranch

--chaise lounge

--first-edition

--antiquarian

--facilitator

--conservatory

--mud room

--Wellingtons

--archivist

--docent

--tax-free municipal bonds

Not that I’m bitter, but it's not about reading The Poky Little Puppy. It’s about the poky little inequalities in terms of  financial, economic, educational, class and gender divides in this country. It's about privilege and the lack of it—and it's about addressing the underlying causes of poverty.

Gina Barreca, Ph.D., is Professor of English at UConn, and author of It's Not That I'm Bitter: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Visible Panty Lines and Conquered the World.

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