Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

A Child's Life

Volume 25 Number 2
Spring 2003

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child's drawing of poverty
Drawing of "poverty"
Photo courtesy Judith Chafel

Picturing Poverty

by Laura Lane

What does being poor mean?

Crayons in hand, 8-year-olds across Indiana have transferred their answers onto 12-by-18-inch sheets of drawing paper to help Indiana University Professor of Education Judith Chafel better understand children's ideas about the poor.

Chafel's research project involved 62 children in 15 classrooms and nine schools, both urban and rural. She documented children's thoughts and emotions, through their artwork, to elicit their perceptions of poverty.

Doctoral student Mary Harnishfeger began the sessions with the children by reading the book Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen, about a boy who spends a day with his uncle working to feed the poor. Then, with yellow, red, and blue crayons, the children drew pictures and answered the question, "What does being poor mean? Tell me about your drawings."

"One of the things that was so important to the study was to try to develop a new methodology, using the transcripts of the children's verbalizations along with the pictures," Chafel says. "The principal research in this area has been based solely on verbal data."

One boy drew an adult and child, simple stick figures, walking on a sunny day. The text above the picture has them saying "I think everyone should have homes. I think being poor is wrong." Then the child drew another stick figure lying on a park bench, similar to a scene in the soup kitchen story.

Talking to the children about what they drew, Chafel and Neitzel could document the true message, from the artist. In the case of the boy and his stick figures, Chafel says, "The child communicated an awareness of socioeconomic status groups in our society and of the neediness of the poor."

In Chafel's efforts to understand the children's words and works, she was assisted by several people from the School of Education's highly ranked graduate programs in art education and counseling and educational psychology. Professor emeritus Gilbert Clark worked with Chafel to analyze the children's drawings. Graduate student Melanie Davenport helped with category generation, while graduate student Miwon Choe assisted with data coding. Doctoral student Carin Neitzel did statistical analyses and collaborated on interpreting and writing up the findings.

"It was a rather complicated way to get meaning from the data," Chafel says. "It was extremely time-consuming. But one important contribution of the research is that we approached the questions with a different perspective, more from the child's point of view."

The results were not surprising. But they are interesting, and they may help determine how educators take on the topic of poverty in years to come. For example, Chafel says, "Educators might introduce a spirit of altruism into education at this age, to nurture a sense of empathy for the poor. Given children's ability at this age to think about poverty, this may also be a good time to start talking about its complexities, to counter popular societal ideas that are too simplistic."

Chafel's findings showed that girls displayed a greater awareness of the helplessness of the poor, possibly because girls in our society are encouraged to be more sensitive to people's feelings.

Of the 62 children, 21 were African-American or biracial urban students. Fifteen of those were in a lower socioeconomic group. These non-white students were more likely to communicate an awareness of the poor and the negative aspects of poverty.

"It's a highly reasonable finding," Chafel notes, given that these students were more likely to know poverty firsthand in their own lives and neighborhoods. "They often have observed the realities of being poor."

Children in the higher socioeconomic class were more likely to lack awareness of poverty and to put a more positive face on being poor. "Their drawings suggest they don't fully grasp the meaning of poverty," Chafel says. "They have an unrealistic picture."

Rural students were more likely to have a "positive" perception of poverty than kids living in the city. Chafel notes the rural poor are spread around, often not as visible as the poor in more populated areas.

"Using the drawings and the words of the 8-year-olds was a valuable way to gain insight into how they view the world," says Chafel, who continues to write up analyses of the data she collected from the children. "Combining the two modes of communication is a great research tool."

Laura Lane is a writer for the Hoosier Times in Bloomington, Ind.