The Poverty Trap: Slack, Not Grit, Creates Achievement

Poverty is a trap children are born into:

brown wire crab cage
Photo by James Lee on Unsplash

No child has ever chosen to be poor. Children have never caused the poverty that defines their lives, and their education.

Yet, the adults with political, corporate, and educational wealth and power—who demand “no excuses” from schools and teachers serving the new majority of impoverished children in public schools and “grit” from children living in poverty and attending increasingly segregated schools that offer primarily test-prep—embrace a very odd stance themselves: Their “no excuses” and “grit” mottos stand on an excuse that there is nothing they can do about out-of-school factors such as poverty.

Living in poverty is a bear trap (and it is), and education is a race, a 100-meter dash.

“No excuses” advocates calling for grit, then, are facing this fact:

Children in poverty line up at the starting line with a bear trap on one leg; middle-class children start at the 20-, 30-, and 40-meter marks; and the affluent stand at the 70-, 80-, and 90-meter marks.

And while gazing at education as a stratified sprint, “no excuses” reformers shout to the children in poverty: “Run twice as fast! Ignore the bear trap! And if you have real grit, gnaw off your foot, and run twice as fast with one leg!”

These “no excuses” advocates turn to the public and shrug, “There’s nothing we can do about the trap, sorry.”

What is also revealed in this staggered 100-meter race is that all the children living and learning in relative affluence are afforded slack by the accidents of their birth: “Slack” is the term identified by Mullainathan and Shafir as the space created by abundance that allows any person access to more of her/his cognitive and emotional resources.

In the race to the top that public education has become, affluent children starting at the 90-meter line can jog, walk, lie down, and even quit before the finish line. They have the slack necessary to fail, to quit, and to try again—the sort of slack all children deserve.

Children in relative affluence do not have to wrestle with hunger, worry about where they’ll sleep, feel shame for needing medical treatment when they know their family has no insurance and a tight budget, or watch their families live every moment of their lives in the grip of poverty’s trap.

As Mullainathan and Shafir explain: “Scarcity captures the mind.” And thus, children in poverty do not have such slack, and as a result, their cognitive and emotional resources are drained, preoccupied.

The ugly little secret behind calls for “no excuses” and “grit” is that achievement is the result of slack, not grit.

Children living and learning in abundance are not inherently smarter and they do not work harder than children living and learning in poverty. Again, abundance and slack actually allow children to work slower, to make more mistakes, to quit, and to start again (and again).

Quite possibly, an even uglier secret behind the “no excuses” claim that there is nothing the rich and powerful can do about poverty is that this excuse is also a lie.

David Berliner (2013) carefully details, “To those who say that poverty will always exist, it is important to remember that many Northern European countries such as Norway and Finland have virtually wiped out childhood poverty” (p. 208).

More children are being born into the trap of poverty in the U.S., and as a result, public schools are now serving impoverished students as the typical student.

The “no excuses” and “grit” mantras driving the accountability era have been exposed as ineffective, but have yet to be acknowledged as dehumanizing.

Instead of allowing some children to remain in lives they didn’t choose or create and then condemning them also to schools unlike the schools affluent children enjoy, our first obligation as free people must be to remove the trap of poverty from every leg of every child.


David C. Berliner (2013) Inequality, Poverty, and the Socialization of America’s Youth for the Responsibilities of Citizenship, Theory Into Practice, 52:3, 203-209, DOI: 10.1080/00405841.2013.804314


Why Do People Stay Poor? Clare Balboni, Oriana Bandiera, Robin Burgess, Maitreesh Ghatak, and Anton Heil



51 thoughts on “The Poverty Trap: Slack, Not Grit, Creates Achievement”

  1. I’ve been reading the latest Monograph from the Society for Research in Child Development, “The Family Life Project: An Epidemiological and Developmental Study of Young Children Living in Poor Rural Communities.” In the first chapters they make the case for poverty being a cumulative risk — the trap you are talking about. If you can get your hands on it, read it.

    1. Margaret, does “cumulative risk” mean generation after generation?

      To the author of the article! EXCELLENT! There are no magical bootstraps for kids to pull up!

  2. Grit doesn’t mean pushing students to run the race with a bear trap on their leg. Rather it means helping them to remove the trap, and to believe that they still can run. There are students with the luxury of slack who have no grit. And they may as well have a trap on their leg. Grit means that what is inside matters more than what is outside. Strength of mind outweighs the rest. Do we need to fix very large economic wrongs? Absolutely. But grit can help those facing the injustice now.

    1. “Grit means that what is inside matters more than what is outside” — In the real world, this isn’t true. I don’t support telling children lies when we are making no effort to achieve an equitable world for them. Today, wealthy with no college degree still trumps poor and completing college — that contradicts the “no excuses”/”grit” claims. Of course, effort matters, but helping a child take off the trap of poverty SHOULD be unnecessary if as a society we’d attack poverty directly. The Social Darwinism of the “grit” approach is dehumanizing — let some children make it…

      1. I’ve reread these posts as more are coming in. And my main question still applies: following this logic–that I don’t support telling children lies–would we also be telling poor kids lies if we told them the importance of learning how to read and write? I just don’t see how this can be a legitimate debate. We’re talking about apples and oranges. No one here denies that economic inequality is the foundation of educational inequality. But to then follow the line of thinking that “we are telling kids lies” by trying to implement the findings of important–I’d dare say transformational–studies into our pedagogy seems absurd. Grit isn’t going to change a kids socioeconomic status. Nor is simply teaching them to love literature. Nor is getting them to learn algebra. But that certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be constantly trying to teach and learn in the best ways possible. I believe trying to integrate the lessons of Dweck and Duckworth into the way we frame and deliver our content as well as how as a school we try to approach things like “character education” is our basic moral imperative. It’s not going to transform the problems of poverty. I don’t think the researchers ever said it would. If I were going to spend my day consumed with the inequalities caused by structural deficiencies of our capitalist system, learning would suffer. Now if we’re talking about a truly radical shake-up of changing schools into agents of community change in partnerships with various stakeholders, making service learning, economic justice the core of our learning, I”m all for it! And I’d still say that using the research on grit would make such a school better than one that didn’t.

    1. Professor Thomas,
      you say above:
      “No one is calling for not offering students rich learning experiences, of course, but the HOW os using any research is what is being confronted.”

      But in your “open apology” you write:

      And I cannot accept the term “grit” or the policies endorsed by “grit” advocates and “no excuses” ideologies. I maintain that “grit” is code for classist and racist beliefs and practices—even when those prejudices are not intended by those advocates.

      Do you really mean this? Or do you mean when “grit” is used by “advocates of no excuses ideology” that it is code for classist and racist beliefs? The way the above reads to me is that when I use “grit” in class with kids, I’m also a part of this racist advocacy. I’m I misreading this?

  3. This is indeed a very good piece. It is absolutely necessary to keep the focus on poverty when discussing the achievement gap; it is THE cause that must be addressed. Anyone who would argue that “grit” can change or close the achievement gap is silly. I cringe, for instance, when I see editorials in places like the WSJ that praise “grit.” However, the main reason I cringe, is that it gives all the amazing important work and research on “grit,” “resilience,” “growth mindsets,” and “optimism” a bad reputation–as if the research of say Carol Dweck or Angela Duckworth is done to support in any tacit way the agendas of right wing, standardized test acolytes. To the contrary, the research around the development of non-cognitive traits and habits of mind is some of the most exciting to be introduced in education in years. The idea that success in life is more contingent on non-cognitive traits than traditional measures like IQ is so important. To get kids to realize that failure is important; that intelligence can be learned; that success depends on approach to learning; that, in short, we can change and grow for the better, is a wonderful thing. Now if this message is used as medicine for an unequal educational system, it would be misguided at best, and perhaps unethical at worst. I don’t think unethical is too strong a word, b/c again, the research that has spawned the growth of words like “grit” in our lexicon was not done with the intent of promoting a narrow right wing political agenda.
    This, then, gets to my criticism of your piece. You throw around the word “grit” as if it’s true meaning is in fact meant to obscure the truth of why we have an achievement gap. Don’t make it a dirty word. By doing so, you are being as misguided and unfair as the right wingers who use it for their narrow purposes; now you are using it for your narrow purpose: to promote a “radical scholarship” agenda. I’m all for radical scholarship if it challenges the the status quo in meaningful ways. But this piece, unfortunately, gives your “radical” views, in my estimation as a teacher of over 13 years (eight of which were in a large urban inner city school) little weight. You are doing the very thing you are against: a quick, over simplified analysis of the cause you fight against. That’s an ugly little secret, too.

    1. Read my body of work. I am not oversimplifying but addressing the fact of how “grit” is part of the “no excuses” agenda. Don’t attack me for the term being misused and misapplied. Your response is a bit of shooting the messenger.

      1. That may be true that “grit” is used in the “no-excuses” camps….but so too is “democracy,” “freedom,” “liberty” in tea-party group, for instance. That doesn’t mean you accept their narrow views of it as truth? You don’t throw out “democracy” because some people use it in poor ways. By connecting the two terms–grit and no-excuses agendas–in this piece, I feel like you are criticizing the research on “grit”–not the misguided uses of it. Thanks for the link to the longer piece, I’ll check it out.

      1. In no way do I mean to shoot the messenger. Not the intent at all, and I understand your point. I guess what I’m worried about is that when sound teachers who come to your blog–teachers with the right view of the state of things, I’d dare say–who don’t have a deep understanding of the work that spawned the term “grit,” they will hear it used by “no-excuses” folks, and have a negative association with it. And for me at least, truly integrating the ideas of growth mindset, grit, et al. into my pedagogy, has had noticeable and measurable results for my students. And I’m teaching this stuff to upper class kids, in the context of learning for the sake of learning. So again, this adds another layer of perhaps complexity to the story: I’m defending grit as a way to challenge high achieving kids to actually develop a passion for learning–not as a game to win, not as a series of high stakes tests that will determine their future. It’s not just used by no-excusers.

  4. This is an excellent, thought-provoking article. I urge any and all educational professionals to print a few copies and post them/display them in your school’s staff room. Sending copies to your state and local “policy-makers” and journalists might elicit some awareness of an alternative way to conceptualize the crucial issues alluded to in the article. Thank you, Dr. Thomas.

  5. I found this reminiscent of McClelland’s article in American Psychologist (1973), appropriate or not. Great read Dr. Thomas.

  6. I haven’t read the complete article, but what I’ve read here is the best expression of this problem I’ve seen. I am a teacher who’s taught in extremely impoverished areas, and I am also a child who grew up in extreme poverty and managed to finish her education to the MA level. It took a lot of “grit” indeed. Without sharing my life story, I truly did have a huge bear trap to drag along with me. But I think the most important reflection for me is that merely achieving my education did not remove the trap! I still come from a culture of poverty. I still have few stable family relationships and achieving my educational goals actually required severing relationships, or keeping a few people at a very long arm’s reach. I don’t have connections, I can’t network, with anyone who isn’t still in poverty unless that person is a relatively new acquaintance. Now, I make a very good salary and send my son to a private international school where testing is minimal, but he is learning multiple languages and entrepreneurial skills and habits that I could never teach him. His private school is completely different than any school where I might have taught. 90 percent of the students are very wealthy and they are not taught how to pass a test. They are taught how to generate and manage wealth, how to think about things critically and how to problem solve are much more important than what the solution looks like. I firmly believe that the bear trap exists and that public schools in the US teach kids to learn to live with it. If we instead taught them how to think and to problem solve, take risks and learn from failure, that would go a long way towards helping them out of poverty. But the fact is that this would only be part of the solution because these kids have to still function in their own home and family culture while learning another way to live; this will require much more than a change in curriculum and testing practices.

  7. great post – Slack” is the term identified by Mullainathan and Shafir as the space created by abundance that allows any person access to more of her/his cognitive and emotional resources
    Daniel Willingham is his critique of Alfie Kohn’s writing says that researchers define self-control as the ability to marshal your cognitive and emotional resources to help you attain goals that you consider important.
    To me this raises questions on the notion that grit is a non-cognitive trait. The marsh mellow test is seen as a test of self control and grit. But Walter Mischel shows it was the kids that were able to ‘ distract ‘ themselves, use their cognitive skills to problem solve that did well on the test.
    The problem is educators and politicians seen grit as pure willpower and self-discipline. And this is what Alfie Kohn addressed in his article is Self discipline overrated ? Dan Willingham missed the whole point of the article
    here is a positive article on grit from a sdt point of view

    1. Our team of 8th grade teachers has adopted the work of both Dweck and Kohn; the two support each other in so many ways. While Tough’s book may not deal explicitly with passion, again , this doesn’t mean he is against passion! I guarantee that if you asked Paul Tough if he thought schools and teachers need to find ways to help develop passion for learning, he’d agree. Kohn’s work–in particular on ending grades and external motivation–have been exactly what we’ve needed as a team of teachers to actualize a lot of Dweck/Duckworth stuff. For example, by de-emphasing grades and pushing internal motivation, we can give kids the space to take risks without worrying so much about grades. “Failure” doesn’t exist in a grade-less system. As teachers we can design challenges for kids that are meant to stump them. We want to give kids the skills (namely the ability to develop strategies) to confront challenges and solve problems. The other pillar–effort–is what we preach to kids. Strategy and effort are the keys to growth, to learning, not IQ. (This also applies to poor kids; I’m not saying of course that learning will end poverty, it won’t, but as I’ve been trying to articulate in these comments–and what caught my attention in this article in the first place–is that these are two separate conversations.)
      It seems like so many in the educational world want to read things with the intent of showing how they don’t conform into their own already-established worldview. Of course there are holes in Dweck work when it comes to trying to integrate it into a school; after all, she’s not doing work on how to create a school. When we do the messy work of actually trying to get kids to think and learn and grow, we have to draw from various sources. I’ve found that marrying Kohn’s work with Dweck’s along with David Perkins’, has been the best thing for my own practice, and more importantly for student growth. Do all of these peoples’ work fit naturally together without some inconsistencies? Of course not! But who cares?

  8. I appreciate your analysis of Tough/Duckworth’s research. I needed my thinking broadened to connect the dots between the cognitive psych. findings and sociological/political realities, and the notion of “slack” helps me think about constructs like “grit” more critically. I’m interested in how you (or anyone chiming in here in the comments) might advise teachers/administrators in buildings about the practical “how to” of interventions they have the power to implement regarding helping students who live in low income households.

    I get to work with many teachers/administrators who are interested in ideas like Grit and other concepts in Paul Tough’s book. In some cases, these educators are working with students using these ideas, and they are finding some initial success. How can “slack” be included productively in these discussions? I talked about it with one of the administrators and he said: “This reminded me of Herb Kohl’s Not-learning in his essay “I won’t learn from you”. We need to have two eyes- one that understands the role of the individual and one that works collective to change the contexts of privilege and oppression.”

    1. My comment on your other post was meant to be put here. I highly disagree that Tough/Duckworth work is “designed to better engineer factory-style schooling.”

    2. I do not recognize any improvement in our understanding brought about by the construct “grit.” How does Ryan and Deci’s work on SDT relate to grit any differently than it relates to explaining other constructs related to human motivation? Developmental psychologist have long espoused favor of rewarding/praising effort instead of personal characteristics (i.e., you tried so hard vs. you are so smart).

      1. Justin, “trying hard” is not the same construct as “grit.” Since people seem to be so against the term grit, maybe “Growth Mindset” is better. Effort is indeed an ingredient of a growth mindset, but so is strategy; so too is looking at failure as an opportunity for growth; struggle is essential. “Just trying hard” is usually code for “you’re way off the mark” but at least you tried hard. This is an empty idea. What does that really mean? I think trying to dissect and analyze what truly “trying hard” means and entails, is what is at the core of trying to integrate the work of grit and growth mindset into pedagogy.

  9. This is absolutely fantastic. My thoughts exactly. I understand the desire to have “high standards” and educate those students living in poverty to the best of our/their ability – I really do.

    But we cannot eradicate poverty and its far-reaching effects over night. It’s an incremental process. 50%+ gains and “rags to riches”/hood to Harvard stories are exciting, yes. But it is not that norm. And to put that level of pressure and stress on our students who live in poverty and their teachers is unconscionable.

    It is wrong to punish our students for their poverty and the effects of said poverty through removing recess for test prep, extending the school day for test prep, requiring summer school for test prep. We must meet them where they are, do our best to help them improve, but in so doing, create a JOY for learning. All students deserve JOY.

    Making school this painfully grinding process for low income students in which they are made to feel “behind” and “inadequate” and constantly trying to “catch up” so their school doesn’t shut down does not foster a love or appreciation for learning. It may cause them to reject education for the constant feelings of inadequacy and failure the high stakes testing/accountability model of education brings.

    And when a school shuts down for failing to make AYP due to students’ low test scores: how does that make these students feel? It provides more inconsistency and instability when your school + community dissolves into thin air and you have to go elsewhere because you did poorly on an exam. It’s damaging to communities and to students’ self-esteem, and it’s disempowering on the whole.

    Let’s meet them where they are + help them realize and build upon their strengths. Only then can we empower students.

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