Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Counseling

Counseling Families in Poverty: Moving from Paralyzing to Revitalizing

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Counseling

Counseling Families in Poverty: Moving from Paralyzing to Revitalizing

Article excerpt

Zachary comes running up ahead of his mom and sisters to wrap me in a great six-year-old hug. He has a huge smile on his face, and I notice that both he and his sisters are wearing the same clothing that they had on last time I saw them. It's 40 degrees outside, but all three of them only have on sweatshirts and Zachary's toes are poking out of his boots. However, not a hair is out of place on any of their heads, and Zachary proudly pulls out his homework from his worn backpack. He says, "Guess what? I wrote all my letters. Want to see?"

Zachary is one of 16 million children living in poverty in the United States (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith, 2011). Though the U.S. is one of the most prosperous countries in the world, 9.2 million families were living in poverty in 2010 (DeNavas-Walt et al., 2011). Moreover, while children only account for 24.4 percent of the population, 35.5 percent of the people living in poverty are children (DeNavas-Walt et al., 2011). With such staggering numbers, professional counselors are likely to work with families facing obstacles because of strained financial situations. Therefore, as professionals, counselors must ask themselves if they are prepared to work with families living in poverty.

Families living in poverty may show up for counseling in schools, agencies, and other institutions without their basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, and safety being fully met. Though professional counselors are usually developmentally or wellness based in theoretical orientation, in practice, they may find themselves discouraged when working with families who live in poverty. Thus, in the midst of linking families to much needed resources, they may focus solely on what the family is lacking and the multiple problems they face versus identifying and building on existing strengths. Furthermore, many counselors are often not of the same social class or economic status as families living in poverty, so their middle class worldviews, biases, and expectations for change modifies their perceptions of non-middle class behaviors as divergent from the norm. This in turn negatively influences their choice of counseling interventions and limits counseling outcomes (Liu, Soleck, Hopps, Dunston, & Pickett, 2004). In doing so, they may inadvertently paralyze themselves and the family.

Limited research in professional counseling literature addresses how to counsel families in poverty. In 2002, Brown noted the absence of research and literature counseling families below the poverty line, asserting that existing approaches do not address the specific needs of this population. Moreover, in the last ten years, much of the counseling literature on this topic has been focused on working with low-income students and families within a school context (i.e. Amatea & West-Olatunji, 2007; Amatea, Smith-Adcock, & Villares, 2006; Sheely-Moore & Bratton, 2010) or on parenting practices (i.e. Adkison-Bradley, 2011; Kelch-Oliver, 2011; McWey, 2008). In the few outcome studies available, there also is indication that many barriers exist for low-income families in utilizing traditional counseling services (e.g., transportation), which can lead to a high counseling drop out rate (e.g., Lyon & Budd, 2010; Schwarzbaum, 2004; Toporek & Pope-Davis, 2005). Therefore, a paucity of literature and outcome research on counseling the poor has led many to question how the counseling process should differ when working with families that are poor versus with those who are not experiencing economic hardship. Also, what should counselors be aware of and how should they position themselves to work effectively with families living in poverty?

In 2011, Foss, Generali and Kress answered Brown's (2002) call and proposed a model that calls for a strengths-based, multilevel counseling approach for use with individuals living in poverty. In their CARE model, the authors identified four areas of focus with individuals: (a) cultivating a positive relationship; (b) acknowledging the realities of the poor; (c) removing barriers for healthy development; (d) and expanding strengths. …

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