Why low-income parents may make 'poor choices'

For three years, I have been researching the lives of low-income people. I visit families in Housing Board rental flats once or twice a week and talk to them about their routines, worries and aspirations.

My research has taught me important things. First, everyone makes bad and good choices, but the conditions and outcomes of those choices are not equally bad or good for everyone. Second, parents in low-income situations are deeply invested in their children's well-being.

Everyone makes bad decisions sometimes. Most people also make some good decisions. People with low incomes have made both. But they do not always have access to good options. For example, many "choose" to leave school early because no one can support them. This seems obviously a bad "choice", but may be the best among various poor options.

"Choices" have long-term effects. People with extra money and social capital can mitigate the consequences of "bad" choices, but people without those buffers face severe consequences over time.

One woman I met had moved here from another country after marrying a Singaporean man. She had not immediately applied for her daughter to be a Singapore citizen, perhaps partly out of uncertainty about where they should live for the long term. Soon after, she was widowed, and several attempts to secure citizenship failed. Her daughter Jen (not her real name) has been living in Singapore for most of her life and knows no other home. Jen's mother encouraged her in her studies and she has just completed her A levels. Their limited income and Jen's lack of citizenship, however, means that she has accumulated arrears in school fees. Unless she pays, her certificate will not be released, barring her from university. The few thousand dollars owed seem insurmountable and the "bad choice" of not applying for citizenship immediately means the vast difference between upward mobility and stasis.

We cannot detach the well-being of children from that of adults. We would find this approach unfathomable for middle- to high-income families - there is no good reason to imagine that low-income families are different.

My second point is about parents' investment in their children's well-being, in a society where "investments" that do not involve money are valued less than investments that do.

The women and men I spoke to for my research talked endlessly about their children - their likes and dislikes, quirky habits and talents - as well as the trials of parenting. These parents are deeply invested in their children's physical, emotional and social well-being. Contrary to stereotypes, low-income parents care for their children in ways no less profound than better-off parents. They include parents who have been drug addicts, incarcerated, or divorced.

Their devotion to their children is more difficult and requires more of them than my devotion to mine. Many have long, inflexible work hours in physically taxing jobs. They have multiple dependants, heavy burdens of housework, and additional labour due to being low-income (for example, going to the post office weekly to top up their utilities credit). Parents face great financial stress, worrying about food, clothes and shelter. While the better-off in Singapore complain about children having excess tuition and enrichment classes, low-income parents lack resources to provide those things, which are not only necessities for succeeding in the school system, but also keep children occupied. Most poignantly, low-income parents need their children to listen to them at the same time that they tell them "don't be like me".

As we gain awareness about inequality and poverty, how we look at problems has a real impact on the solutions we craft.

There is a tendency to paint low-income parents as more likely to be neglectful or abusive. This happens for several reasons. First, accounts of the low-income too often focus only on cases that have surfaced as "problematic", which are then over-generalised as representative. Second, comparable actions are judged differently across class: A child may be left alone at home after school, or left with a grandparent or domestic worker. In both the low-income and better-off cases, the situation arises because parents need to work, but the former is quickly judged as neglect while the latter is acknowledged as necessity.

Certainly, there are parents who are neglectful or abusive, but this is no less true among higher-income ones. Caricatures of low-income parents cannot be the starting point for public discussions of poverty and social inclusion.

A recent article ("Lifting families out of poverty: Focus on the children"; last Thursday) admonishes society to pay attention to children in poor households while implying that they are innocent of the "poor choices" their parents make. This narrative that "children are innocent" and therefore particularly worthy of assistance is powerful.

Yet, it does not accurately reflect the general realities of low-income families' lives. Most of those parents are doing the best they can - at work and at home - under difficult circumstances. It is not "bad choices" per se that are the problem. They have limited options and face especially negative consequences when they make missteps.

We cannot detach the well-being of children from that of adults. We would find this approach unfathomable for middle- to high-income families - there is no good reason to imagine that low-income families are different.

Better-off Singaporeans should care about low-income people because they are a part of our society. I am not from a poor background, but I meet people like my respondents every day - when I pay for my groceries, get petrol, or use any public facility that requires cleaning. Like me, they are people with hopes, joys, needs and disappointments. They work hard and make mistakes, as I do. They deserve respect and dignity, no less than I. The deep social gulf between us negates our shared well-being. I want my child to grow up in a society where she has the same opportunities as their children, not more - a society that truly values hard work, equality and justice.

• The writer is an associate professor in sociology at Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2016, with the headline 'Why low-income parents may make 'poor choices''. Print Edition | Subscribe