Thursday, September 29, 2005
"The Underclass" - A personal story
Who is 'the underclass' and why should we sink significant resources to help them? We keep hearing about the turnaround cases, those success stories in the news. What about all the statistics that say most of the 'underclass' are doomed to repeat the same mistakes generation after generation? Sound harsh? That's what I keep reading, so you KNOW I HAD to comment. The Wall Street Journal story, "The Hallmark of the Underclass" in the Opinion section said this:
"Perhaps the programs now being proposed by the administration will help ordinary poor people whose socialization is just fine and need nothing more than a chance. It is comforting to think so, but past experience with similar programs does not give reason for optimism- it is hard to exaggerate how ineffectually they have been administered. In any case, poor people who are not part of the underclass seldom need help to get out of poverty. Despite the exceptions that get the newspaper ink, the statistical reality is that people who get into the American job market and stay there seldom remain poor unless they do something self-destructive. And behaving self-destructively is the hallmark of the underclass."
"An Uprooted Underclass: Under the Microscope" "An Uprooted Underclass: Under the Microscope" in the New York Times' Week in Review asked the question, "Will moving the poor out of New Orleans help them rise?
"Blogging of the President" defines 'the underclass.'
"They are the people who never seem to break free of poverty. Neither do their children, nor their grandchildren and their parents were poverty struck as well. They are born to poverty, and it seems like it is their heritage, one they can never shed; a curse unto seven generations."
He goes on to say,
"The best predictor for success in America is still (barely) education. The best predictor for education is… your parents education. Location is what matters here...Real love of learning starts in the home. Children whose parents read, read. Children whose parents don’t read, don’t read."
Well, I find all of this 'discussion' very interesting. Let's talk a little more (and more and more) about how REALLY poor Americans' odds suck. And while I appreciate the value and virtue of statistics, I'm disheartened that statistics are relied upon to tell the story... How helpful is it to know that their odds aren't great? Don't we know that? What is more helpful, to me, is the fact that when you mix education, exposure, and a little bit of opportunity, some children GREATLY benefit and can translate those benefits into success for generations to come. Why am I so passionate about that? I'm just ONE generation from being in that group of folks who aren't expected to do anything, but with a little luck and intervention by individuals who cared, I have had access to great opportunities.
I'll tell you my story. My little personal story is not exceptional. I haven't written books, or become a PH.D or risen to the executive ranks at work (yet), but my family has come a great distance to allow me to get where I am. I'll tell my mother's story because it is more illustrative of the point.
My grandparents and parents grew up in the South during segregation in America, so clearly they did not have the benefit of 'good housing values' to support their schools. Although I won't go into detail here, I believe they were part of what others define as 'the underclass.' On my mom's side, my grandfather had a third grade education; my grandmother had an 8th grade education. My mom has (had) two brothers and two sisters. (Her two sisters passed away from breast cancer. My mom had cancer too - asbestos in the house they grew up in.) My mother is the third child. While neither of her brothers went to (or considered) college, she mentioned to her high school teacher that she thought she might like to attend college. He told her what she needed to do. Lesson #1: Individuals who mentor/provide resources/provide support for a young person can COMPLETELY change their life in ways that they could never imagine and probably will never see. Her parents neither discouraged nor encouraged college to my knowledge. Her church, a church of about 20 families, gave her a scholarship of $150 to go to a somewhat local historical black college. For her annual expenses, she was told that if she could pick a bale of cotton, she could keep the money for her expenses during the year. She worked her way through college and when she graduated, she went with her roomate North to a 'big city' - which she thought was a big time opportunity. Lession #2: Having exposure to a culture of job stability and that values education can CHANGE values. She later married my dad, who was from the same area. He grew up in 'town;' my mother grew up in the country. He had a master's degree and was much older (I think about 14 years). Although my dad wasn't into private school AT ALL, my mother insisted. Both my brother and I went to private schools and my mother insisted that we spend our LAST DOLLARS on school and piano lessons and all kinds of other activities. LESSON #3: Investing in education doesn't always work, but when it does, it pays HUGE dividends. Here's the interesting part. Although my parents didn't really read that often to us, (My grandmother NEVER read to my mother) I 'got' that education was important, and I learned FROM MY CLASSMATES what the role of a parent being instrumental in a child's education looked like. Other parents help their kids study, played puzzles, went to restaurants and vacations, put together albums of poetry and sayings, etc. My mother of course didn't know anything about that stuff. Now I did OK in school. When I graduated from college (thankya laudy), my mother HOUNDED me to go to grad school, and because I heard someone else talking about it, I decided to get two masters.
Now that I am a mom, I have a sense of what it means to sow seeds of education early. Perhaps I overemphasize education because I see the wonders it has accomplished in my own family. I don't care what the statistics say about the likelihood that education and exposure will impact the lives of children of the underclass. It doesn't bother or impress me that groups and churches AROUND THE COUNTRY that are directly intervening to support families are getting warm and fuzzy coverage. The truth is that sometimes these efforts work and sometimes they don't. When they do work, the results are significant and lasting. The Wall Street Journal asks, "Have We Rediscovered the Underclass?" No. The face of the underclass has been there all along. You probably look at it everyday. It's me. It's lots of others. We just don't recognize it.
Based on what you've written, I'd say that you're a testament to social stratification - education had a positive effect on your life, just as it has for many others, and that opened many doors for you.
Intellligence and education are more valued today than they were in the past, so slowly, people are using their intelligence to rise out of the underclass and this is stratifying society. Those that are left behind have fewer children with the intelligence to undertake the same journey because intelligence has a heritability (r=0.86) in the same neighborhood as that for height (0.88-0.90).
I'm going to think about this post of yours some more. Good job.
What is it that seperates those how are able to overcome their "heritage" (that is terrible!) like your mother, and those who may have had the opportunity, and can't get out. (many people that I knew from that period in my life are now dead from rather unatural causes) What is the trigger that allows one to break out of the downward spiral?
On another note, being that American public education funds come from property taxes, isn't this perpetuating the unfair treatment and opportunities that are and are not available to the diverse socioeconomic population of the US? So how can the president POSSIBLY state this "heritage" when the method of taxation perpetuates the cycle? "They are born to poverty, and it seems like it is their heritage, one they can never shed; a curse unto seven generations. The best predictor for success in America is still (barely) education. The best predictor for education is… your parents education. Location is what matters here...Real love of learning starts in the home. Children whose parents read, read. Children whose parents don’t read, don’t read." So make all educational facilities that best you possibly can, to provide opportunities for all who may wish to pursue them.
Anyways, a very thought provoking post, thank you for sharing your family story...
I, too, don't buy the statement you are part of the underclass. You have done great things with your life. People in your life value you and pushed you to excel. You are doing the same for LO.
Keep up the great work. You will never know who is infuenced by what you do (and write) and how they positively impact their children or other children.
Education is critical and that belief starts when the child is very young.
Thank you --
As to education - it's much easier to do it when a kid, as you've got scads of time up for grabs. That said, it's also possible to go back to school and do better for one's self. My sister threw away her high school years, but managed to go to college, and then realized it was up to her. She knew that if she screwed up, she could end up on welfare in a trailer park. She buckled down and is now a CPA. Our grandmother, who did not have to work outside the home, felt a calling to help disadvantaged kids, and went to college when she was about 40, alongside some of my Dad's classmates from high school. She went on to get a masters in special education when she was about 60, I think.
One of the biggest turnarounds I know relates to a highschool dropout relative, who got sent to Vietnam when 17. I met him when I was about 10-12 (he must have been in his 30s), and talked to him about all the books I had been reading and how interesting I found them. He was functionally illiterate (in that he couldn't read fluently), but he kept trying to read books until he was up to a couple a day. He's an avid reader now.
I try to explain to people the difference between rich white trash and poor white trash is that the rich white trash don't suffer materially from their bad behavior. Paris Hilton may be a coked-up skank, but she won't be destitute because of it. If a middle class 20-year-old decided to follow Paris's way of life, she'd find herself broke and very, very sick.
I understand that people see the misbehavers in the "upperclass" and whine "Why can't =I= act that way and have no repercussions... it's not =fair=! Everybody should be able to do what they want!" Yeah, and you don't hear me whining that I have to get a stepstool to get dishes off the top shelf because I'm short. Darn those tall people, being able to lithely pick stuff off the top shelf while =I= have to struggle! The nerve!
Men who won't work and women who don't care about their children's future are in the underclass. "Riffraff" sums them up.
Sounds like you are doing a great job!
That doesn't fit you or your parents.
"On another note, being that American public education funds come from property taxes, isn't this perpetuating the unfair treatment and opportunities that are and are not available to the diverse socioeconomic population of the US? So how can the president POSSIBLY state this "heritage" when the method of taxation perpetuates the cycle?"
Money is not destiny. Television watching has a strong negative correlation with educational achievement. Used books are cheap. A poor family which got rid of cable TV and spent the savings on used books would give its children a huge advantage.
It might be a difficult and locally unpopular choice to dump TV, but it is still a choice. And it would get easier with every family which did it.
I came here from Joanne Jacobs' blog. I'm a homeschooler too and I love your blog, but please, could you stop with the all-caps words? I feel like you're shouting at us. You don't need to shout.
Yes I agree with what you are saying regarding money is not destiny. And it is funny you use the example of TV...I haven't had one in over ten years. Nevertheless, what I was trying to illustrate is that the QUALITY of education within the public system (not that which is shared within the home) is unequal and unfair, due to the taxation system. Not all schools are created equal. And some of the educational enviornments are completely unsuitable for learning thereby creating a system that is more of a stuggle for a child to succeed in an underfunded school versus one that can afford good resources and good teachers. Unfortunately, this continues to be based on the economics of the system.
This difference is correctly attributed mostly to factors outside the classroom. One of them is... home time spent television watching vs. reading.
Reading is one of those foundation skills which improve with practice. Children who read a lot are going to have a huge advantage over children who don't. Parents can exercise a lot of influence over this by having a house full of books vs. a television.
Then there's the fact that poor areas tend to be high-crime areas (people whose good stuff gets stolen will become poor almost by definition). What's more attractive to a crook: a new TV or a bunch of used books?
When it comes to goods which depreciate quickly, impoversh the mind and are easily stolen vs. goods which cost little but retain their value and impart riches which can never be taken away...
The article you commented on is one I read when it first came out and I found it very powerful, as I did your post in reaction to it.
I am a very big fan of Charles Murray and the article caught him on a more gloomy note, I think. Your family history is an ideal example of what was the main thesis of his book, "The Bell Curve": modern society is becoming more and more stratified by i.q.; becoming more and more a meritocracy.
Charles Murray also wrote an equally important follow up book after that called, "Human Accomplishment". "Who are the geniuses throughout human history?" and "What must be in place in a society for genius to flourish?" were asked in this book.
What you are doing for those other children, your passion and calling, he would smile upon. I highly suggest you read it. I think he believes that for a society to at least run well, i.q. is nice. To be one of genius and beauty, then morals; duty to a higher purpose; and a pro-active rather than fatalistic approach to life are of supreme importance.
(I also liked the article because it helps put lie to the Levitt theory of Abortion Cut Crime. Murray wasn't even reacting to the theory, but maintains that criminality in the population has been growing since at least 1980 and the paradox of this happening and the crime dropping in the early 90's was due to conservative fashion: more draconian sentences handed out kept criminals behind bars.)