Monday, August 1, 2011

Ain't No Makin' It

Several years ago during yet another half-hearted stab at making a college degree a priority, I took a course called "Poverty in America."  It's a drab title, which is a real disservice to the class behind it, which was one of the most engaging I've ever taken and shaped the way I interact with the world.  In true University of Southern Maine fashion, the class has been discontinued.

I'll admit that I registered for the course because I wanted a class with economics professor Bob Jordan.  A commuter at the ferry service I work for and the father of a high school classmate, he's quite possibly the most delightful man you could ever hope to meet.  He's a quirky guy with the kind of outlandish enthusiasm for life that makes even your run-of-the-mill optimist seem like a jaded crank.  He's lavish but absolutely genuine with compliments, a Ford (as in the cars) enthusiast, and eager to hear what's happening in your life whether it's the first or millionth time he's chatted with you.  There's a contingent that doesn't know what to make of his relentless positivity and writes him off as a little loony, but I'm here to assure you that he's smart as a whip and totally guileless -- that that's hard for people to believe strikes me as a devastating commentary on a culture steeped in cynicism.  I'm certainly not immune to cynicism, but I find Bob absolutely inspiring.

About a decade ago, his oldest son, a former high school hockey star and all-around golden boy died of a drug overdose at one of his father's rental properties.  He was schizophrenic and delusional.  Bob speaks frankly about it when the subject comes up as it often does in the context of poverty and homelessness.  That any parent lives through that is a small miracle.  That Bob not only survived, but survived in tact is a big one.

The class was co-taught by Bob from the economics  department and Don Anspach from sociology.  Hilariously, Don was the cold, hard numbers man in the outfit and referred to Bob's optimistic outlook as the "red shoes" approach to problem solving. As in Dorothy's ruby slippers, click your heels and make a wish.  They were a lively duo, and in their different ways, fierce advocates of class equality and active in pursuits aimed at eliminating poverty.

The class was both sprawling and intimate and clearly an eye-opener not just for people who'd grown up in comfortable circumstances, but for people who'd grown up poor.  Sitting in a college classroom taking a shot at social mobility via education, many of them hadn't considered the implications of poverty beyond simple material deprivation.  It was heartbreaking and inspiring to watch earnest kids (they were, by and large, freshmen, teens) with a lot of drive realize that in a number of meaningful ways, the deck was stacked against them, that their academic education was only one piece of the puzzle -- although many of them were street smart in the traditional sense, they started to recognize that they were relatively naive when it came to being Wall Street smart.  It's a painful truth that attainment these days isn't as easy as working hard and getting ahead.  My Fair Lady is a silly musical romp, but Professor Higgins is a pretty good representation of middle-class culture and its obsession with the superficial symbols of success.

The primary text for the class was a book called, Ain't No Makin' It: Aspirations and Attainment in a Low-income Neighborhood by Jay McLeod.  In it, McLeod made a study of two groups of low-income teenagers, one white, the other black, living in a public housing project.  As the title suggests, he spent a bunch of time getting to know these kids and their expectations for their futures.  He also detailed their home lives, school performance and general attitudes toward the world and their lives. I don't remember if it was originally conceived as a longitudinal study, but the book was originally published in 1987 and a second edition with updated information about the two groups came out in 1995.

When it came out, the book challenged expectations about race, class, and social mobility.  The "Hallway Hangers," a predominantly white group were by and large skeptical of school and the larger system and generally resigned to a life of poverty, crime, and struggle.  "The Brothers," on the other hand, were a group of mostly black youth who believed that if they studied hard and kept their eyes on the prize, a better life was possible.  Although there was a huge gap between the aspirations, motivation and attitudes of the two groups, when McLeod returned to check in with the boys in their early-20s, he found most of them still in the same position: poor, largely option-less, still living in the projects or nearby.  McLeod notes that socioeconomic factors played a role for both groups, but while The Brothers' work ethics and educational attainment left them marginally better off, the added burden of racism kept them from making real progress.  It's worth mentioning that neither group believed class or race to have played a role in their circumstances, but blamed themselves for not trying hard enough to succeed.

Ultimately, McLeod concludes the achievement ideology, also known as the American Dream, whereby hard work and a good attitude are all you need to get ahead creates unfair expectations for poor kids. He posits that a messier, more realistic message combined with an education that holds up examples of people who succeeded despite wealth and power barriers is a more effective message for low-income kids.  "As students develop tools of social analysis and begin to understand how class-based inequalities in wealth, power, and privilege affect them, this awareness of self in relation to society becomes a motivating force much more powerful than the achievement ideology."  The achievement ideology is a tidy platitude and a fine ethos when all things are equal.  When things are radically unequal, it takes an unflinching awareness of social politics to combat that inequity. 

But that's a hard sell for the people holding the purse strings (often the government).  I'm not trying to go all conspiracy theory, here, but let's be real:  Even if you genuinely want to help people, it's an uncomfortable thing to say, "Oh, hey, you're going to have to work twice as hard as someone in my circumstances to get the same things."  Whatever social progress we've made in the past several decades, we're a little Victorian when it comes to talking honestly about money and class.

And yet we can't leave well enough alone and just play dumb, we keep on picking at the scab until we're a disgusting mess.

Here's an example that fills me with rage: I hate, hate, hate the glib internet meme "first world problems," because it's crass and dismissive and highlights the ugliest face of privilege.  It's a sheepish, cheapskate way of acknowledging great gifts while still failing to appreciate them.  Posting a photo of starving children, a bombed out Iraqi town and then the price of gas at your local Mobil with the cheerful caption, "First world problem!"  is unbelievably fucked up. Sure, suffering is subjective and measured in degrees, but if you think those relative sufferings even belong in the same sentence, I hope I never have to meet you.

And while I'm sure people who do it think it's a silly, self-deprecating joke, the truth underlying is that they have a pretty serious disconnect between those images and the fact that that is really, truly, actually someone's life.  It's real, and it's everyday.  Excuse the sermon, but if you can't wrap your head around how not-a-joke it is to live in starvation conditions or in a war zone, then it's for goddamn sure you aren't taking U.S. poverty, a less dramatic but still crippling condition, seriously enough.

Which is why social change is just never going to come top-down in this country.  McLeod's right. Perpetuating the achievement ideology is a great way to maintain the status quo.  If you tell people that they can win if they just play the game, but you fail to tell them the rules, they'll lose almost every time.  Even if we could get everyone awake and aware, it's going to be a more difficult struggle than anyone imagines.  As we saw in the debt ceiling standoff, politics is often a war of attrition, or more accurately, a game of chicken.  And the people with the money and power have the resources to wait in relative comfort for the rest of us to flinch.

I don't think I started out intending to incite revolution, but I guess that's what I'm talking about.  As previously middle class families slip farther and farther down the economic ladder, there'll be more of us at the bottom to pitch a stink.  Unfortunately, we're a society fractured along so many lines, that I don't have a lot of faith that we'll hear the call to work together for mutual gain over the cacophony of superficial difference.  I have a theory about the achievement ideology and the side effect of the working class devouring itself waiting for a payday that isn't coming, but that's for another time.

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