Blaming the Poor… Again

You may have noticed David Brooks’ recent column in the NY Times on The Nature of Poverty.  Brooks is one of those conservatives who prefer to blame the problems of the poor on their character and their culture.  Fortunately the NY Times also employs a more knowledgeable columnist, the Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, who quite regularly corrects the mistakes of David Brooks.  In yesterday’s paper, Krugman undertook to do that in an excellent column, Race, Class and Neglect.

Racism is, of course, wound into this discussion, and Krugman cites Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, who explained, “that widely-decried social changes among blacks, like the decline of traditional families, were actually caused by the disappearance of well-paying jobs in inner cities.  His argument contained an implicit prediction: if other racial groups were to face a similar loss of job opportunity, their behavior would change in similar ways.”  Krugman continues: “And so it has proved.  Lagging wages—actually declining in real terms for half of working men—and work instability have been followed by sharp declines in marriage, rising births out of wedlock, and more,” across all racial groups.  Krugman notes a stunning statistic, that among our poorest citizens of all racial groups, life expectancy rates are actually falling in America, although Krugman points out that the statistics are particularly stark for black Americans: “Many people have pointed out that there are a number of black neighborhoods in Baltimore where life expectancy compares unfavorably with impoverished Third World nations.”  He continues: “In fact, much, though by no means all of the horror one sees in Baltimore and many other places is really about class, about the devastating effects of extreme and rising inequality.”

Krugman directs significant criticism to statements in David Brooks’ recent column: “So it is… disheartening… to see commentators suggesting that the poor are causing their own poverty, and could easily escape if only they acted like members of the upper middle class.  And it’s also disheartening to see commentators still purveying another debunked myth, that we’ve spent vast sums fighting poverty to no avail (because of values, you see.)  In reality, federal spending on means-tested programs other than Medicaid has fluctuated between 1 and 2 percent of G.D.P. for decades, going up in recessions and down in recoveries.  That’s not a lot of money—it’s far less than other advanced countries spend—and not all of it goes to families below the poverty line.”

Yesterday’s NY Times also featured a report on new research being released by Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, a study that demonstrates that children who move away from extremely poor neighborhoods do better in life, especially if they move when they are young.  Chetty and Hendren’s study confirms the impact of the racial and economic segregation of a child’s neighborhood on the child’s life chances: “The places where poor children face the worst odds include some—but not all—of the nation’s largest urban areas…. Many of these places have large African-American populations and the findings suggest that race plays an enormous but complex role in upward mobility….”

What about the places that seem to offer greater opportunities?  “These places tend to share several traits, Mr. Hendren said.  They have elementary schools with higher test scores, a higher share of two-parent families, greater levels of involvement in civic and religious groups and more residential integration of affluent, middle-class and poor families.”

I have read only the NY Times story by David Leonhardt about Chetty and Hendren’s study; I’ve not read the study.  In the NY Times piece, however, there is an assumption that mirrors the tendency in David Brooks’ recent column blaming poverty on the poor.  Leonhardt’s story quotes Hendren in a way that seems to blame the public schools in the communities from which the report’s authors encourage families to move away.  We prefer to blame somebody after all, and if we can’t blame the poor, maybe we should blame the schools that serve the poor or maybe blame the teachers.

Chetty and Hendren are economists. I think it is wise, as one tries to understand the many factors affecting groups of people, to look at the sociological research as well.  And there is a large and deepening body of sociological literature that speaks to the convergence of poverty and struggling schools.  What sociologists are telling us is that extreme segregation by income overlaid on racial segregation affects not only the children but also the schools to which they bring the challenges of extreme poverty.

In a 2010 study of schools in Chicago, Anthony Bryk and his colleagues identified what they called “a previously unrecognized subclass” of schools—those they called “truly disadvantaged.”  Here are the characteristics of the 46 schools they identified in Chicago that were far more severely challenged than surrounding schools (many of which served relatively poor neighborhoods). Truly disadvantaged schools were 90-100 percent African American. “These schools served neighborhoods characterized by extreme rates of poverty.  On average, 70 percent of residents living in the neighborhoods around these 46 schools had incomes below the poverty line, and the median family income in 1990 was only $9,480.  In 6 out of 10 of these schools, more than 50 percent of the students lived in pubic housing.” The schools featured what the researchers call a “consolidation of socioeconomic disadvantage and racial segregation.”  “Many confronted an extraordinary concentration of student needs, including students who were homeless, in foster care, or living in contexts of neglect, abuse, and domestic violence.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp 23-24)

Sean Reardon’s research at Stanford University helps explain what is happening.  Reardon documents that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrates that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

In his recent book, Robert Putnam adds an important factor that affects children’s prospects and the sense of hope or despair that is likely to pervade their schools: the widening disparity in family assets. “Growing inequality in accumulated wealth is particularly marked…. Even taking into account the losses of the Great Recession, the net worth of college-educated American households with children rose by 47 percent between 1989 and 2013, whereas among high school-educated households, net worth actually fell by 17 percent during that quarter century.  Parental wealth is especially important for social mobility because it can provide informal insurance that allows kids to take more risks in search of more reward.” (Our Kids, 36)

David Brooks’ assumption is that poor people ought to pull themselves up, and as Leonhardt describes the Chetty-Hendren study, the assumption is that poor people ought to get it together for the sake of their children and find a way to move away from the schools No Child Left Behind has caused us to brand as “failing schools.”  Maybe that leaves the rest of us feeling less guilty, but it doesn’t really provide any way to address one of our society’s most troubling trends: rapidly growing income inequality across America and growing segregation by race and income that affects not only families but also the schools their children attend.  Here are just a few of the ways we could begin to address parts of this problem: more full-time work, a living wage, the significant construction of mixed-income housing across our city and suburban neighborhoods with far more subsidized units included for low-income families, and finally some sort of honest grappling with the fact that our society spends far less public funds for the schools in low income communities than in places that are wealthy.

Instead of taking steps to address poverty and inequality, we too often blame the poor or their schools or their teachers. Our collective failure to act is not only a policy problem but also a moral failure.  We are not the good society we like to imagine ourselves to be.

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Public Education, Public Obligation, and the Distribution of Opportunity

A just society would distribute opportunity fairly and, in the case of K-12 education, give each child the chance to realize her or his promise.  While our society has never fully realized this ideal, we have, historically, agreed on the goal.  We have also assumed that there is a public purpose for public education—that our society benefits from the education of its citizens in myriad ways.

Education philosopher John Dewey declared: “A government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated.” (Democracy and Education, p. 87) Political philosopher Benjamin Barber describes public schools as, “our sole public resource: the only place where, as a collective, self-conscious public pursuing common goods, we try to shape our children to live in a democratic world.” (An Aristocracy of Everyone, pp. 14-15)  Chicago education professor Bill Ayers writes:  “What makes education in a democracy distinct is a commitment to a particularly precious and fragile ideal… that the fullest development of all is the necessary condition for the full development of each; conversely, the fullest development of each is necessary for the full development of all.”

These writers define public education as essential to the public good, and they point to the moral obligation to provide opportunity for all, not just for some in a society that aspires to justice.  These days we talk very little about the universal provision of public services as the foundation of opportunity.  We placidly ignore the skewed provision of public goods based on vastly unequal local resources from place to place, refuse to find ways to fund the equalization of those services, and then suggest that if we give parents control through privatization and school choice, they will be able to finesse the system on their children’s behalf.

Two articles posted this past week explore the moral implications of vast inequality experienced by children in today’s America.  Arthur Camins, in a column reprinted by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post, explores the false promise of choice as a so-called solution to educational inequality. Camins contrasts a value system grounded in common purpose to a value system of individual initiative and competition. He critiques the result after describing the rationale for school choice: “that successful schools will win the competition for students and thrive, while others will wither and close.  However, this strategy is in itself inequitable because the disruptive effect of school closings negatively impacts students in already unstable communities, but not those in stable middle class or wealthy communities…  In doing so it shifts the improvement focus from a shared concern or common struggle about the community’s children to individual parents making self-interested selections for their own children…  Self-concern is a rational moral choice only in the context of a society that refuses to systemically address inequity and only if everyone becomes convinced that collective action is a hopelessly naive moral and strategic principle.”

In Getting the Edge, Rev. John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, examines another moral issue in a society of exploding wealth inequality.  He describes the  benefits that accrue for the children of the wealthiest among us as private and public privilege add up in a society that manages, through over-reliance on local property taxes, to spend the most public dollars on the education of children who are already pampered.  Some children end up with almost unimaginable privilege as their parents invest in foreign travel and posh summer camps even as children in poor communities are denied basics like small classes and libraries in their public schools.

Rev. Thomas writes: “Aside from the wisdom of treating some of our children like pampered thoroughbred race horses in the Ivy League sweepstakes, or of infiltrating every activity with the rhetoric of economic competition, all of this demonstrates the structural ways in which our society helps to protect the very affluent class from downward mobility while doing little to nothing to provide meaningful upward mobility for poor and near poor children.”

In the unequal world that Rev. Thomas describes, we must continue to ask whether school choice through privatization—the prescribed “solution” today to inequality in education across America’s big cities—can possibly address the deepest injustices. Privatization and school choice embody values of individualism, freedom, liberty, choice, innovation, and competition—very different principles from those embedded in universal public education.

Benjamin Barber sorts out these issues with precision in his reflection on privatization.  It is a fascinating exercise to consider carefully Barber’s statement that follows in the context of one of today’s examples of a school system designed around choice—whether in Chicago, New York City, Newark, New Orleans, Detroit, or Philadelphia:

“Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics.  It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right.  Private choices rest on individual power…. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract.  With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak….” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

In the context of growing family wealth inequality, Rev. Thomas believes our best chance for justice in education is through the public schools that represent our society’s public obligation to our children: “Children don’t need to study marine biology in New Zealand or entrepreneurship on Wall Street in the summer to have hope.  But they do need good schools; well paid, well trained, well supported career teachers; and supports for their families to be able to provide a safe and stable home life.  Absent this, all the talk about equal opportunity for all our children is not only futile, but obscene.”