Ignoring Poverty in the U.S. Redux: A Reader

We were in Rye, passing the First Church, and the breeze from the ocean was already strong. A man with a great stack of roofing shingles in a wheelbarrow was having difficulty keeping the shingles from blowing away; the ladder, leaning against the vestry roof, was also in danger of being blown over. The man seemed in need of a co-worker—or, at least, of another pair of hands.

“WE SHOULD STOP AND HELP THAT MAN,” Owen observed, but my mother was pursuing a theme and, therefore, she’d noticed nothing unusual out the window….

“WE MISSED DOING A GOOD DEED,” Owen said morosely, “THAT MAN SHINGLING THE CHURCH—HE NEEDED HELP.”

A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving

I wrote Ignoring Poverty in the U.S. to reject the decades-long focus on education reform targeted in-school only accountability driven by ever-new standards and high-stakes testing.

But that work also reveals the incredible power of stereotypes about adults and children living in poverty in the U.S. Despite our cultural myths about rugged individualism and boot-straps success, the impoverished in the U.S. are overwhelmingly vulnerable populations.

whoispoor1

Consider the following sobering statistics, illustrated in the figure above:

  • More than a third of those who live in poverty are children. More than 15.5 million children lived in poverty in 2014.
  • About 13 percent of those living in poverty are senior citizens or retired.
  • A quarter of those who live in poverty are in the labor force—that is, working or seeking employment.
  • A tenth of those in poverty are disabled.
  • Eight percent of those living in poverty are caregivers, meaning that they report caring for children or family.
  • Students, either full- or part-time, make up another seven percent of those living in poverty.
  • Just three percent of those living in poverty are working-age adults who do not fall into one of these categories—that is, they are not in the labor force, not disabled, and not a student, caregiver, or retired.

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Stereotype 2: Poor People Are Lazy

Another common stereotype about poor people, and particularly poor people of color (Cleaveland, 2008; Seccombe, 2002), is that they are lazy or have weak work ethics (Kelly, 2010). Unfortunately, despite its inaccuracy, the “laziness” image of people in poverty and the stigma attached to it has particularly devastating effects on the morale of poor communities (Cleaveland, 2008).

The truth is, there is no indication that poor people are lazier or have weaker work ethics than people from other socioeconomic groups (Iversen & Farber, 1996; Wilson, 1997). To the contrary, all indications are that poor people work just as hard as, and perhaps harder than, people from higher socioeconomic brackets (Reamer, Waldron, Hatcher, & Hayes, 2008). In fact, poor working adults work, on average, 2,500 hours per year, the rough equivalent of 1.2 full time jobs (Waldron, Roberts, & Reamer, 2004), often patching together several part-time jobs in order to support their families. People living in poverty who are working part-time are more likely than people from other socioeconomic conditions to be doing so involuntarily, despite seeking full-time work (Kim, 1999).

Doubling Down (Again) on the White Man’s World

A decade ago, I was confronted with an incredibly uncomfortable situation when my first-year English class overwhelmingly believed the Duke lacrosse team was innocent and the woman accusing them of sexual assault was fraudulent.

There was a significant mixture of irony in the tension resulting from my trusting that the class—atypically majority male at a university consisting of mostly privileged and white students—was biased by their collective and individual privilege as that conflicted with the eventual revealing that the Duke lacrosse team was in most ways innocent (although I would argue that is a simplistic conclusion supported by technicalities of law): the irony, of course, being that I—white, male, and privileged—was proven wrong about my claims of the U.S. being, in the language of today, a country in which white male lives matter most.

Just this May, another class included, again atypically, about a third black students, some of whom were eager to argue for corporal punishment and then several of the black male students felt compelled to speak up for males wrongly accused of sexual assault.

At that, I asserted that in the U.S. today it remains easier to be a male wrongly accused of sexual assault than to be a woman actually raped or sexually assaulted.

But I could not have anticipated both the Baylor University scandal and then the Brock Turner rape judgment and sentence, which has been followed by a disturbing pair of commentaries by Turner’s father and a female childhood friend.

The light sentence of Turner, by a judge who like Turner attended Stanford University, was justified because of the consequences this rape would have on Turner’s life. Turner’s victim has rebuked this decision in her own statement.

Both the Turner sentence and the Baylor scandal returned me to my examination of The Martian, an unintended allegory of the hyperbolic concern in the U.S. for the white male at the expense of women and people of color.

Having been raised in the sexist and racist South, I have spent my adult life—going on four decades—working against my privilege and learned bigotries.

I am aware of and fearful of whitesplaining and mansplaining, the white gaze and the male gaze in every interaction I have in both the real and virtual worlds. I shudder to think, on social media especially, how often I creep toward the line crossed by vicious male trolls, how often women and people of color see in my words the very things I abhor.

As a writer, I am hyper-aware that my one-more-white-man’s voice is crowding out space for women and people of color; we simply do not need more white male perspectives.

As a scholar and academic, now full professor and tenured with a significant body of published works, I am equally hyper-aware I continue to do the same in academia.

Much of my work has been devoted to calling out racism, but I have also addressed misogyny and mansplaining often. In both cases, I have tried to confront the inevitable “yes, but” from men and whites.

But I look at the one picture of Turner, and I see me—white male. I think about the judge in the case, and I am among the disproportionate number of white males in power in the U.S.

What woman would trust me, especially from a distance? Why would black and brown people believe my solidarity?

And while I am writing about me, this is not about me; this is about the daily doubling down in the U.S., proving that white male lives matter most—and the corrosive consequences for everyone.

That fact—the light sentence for Turner, the failure to hold police officers accountable for taking black lives—sustains a hostile world for everyone; we are pitted daily against each other because the greatest threat to power is solidarity.

I will continue to name misogynyracism, and child abuse—even as that work pushes my voice farther the margins.

As a privileged white male, I am insulated enough that I can offer these observations that remain mostly about my own minor inconveniences that are devastating realities for vulnerable populations and people oppressed because of race, gender, sexuality, or age. As a privileged white male, I seek to use my privilege to eradicate privilege.

But most of all, my greatest act of solidarity remains my role as a student—I listen, I read, I heed.

And even then, I fall short.

I have failed enough women, children, and people of color to last a dozen life times—and “I’m sorry” seems trivial against that.

White male privilege has created a vicious world that needs to be dismantled, and in its place, we must imagine something better, a world brought forth from the mouths and minds of those rendered less human and thus more aware of the beauty and grandeur of being human.

As Adrienne Rich offers, “the sea is another story/ the sea is not a question of power.”

Most people know “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” but the Turner verdict and sentencing remind us of what Lord Acton offered next: “Great men are almost always bad men.”

Daily, this is proven true as we watch white males double down again and again on white male lives mattering most.

Outliers Never Evidence of Normal in Education

In Money, Race and Success: How Your School District Compares, the NYT, like most of mainstream media, is begrudgingly coming to admit that race and class inequity in the U.S. has a profound impact on the education of children—and that simply tinkering (badly) with school policy is not enough to change that reality:

We’ve long known of the persistent and troublesome academic gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers in public schools.

We’ve long understood the primary reason, too: A higher proportion of black and Hispanic children come from poor families. A new analysis of reading and math test score data from across the country confirms just how much socioeconomic conditions matter.

Children in the school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty score an average of more than four grade levels below children in the richest districts.

But then there is this:

The data was [sic] not uniformly grim. A few poor districts — like Bremen City, Ga. and Union City, N.J. — posted higher-than-average scores. They suggest the possibility that strong schools could help children from low-income families succeed.

“There are some outliers, and trying to figure out what’s making them more successful is worth looking at,” said Mr. Reardon, a professor of education and lead author of the analysis.

Well, no, if we find outliers—and virtually all data have outliers in research—we should not waste our time trying to figure out how we can make outliers the norm.

The norm is where we should put our efforts in order to confront what is, in fact, not “puzzling” (used earlier in the article) at all; the data are very clear:

What emerges clearly in the data is the extent to which race and class are inextricably linked, and how that connection is exacerbated in school settings.

Not only are black and Hispanic children more likely to grow up in poor families, but middle-class black and Hispanic children are also much more likely than poor white children to live in neighborhoods and attend schools with high concentrations of poor students.

Our great education reform failure is one of failing to rethink our questions and our goals.

Let’s stop trying to find the “miracle” in a rare few schools where vulnerable students appear to succeed despite the odds against them. With time and careful consideration, we must admit, those appearances almost always are mirages.

Let’s instead put our energy in eradicating the poverty, racism, and sexism that disadvantages some students, vulnerable populations easily identified by race and social class, so that we can educate all students well.

And while we are making efforts at social policy, let’s end the in-school policies that we know “exacerbate” inequity: tracking, teacher assignments (and TFA), high-stakes testing, grade retention, discipline policies grounded in zero tolerance and “no excuses,” and segregation through school choice (including charter schools).

Education reform, as was highlighted in the original court case examined in the South Carolina documentary The Corridor of Shame, is obsessed with playing the hero by seeing who can pull the most babies out of the river.

And then examining the ones who survive the potential drowning in order to “make” all babies survive the trauma of being cast down stream.

But no one seems interested in walking upstream to stop babies being thrown in.

Life and learning do not need to be something children survive—and we must confront that we have decided that this is exactly what we are willing to accept for “other people’s children.”

It would not be so if we believed and acted upon that “they’re all our children.”


The Allegory of the River

Meditation 512: The you in the space we call awake

[NOTE: I typically post my poetry only at my poetry blog, and I typically refrain from profanity on my professional blog here. However, I am posting my newest poem below because it is primarily continuing a few threads of thought I have been pursuing about poetry as well as about how we treat children. Hope you enjoy my risking a prose poem and posting it here.]

You know I dreamed about you
For twenty-nine years before I saw you
You know I dreamed about you
I missed you for, for twenty-nine years
“Slow Show,” The National

To risk something real as a writer is to risk making a fool of oneself.
“Learning to Be Embarrassed on the Page,” Idra Novey

I am standing outside, smoking & wasting time. I know this is a dream because I would never smoke & I never waste time. But that isn’t true. I didn’t have that dream. This is the making shit up we call poetry. I knew this is how the poem will start & then I realized how the poem will end so I had to write the rest of it. I had to risk writing a prose poem even though I don’t write prose poetry.

This did happen.

I find “Let It Go” from Frozen on YouTube to play on my iPhone for my granddaughter who is not yet two years old. When she hears it & realizes what the song is, she grabs the phone, running&dancing through the livingroom&kitchen. She raises her arms & ballerinas on her toes, singing along that is mostly humming because she cannot really talk yet. Only words here&there. She knows “go” & she knows rhyme. She already loves music&words, she already loves poetry, she dances to poetry. Although she cannot yet talk or read.

I sit on the couch, watching her & crying. I cry during the drive to work the next morning thinking about her singing&dancing. I cry while writing this poem that includes her.

Tears are poetry.

The world is here to beat that out of her because we are self-loathing creatures who deserve hell if there is one. That isn’t true because we have manufactured hell right here&now in fact: To take this away from the youngest of us because we have abandoned it ourselves. We do not deserve these children yet we are allowed to bring them here&now in these times of sleeping&awake.

This happened as well.

I dreamed about the you who was not you. We were in Washington DC together with so many people from each of our lives & I came to your hotel to be with you but you were always doing something else. I woke up several times because of this dream about the you who was not you but I went back into it each time I fell asleep again. Each time you continued to avoid me & I felt sad&ridiculous for trying so hard to be near you.

Now: This is how the poem ends.

About the you who is you. The you in the space we call awake. The you with fingernails the color of the darkest red wine. You would do anything.

The you who is you would do anything.

—P.L. Thomas

Stop Normalizing, Idealizing “Exceptional”

My granddaughter loves Disney Junior, and while she was watching and eating breakfast, a transition commercial announced with excessive glee: “Dream big and never give up!”

And all I can think is: What total and harmful crap.

Because our cultural narrative that normalizes and idealizes “exceptional” has been gnawing at me lately.

I have always bristled a the horse manure sloganification we heap on children: You can be anything you want to be! Reach for the stars!

Part of my concern is that this idealizing of exceptional to the degree that we make it the norm that everyone must aspire to be exceptional (a result impossible since once everyone achieved that, no one would be exceptional) feeds into our cultural ignorance about outliers: Make any generalized claim about a topic people don’t believe despite the evidence or don’t understand, and the typical response will be something like: “O, yea, see this anecdote of mine about an outlier!”

But my direct concern about “Dream big and never give up!” is how this cultural hokum drives our alienation and anxiety, especially among children.

Why can’t we allow people to be happy and content with their mediocrity, their normalcy, their average abilities and aspirations?

George Clooney and I are about the same age, but he has mega-dollars and mega-fame—and, damn it, he is very pretty.

If his exceptionality is the basis for my self-worth, my happiness, I am royally screwed, languishing under the anxiety that I just didn’t dream big enough and I gave up in my quest to be pretty, popular, and wealthy.

So, all you kids out there, and all you languishing adults trapped under the avalanche of “Dream big and never give up!,” let me offer a much healthier dictum: Dream big and never give up? No! Dream appropriate to you and then give it your best effort; and then, feel free to change your mind and levels of effort—and you may want to be OK with not making any of that work.

And feel free to tell all those Dream-Big merchants to kiss off.

On This Day: Nothing Justifies Physical Intimidation of Children

Today, March 11, is my daughter’s birthday.

I could write blog after blog about my failures as a parent, failures that my child has apparently mostly decided to ignore.

But I want to take a moment to write about some things I did well, some things that created a new family tradition that will be a legacy about which I can be proud.

Even in our dark periods, my daughter was very quick to let people know two things: we allow no racism and we do not hit children. Her adamant defense of my commitment in these areas always rose above the other failures of mine plaguing us at any moment.

And she made it clear we have no tolerance for racism or violence of any kind toward children in other people. These moments were always judgmental—the sort of daily moments of activism that go mostly unnoticed because they are spontaneous.

My granddaughter is a marvelous biracial child who, like my daughter, will be raised without the threat of physical intimidation in her home and among her family. We, of course, cannot make her that same promise about her community, her state, or her country.

These glorious humans and the legacy we have joined together in creating help me navigate all my failures.

However, that familial promise is not the case for many children—and that is nearly unbearable because this legacy isn’t about only my family.

This legacy about racial harmony and kindness to children, for me, is informed by Eugene V. Debs: Statement September 18, 1918:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

As long as one human suffers under the plague of racism, as long as one child lives under the fear of physical violence, we are not safe or free despite the gifts we may have in our daily lives.

See the work of Stacey Patton at Spare the Kids.

See Also

Jesusland?: Bible Belt Raises Welt of Corporal Punishment

The Stream: Should parents spare the spank

There is no debate about hitting children – it’s just wrong

Spare the Rod, Respect the Child: Abuse Is Not Discipline

How We Raise Our Children: On “Because” and “In Spite Of”

“Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.”

I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, “Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.”

Slapstick or Lonesome No More!, Kurt Vonnegut

I was a public high school English teacher for almost two decades in the rural upstate of South Carolina.

My first years were nearly overwhelming—as they are for most beginning teachers. And I would concede that much of that struggling could easily be categorized as classroom management challenges (although having five different preps, 15 different textbooks, and classes as large as 35 students certainly didn’t help).

Yet, then and now, as I approach the middle of my third decade teaching, I tend to reject the terms “discipline” and “classroom management” because they carry connotations I cannot endorse.

First, framing classroom management as something separate from pedagogy, I believe, is a mistake. In other words, effective and engaging pedagogy creates the environment that renders so-called (and generic) classroom management strategies unnecessary.

Next, most claims about “discipline” and “classroom management” remain trapped in reductive behavioristic ideology as well as authoritarian views of the teacher (in which authority is linked by default to the position).

As a critical educator, I seek to be authoritative, not authoritarian (see Paulo Freire). In other words, I forefront the human dignity and agency of my students, I seek always to model the person and learner I feel my students should emulate, and I work diligently to earn the respect of my students, in part, because of my expertise and credibility in terms of what content I am teaching.

But having taught public school, I know the real world is messy: students become confrontational with their peers and even teachers. School can be (and in some places often is) a physically and psychologically dangerous and uncomfortable place, rendering learning less important.

And I also recognize that each teacher is legally and morally the central figure of authority in any classroom. Yes, as a teacher, I must assert that authority any time the safety, health, or opportunity to learn of any students is threatened.

So when I am teaching pre-service teacher candidates, I urge them to take certain steps in their day-to-day interactions with students as well as in confrontational events.

I urge them always to speak to students with “please” and “thank you.” I stress that whenever students become loud, belligerent, or threatening, the teacher must lower her/his voice, mediate her/his language, increase her/his patience, and seek ways to give the student space and time in order to protect all innocent students and the upset student.

I say “yes, sir” and “no ma’am” to students because my father raised me that way. However, my father’s own authoritarian style (“do as I say, not as I do”) also imprinted on me my fear of hypocrisy; therefore, I seek always to have higher standards for my own behavior than for the behavior of my students.

All of that—and more—is to say that when I read A ‘No-Nonsense’ Classroom Where Teachers Don’t Say ‘Please’ I was horrified because of both the abusive treatment of children and the (not surprising) cavalier endorsement by NPR.

The problems are almost too numerous to list, but I’ll try.

First, the so-called “unique teaching method”—”no-nonsense nurturing”—is a program (from “Center for Transformative Teacher Training, an education consulting company based in San Francisco”), and thus, NPR’s reporting proves to be little more than a PR campaign for that company.

Next, these harsh and dehumanizing methods are yet more of the larger “no excuses” ideology that targets primarily children in poverty and black/brown children. In other words, there is a general willingness to endorse authoritarian methods as long as the children are “other people’s children”—code for the poor and racial minorities.

And then, related, the direct justification for that authoritarianism is that parents choose this for their children.

Here, I want to stress again what I have examined before (see here and here):

  • Be skeptical of idealizing parental choice. Parents can and do make horrible choices for their children, and children should not be condemned only to the coincidences of their births.
  • Many scholars have addressed the self-defeating choices within racial minority communities that stem from unhealthy dynamics related to being a marginalized and oppressed people; see Michelle Alexander on black neighborhoods calling for greater police presence and Stacy Patton (here and here) on blacks disproportionately embracing corporal punishment. I have applied that same dynamic to blacks choosing “no excuses” charter schools.

While the NPR article notes that these practices “[make] some education specialists uncomfortable,” I must note this is not about being “uncomfortable.”

These practices are not providing “structure,” but are dehumanizing.

As well, these practices are racist and classist, and ultimately abusive. Period.

Our vulnerable populations of students already have unfair and harsh lives outside of school. Doubling down on indignity during the school day is not the answer.

If we cannot change the world (and I suspect we can’t), we can provide all children the sorts of environments all children deserve in their school day—environments of kindness, compassion, safety, and challenges.

To paraphrase Vonnegut, then, Please—a little less “no nonsense,” and a little more common decency.

See Also

If you’re a teacher, say “please” and “thank you,” Ray Salazar

Schools, black children, and corporal punishment

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