Friday, July 31, 2009

Middle class values don't solve poverty

There's this failed liberal idea in this country that the reason poor people are poor is because they don't possess the same values as everyone else (especially poor people of color). If I had a dollar for every time someone told me that they got where they are by studying while their black schoolmates were off playing basketball, I could buy a round of drinks. If I had a buck for every time I've heard "work smarter- not harder" as a justification for keeping the minimum wage low, I could put a down payment on a house.

The Kid just finished a pretty decent summer program at a very swanky local private school. This program is for poor, mostly minority inner city kids. The Kid loved it. He learned crew and went camping and it seems to have done his self esteem some good. But this private school has a history of not letting in many poor minority kids into their regular school program, and there's been issues with them treating their regular minority students in a not great way. (The summer program is somehow immune to this, I think because it is the school's way of making themselves feel less liberal guilt). As I watched the graduation ceremony tonight, I was impressed with the kids and the counselors and the teachers. But I was also thinking that every one of these kids deserves the same kind of education during the regular school year, but will never get because of who they were born to.

But back to values, which is one of the things that sticks in my craw. Part of the problem with Seattle Public schools is that they subscribe to the teach the poor how to act middle class and they won't be poor anymore dogma. The figure that if they throw the "gifted" kids into the worst inner city schools then the smarts will wear off. The swanky private school does kinda the same thing (throw them into a swanky environment) at least during summers. The private school actually succeeds in spite of this because they have very small class sizes (18 students, 1 teacher and two assistants) so the students get a lot of attention and their teachers really get to know them. But both the public and private school still ghetto-ize these kids. In the public school the "gifted" kids are kept separate (but equal-snark) from the riff raff of the poor with different classes and schedules. The private school does it by running it's program when none of the regular students are there.

Then there's the whole Section 8 voucher program (which I used to be a part of until I got too tired of fighting with Seattle Housing Authority and lost my voucher during the whole epic home loss of last summer). The idea behind vouchers is that it gives poor people the ability to compete for market rate housing they otherwise could not afford. The reality is that the voucher amounts don't really match up to the market and the utility costs are killer (you all remember the electricity being cut off in January, and March, and June). But the voucher program is yet another where the idea is to get poor people near wealthier people so that some of those middle class values of work, and community, and blah blah blah rub off.

And then there's the whole Work First bullshit. Get poor welfare moms to spend 40 hours a week sitting in the welfare office learning how to write a resume in order to qualify for TANF money (for those keeping count- in WA state that equals about $2.55 per hour for a family of 2). Teaching REAL middle class values would include allowing higher education (not just job training) to count for those 40 hours a week. Instead we get the rejects from social worker school forcing us to take stupid "what job suits you best" tests and long lectures about appropriate work attire. What we don't get is appropriate work attire or the education to actually work in one of the jobs that suit us best.

Are you getting the theme yet?

All of these programs have the same thing in common.

They spend a lot of time using the idea of teaching values in order to minimize the actual resources they have to spend. Public schools can point to the high test scores of their AP students while corralling poor kids into problem classes. The swanky school spends the resources, but only for 6 weeks out of the summer and not during the school year. Section 8 touts lower crime rates while creating more hunger and sacrifice. And Welfare gets people to work, eventually, but only in minimum wage jobs that aren't enough to raise a family on.

Here's the thing. Us poor people, we know the value of work and education and safe housing. We know how important school is, but we can't be there with our kids to make sure they are actually being taught (and try being a poor black single mother and fighting a public school- do you know how fast they will call child protective services to have your kid taken from you? The only reason I get away with it is cause I speak with educated (read white-middle class) diction and I'm white). Section 8 is supposed to work by making sure poor people pay no more than 30% of their income for total housing costs, but they routinely get around that rule (through utilities) so that people pay 70 percent.

What solves poverty is simple. Money. Money makes you not poor. Even Richard Nixon got that, and any economist worth their salt will tell you the best solution to poverty is to give people money. We don't need to be lectured to. We don't need to be taught the basics like work good, lazy bad. We got that. We need resources. We need housing and food and jobs that pay a living wage and healthcare and real educations for our kids and for ourselves. We are not afraid of hard work. Shit, most of us have worked horribly hard physical labor whether it's in agriculture or food service or manufacturing. We know our kids need to read and write and do math, but for most low income parents not having a real education means they can't help their kids get one either.

Value training for the poor is basically abstinence education. It's a whole lot of time spent dodging reality rather than spending the cash to solve the actual problem.

Not to mention it's also condescending, often racist, and with the whole feminization of poverty problem- decidedly sexist.

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