Teaching Opinion

Disparate Impacts & Another View on Poverty

By Deborah Meier — October 22, 2013 6 min read
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Dear Mike,

No, we haven’t bridged our differences. Nor did either of us imagine we would. But I have a clearer idea of some of their roots. Do you? I hope so.

“Staying open to the possibility that they (our opponents) might, nevertheless, have a few smart things to say” still seems worth the effort. I’m quoting Sara Mosle (on NYC education news) here, quoting you. What a nice way to say it. It’s one reason I especially enjoy reading the comments that follow blogs, and why I admire—and read with special care—comments made by a few diligent readers and respondents to Bridging Differences who fundamentally disagree with me politically.

The particulars of our growing-up years are certainly related to our disagreements. How much? Who knows? Maybe I owe some of my reactions to a feisty mother who wouldn’t allow us to speak disparagingly of anyone—e.g. “Japs” was taboo in our house during World War II. I also had a father who switched sides in arguments as soon as anyone agreed with him. I was influenced by both of them. From them both also came a very strong sense of being lucky. They were, after all, not far removed from being victims of the Holocaust as Eastern European first and second generation Jewish immigrants.

It’s still true that I cannot pass a beggar without giving or worrying about him/her when I don’t! If they are youngish men I imagine they might be my sons, and if they are old I imagine that someday I, too, will be in their situation. I still have a hard time not switching my support when I watch a ballgame—to the loser. (Although, on the other hand I managed to be a fanatic Yankee fan from childhood on.)

And while I encouraged such traits in students—they may be idiosyncratic, even sometimes foolish. Still I associate them with the “habits” of a democracy! (“If only everyone was like me-"ism? (See The Washington Monthly, Oct. 7, 2013, “Inequality, the empathy gap, and why you should read Chekhov,” which references a piece in The New York Times: “Rich People Just Care Less.”)

Actually, I don’t think you are right about the public’s agreement with either one of us. Despite 30 years of relentless attack most still trust school teachers more than businesspeople, public schools more than corporations, and see their own neighborhood school as pretty good! It amazes me. And this despite the fact that criticism of public schools—for not being tough enough—goes back to the 19th Century. (See Richard Rothstein’s The Way We Were?—it’s a must.) Look also at Life magazine’s cover of March 24, 1958, on “The Crisis in Education.”

But you are also right that we have a long history of believing that we are the land of opportunity, that anyone who wants to hard enough, can become a millionaire or at least earn enough to lift their children out of poverty and on the road to riches. It’s an attitude that hit the nail on the head compared to 18th and 19th century Europe. No more. What we, in part, disagree about, is whether this partial truth rested also on our aspirations for rough equality, and even a strong labor movement. Or that our respect for handywork—and the “common man"—hasn’t influenced our confusing national ethos. Being a “school lover” (or an intellectual) has never been compatible with being a true he-man. “Academic” even carries a negative everyday meaning. The American Western was the epitome of this attitude, along with most contemporary popular mystery/adventure stories. (I embarrassedly enjoy Lee Child’s serial hero Jack Reacher.)

Children are born into whatever they are born into. That some start the six-mile foot “race” at a mile behind the starting line and others a few miles ahead is not fair, not a level playing field. A few in the bottom quintile (3 percent?) overcome the odds. But it would be a lot easier for the message of hope to reach the other 97 percent if they were closer to the starting line, and the rich weren’t so incredibly far ahead, looking back at them with disdain. If my childless, working-age grandchildren aren’t too proud to take a “hand-out” from their parents, why should the adult children of families who have experienced a lifetime of poverty and racism feel otherwise about taking a helping hand from a society they didn’t ask to be born into poor? Alas, many do feel shame.

If policymakers and designers of “no excuses” schools think poor children are less disciplined and live a life of immediate gratification, they are just plain mistaken. As the head of Dalton once said, on visiting our East Harlem school, “Your students are so much easier to work with than ours.” I was astounded and pleased. It was true. Our students had experienced a tougher world and had lived within a culture that was, for many reasons, tougher on their children. Our children were more, not less, automatically respectful to adults. As they got older, they got angrier as storekeepers and police officers treated them as dangerous thugs and their parents were helpless to intervene. They were subjected to more mixed messages carrying enormously high stakes. (Consider: The poor are told to forget sex until they are sufficiently self-supporting to raise a family with middle-class standards while surrounded by a mainstream advertising campaign that sexualizes everything—from shampoo to insurance!)

I began to identify with their parents, as we talked and talked about our concerns over many years. “Struggling” as I was to raise three children, have a job, and be an active parent/citizen, even though I had the advantage of having part-time household help, lived in a pretty safe neighborhood, enjoyed adventurous summer holidays, and rarely worried about money or retirement. I acknowledged that I was very, very lucky! It takes a lot more discipline to survive life as a poor person in this country than as someone with the resources to attend Sidwell Friends.

Marianne Bertrand et al, in a research paper, propose the following, which I rather like, “Standard theorizing about poverty falls into two camps. ... We propose a third view. The behavioral patterns of the poor ... may be neither perfectly calculating nor especially deviant. Rather, the poor may exhibit the same basic weaknesses and biases as do people from other walks of life, except that in poverty, with its narrow margins for error, the same behaviors often manifest themselves in more pronounced ways and can lead to worse outcomes.”

Yes, Richard Rothstein is right about a lot of things, including lead poisoning. Waiting until private-sector charity solves lead poisoning is as silly as looking to charity to solve our school problems, and perhaps as silly as I am in hoping that someday we will end both poverty and the fear of poverty. We were moving toward that for a time—but we abandoned it on the basis that it was bad for ...the poor. I’m for trying again. And, I’m so glad you mentioned our “system” of justice and prison reform—with its disparate impact on the poor.

It will take new language for talking about being poor if we want to end poverty. We need a language that speaks with respect to those at the top and bottom. (Yes, I do not think it helps to demonize the rich; I can imagine, with effort, how earning millions every year might distort my world view.)

Enough for now!


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