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The Faceless “Poor People” and “Basket of Deplorables”: Two Sides of the Same Coin

October 18, 2017 Leave a comment

Earlier this month I saved a City Lab post by Arthur Brooks and John A. Powell based solely on it’s title: “America Can’t Fix Poverty Until it Stops Hating Poor People”. In the article Mr. Powell and Mr. Powell lament the “bothering” that is occurring in our nation, where we see “…whole groups of people as unlike ourselves—as the undesirable “other”. They assert that this othering phenomenon is exacerbated by the fact that we increasingly live in bubble communities where groups are increasingly isolated from each other. Because that is the case, there is an increased demonization of one group of individuals— the poor:

Many different kinds of people have been harmfully “othered” throughout our country’s history, and the plights of these groups have received well-deserved attention and focus. But there is one group that we systematically other today—with hugely damaging consequences—while hardly even realizing that we are doing it. Those people are Americans living in poverty.

Mr. Brooks and Mr. Powell offer research to support their contentions, and from my perspective there is no reason to question them. Just as racial re-segregation is rampant in our country, so too is economic segregation. As a result affluent children seldom come in contact with children raised in poverty and as a result “the poor” are perceived as a faceless caste of lazy, uneducated, and dirty individuals. And they also suggest that there is an evolutionary basis for this “bothering”, which makes the problem even more insidious and intractable:

Some evolutionary biologists describe this tendency to sort ourselves into ingroups and outroups as an organic phenomenon that once served a defensive function. But today, othering is a political and social process, and it poses a grave moral problem. Othering uses bonds of shared identity to deny empathy and a sense of belonging to others. It gives elites and dominant groups an excuse to see social problems as distant pathologies, rather than soluble crises affecting people who are like them. And in the specific case of people living in poverty, it creates manmade barriers to the social inclusion and economic mobility of vulnerable people and communities.

Without intervention, this problem is likely to only get worse. A prosperous society like ours will always have the ability to sustain those in poverty in ways that may be materially adequate, but this can be totally bereft of any meaningful sense of autonomy or earned success. We need to address the forces that are pulling us apart along social and economic lines. We need, both personally and structurally, to change the way we see our fellow citizens who are struggling.

It is easy to call for “intervention” on an issue like this, but finding a politically viable “intervention” will require a change of thinking… and, even more difficult, a change of heart. Mr. Powell and Brooks suggest that “traditional welfare programs” create a cycle of dependency but offer no clear alternative. They also offer a list of other systemic changes that might yield less “bothering”: “education reform… criminal justice reform… and broad tax and regulatory reform“.

Mr. Powell and Brooks conclude their post with this:

A competition of ideas is healthy. But it requires a deep moral consensus: a shared belief in the equal dignity of all people. And that entails a deliberate, conscious effort to bridge the growing physical, cultural, and emotional gaps that increasingly set low-income people apart as something other than the rest of America.

Like many in our country who lament the current tenor set by President Trump, I deeply regret the outcome of the last election. In retrospect, there is one comment more than any other that led to the demise of Hilary Clinton’s candidacy, and it was when she referred to some of Mr. Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables”. In doing so, she brought the “competition of ideas” down to Mr. Trump’s level and made it impossible for her to call for a shared belief in the equal dignity of all people. If we aspire to having a high-minded dialogue about the future, we need to not only stop “othering” the poor, the blacks, the LGBT community, and women… we need to strive to understand the mindset of those who support Mr. Trump for whatever reason. To do otherwise is to undercut a shared belief in the equal dignity of all people.

 

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For the Cost of Repealing the Estate Tax, Congress Could Buy Everyone in America a Pony

October 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Kids don’t need ponies… but they do need a roof over their heads (10% in NYC were homeless in 2016-17), three good meals a day (over half of the kids in the US qualify for free and reduced lunch), or new clothes (or school uniforms)… and all of the above would be possible if we chose to use the tax cuts for billionaires to those ends….

Source: For the Cost of Repealing the Estate Tax, Congress Could Buy Everyone in America a Pony

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Retired Journalism Professor’s Op Ed Piece Connects the Dots Linking Segregationists, Free Marketers, and Vouchers

October 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Retired Western Illinois University journalism professor Bill Knight wrote an op ed piece for the Canton (IL) Daily Ledger titled “Right Wing’s Targeting Public Schools Tied to Segregation”, an essay that links the so-called “free market” anti-monopoly theory of public education to its racist roots.

As in previous posts on this broad topic, Mr. Knight draws on Nancy MacLean’s recently published book, “Democracy in Chains: the Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.” After over a half century since the ruling on Brown v. Board of Education, Ms. MacLean asserts that the segregationists are using “choice” and vouchers to re-segregate schools based on race…. and the neo-liberals who support those concepts are complicit in this trend. Drawing on MacLean’s book, Knight writes:

The radical Right supports private school vouchers (an obsession of DeVos, a long-time advocate) not because of a commitment to improve education, but because it weakens government, from Washington to local school boards. Long an American ideal, public education started coming under fire after the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in “Brown v. Board of Education” ruled that separate schools based on race were unconstitutional since they denied equal access to education. Southern white elites resisted desegregation and used economic arguments to criticize public schools to neutralize integration, MacLean said.

“These ultra free-market/property supremacist ideas got their first test, and it is in the situation of the most conservative whites’ reaction to ‘Brown’,” she said. Economist “Milton Friedman, had written his first manifesto for school vouchers in 1955 as the news was coming out of the South. That was after several years of reports on these arch-segregationists, saying they were going to destroy public education and send kids off to private schools.”

And while Friedman’s manifesto on vouchers might have been rooted in economic theory, some of his acolyte’s used his free market theory to advance their segregationist views:

Other conservative economists, such as James McGill Buchanan and Warren Nutter, argued that public schools were a “monopoly,” MacLean found. Ten days after courts prohibited Virginia from shutting down schools in some communities while maintaining them in others, Buchanan and Nutter recommended Virginia privatize all its schools and sell them to private providers that could profit from the once-public resources, the author said. The two went so far as to propose eliminating the requirement that there be public education in the constitution – which the Right’s long crusade called “government schools.” Removing the requirement would enable privatization on a massive scale.

The phrase “government schools” and the notion of a sclerotic “monopoly” on public education all stemmed from Friedman’s thinking… and both concepts were used to sanitize the racism that rooted these notions.

And Mr. Knight also flags Ms. MacLean’s linking this “free market” thinking to the anti-union sentiments that underpin Freidman’s ideas. She contends that the Right doesn’t oppose unions based on education principles but rather because they exemplify the kind of unity that undercuts libertarianism and supports government programs:

“It’s not because they are only concerned about the quality of education and think that teachers are blocking that,” MacLean said. “This is a cause that hated public education before there were teachers unions. Today, with so many industrial jobs destroyed or outsourced or automated, our main labor unions are teachers unions, and teachers unions are really important forces for defending liberal policy in general, things like Social Security and Medicare, as well as public education. In targeting teachers’ unions, they’re really trying to take out their most important opponents.

“They hate the idea of collectives (they would call them), whether it’s labor-union, civil-rights [or] women’s groups,” she continued, “and any kind of government provision for people’s needs. In their dream society, every one of us is solely responsible for ourselves and our needs, whether it’s for education or retirement security or health care. We should just do ourselves.”

I concur completely with Ms. MacLean’s thinking on these issues. The go-it-alone ethos is uniquely American  and the “Take Back America” slogan captures the resentment many voters feel toward those who are “takers” and those, like union members, who have higher wages, better benefits, and greater job security than the “independent contractors” who work in the so-called “gig economy”. And when the union workers in question draw their revenues from taxation the resentment is even deeper and stronger. And when this economic resentment is combined with racism, it yields the toxic environment we are witnessing today.

How do we turn this around? Only by appealing to the higher angels in people. Service learning projects, the creation of clubs at public schools that promote humanitarian causes as opposed to athletics and careers, and direct instruction and direct experience in how democracy works would all be helpful. As long as schools are viewed as career-preparation we are reinforcing the go-it-alone ethos that led us to where we are today…. where those who have made their fortune are loath to share it with others and so the .1% cling to their “earnings” while the vast majority of the workforce works from paycheck to paycheck.

The Real News Network Broadcasts the REAL Story Behind Funding Inequities… but Tweets Get More Coverage

October 16, 2017 Leave a comment

The Real News Network Taya Graham provides comprehensive coverage of Maryland’s latest panel examining taxation policy and names one of the primary culprits: tax breaks for affluent developers. As Ms. Graham describes in her voice-over:

…the rich developers, who are building these luxury apartments, do not have to pay taxes for years. Meanwhile, when the state calculates school funding it includes the value of buildings in determining Baltimore’s share, even if they’re not paying taxes, which means the city stands to lose millions as it tries to fix decades of unequal funding.

In the end, the developers will sell their units for top dollar, the occupants of those units will either be childless or wealthy enough to send their children to one of Baltimore City’s prestigious private schools, and the public school system will be starved of the resources it needs to educate the rest of the population. As one speaker before the panel stated, “…buildings don’t create great students. Teachers and resources do.” And it goes without saying that teachers and resources cannot be provided so long as tax revenues are being withheld by those who are constructing luxury apartments on the waterfront.

 

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“Screw ’em All”: The Unsettling Connection Between Anti-Intellectualism and High School Culture

October 16, 2017 Leave a comment

New Yorker writer Atul Gawande’s most recent article examined the question “Is Health Care a Right?”.  He researched the article by interviewing his hometown classmates in Athens, Ohio, all of whom were forthcoming with their opinions and many of whom held different levels of employment. Like all of Mr. Gawande’s essays, this one was well researched, well crafted, and full of insights. One section of the article jumped out at me. In discussing the need for replacing employer-provided health care with some form of government provided health care, Mr. Gawande recalls a conversation he had with one his his classmates about the well of resentment voters feel toward the biggest government provided program— Medicaid:

My friend Betsy Anderson, who taught eighth-grade English at Athens Middle School for fifteen years, told me something that made me see how deep that well is. When she first started out as a teacher, she said, her most satisfying experiences came from working with eager, talented kids who were hungry for her help in preparing them for a path to college and success. But she soon realized that her class, like America as a whole, would see fewer than half of its students earn a bachelor’s degree. Her job was therefore to try to help all of her students reach their potential—to contribute in their own way and to pursue happiness on their own terms.

But, she said, by eighth grade profound divisions had already been cemented. The honors kids—the Hillary Clintons and Mitt Romneys of the school—sat at the top of the meritocratic heap, getting attention and encouragement. The kids with the greatest needs had special-education support. But, across America, the large mass of kids in the middle—the ones without money, book smarts, or athletic prowess—were outsiders in their own schools. Few others cared about what they felt or believed or experienced. They were the unspecial and unpromising, looked down upon by and almost completely separated from the college-bound crowd. Life was already understood to be a game of winners and losers; they were the designated losers, and they resented it. The most consistent message these students had received was that their lives were of less value than others’. Is it so surprising that some of them find satisfaction in a politics that says, essentially, Screw ’em all?

In the 1950s and early 1960s the message that some students were “unsocial and unpromising” was more explicit, but it was mitigated to an extent by the fact that communities were building new schools and by the fact that jobs paying middle class wages were still readily available. The resentment a middle-of-the-pack student of the homogeneously grouped classes felt was offset the community support evidenced by new school buildings and the availability of decent paying jobs open to any high school graduate. By the late 1970s, that was not the case. Contentious local debates over school funding echoed the state and national debates over taxes and as budgets withered school boards bent over backwards to provide what kids with “money, book smarts, and athletic prowess” needed while fulfilling the Federal government’s mandates to provide a free and appropriate education to special needs children. The “un-special and un-promising” middle of the road students were ignored at school and at home they were being told that the only employment that waited them was on the Miracle Mile where big box stores and fast food joints abounded. When these largely ignored or de-valued students rolled up their sleeves and went to work, they resented anyone who failed to do so for whatever reason… and when they went into the ballot box their “screw ’em all” mentality brought us the Trump presidency. 

So how is a politician today going to win over a group of voters who has been systematically ignored by the system? My belief is that someone needs to make it clear that their grievances are every bit as valid as those made by Black Lives Matter. They should explicitly call out our K-12 schools for unwittingly ignored large swaths of students by focussing time a resources on those who aspire to go to college and those with learning disabilities and require them to develop programs to address this deficiency. They should offer tax incentives to any employer who provides entry-level training for jobs that do not require a four-year degree and offers ironclad ten-year contracts to employees who successfully complete those programs. Congress should explicitly call out employers who undervalue the employees who work in the retail and service sector of our economy and those who deliver goods to stores and our homes. Our politicians rail against outsourcing, downsizing, and off-shoring when they run for office… but once they are elected they have passed no laws penalizing such behavior. Governments at the state and local level are no better. Several states and local governments are engaged in a battle to offer tax incentives to Amazon, a company whose tactics have emptied small-town storefronts and malls, and whose intention to use drones for deliveries will leave many more people unemployed. Someone needs to make it clear to those voters who are marginalized by our economic system that the government sees this and will be taking action to rectify it.

And who will pay the price for this? The answer is clear: “…the honors kids—the Hillary Clintons and Mitt Romneys of the school—who sat at the top of the meritocratic heap, getting attention and encouragement.” Those of us who clearly benefitted from the system in place have been given much, and we should now be required to give back…. and not in the form of philanthropy but in the form of higher taxes to restore government services. To do anything less will move us ever closer to plutocracy.

Kindergarten Assessments May Impact Instruction… but Inequality Matters Even More

October 15, 2017 Leave a comment

In an unsurprising finding that will, sadly, have a limited impact on policy, a study by Economic Policy Institute researchers Emma Garcia and Elaine Weiss found that “…children who start behind stay behind—they are rarely able to make up the lost ground.”  The study, which tracked the performance of  two academic cohorts, the kindergarten classes of 1998 and 2010, on both cognitive and noncognitive skills found that:

…large performance gaps exist between children in the lowest and highest socioeconomic-status (SES) quintiles and that these gaps have persisted from the 1998 cohort to the 2010 cohort. The positive news is that the gaps have not grown, even as economic inequalities between these two groups of students have grown. The negative news is that the gaps have not narrowed, despite the fact that low-SES parents have substantially increased their engagement in their children’s early education.

Mss. Garcia and Weiss note that this persistent gap in cognitive and non-cognitive performance denies those in the lower SES quintiles the same kinds of opportunities as those in the top quintile. The authors conclude:

The undeniable relationship between economic inequalities and education inequalities represents a societal failure that betrays the ideal of the “American dream.”

But the finding and the conclusion are nothing new. This conclusion led to the War on Poverty in the 60s, a War that was ultimately lust because of underfunding. It was initially underfunded because we needed to divert money to the misbegotten war in Viet Nam, was subsequently underfunded because of various austerity measures, and eventually fell prey to the Reagan mantra that “Government is the Problem”. Mss. Garcia and Weiss offer a cogent but naive solution to the problem:

Greater investments in pre-K programs can narrow the gaps between students at the start of school. And to ensure that these early gains are maintained, districts can provide continued comprehensive academic, health, nutrition, and emotional support for children through their academic years, including meaningful engagement of parents and communities. Such strategies have been successfully implemented in districts around the country, as described in this report, and can serve to mitigate the impact of economic inequalities on children’s educational achievement and improve their future life and work prospects.

Since “greater investments” inevitably means “more revenue” which ultimately requires “higher taxes” the chances of these recommendations being followed by the GOP led Congress and DeVos led USDOE are minuscule at best and most likely impossible. One would hope that their grounding in research would be persuasive, but again, given the GOP led Congress and DeVos led USDOE any research-based findings are unlikely to gain traction. Indeed, in the eight years of Democratic Party leadership we witnessed little to no movement toward either “greater investments in pre-K programs” or an emphasis on “comprehensive academic, health, nutrition, and emotional support for children through their academic years”. Instead. like their like-minded GOP legislators, the Duncan-led USDOE advocated market based solutions to inequality, believing that offering choices and charters was preferable to providing the funding needed to invest in Pre-K or provide “…comprehensive academic, health, nutrition, and emotional support for children through their academic years.”

Until we acknowledge that more funding is needed for the kinds of programs and services advocated by Mss. Garcia and Weiss the inequities they observed will persist indefinitely… and the betrayal of the ideal of the “American dream” will persist as well.

Trump and Common Core: He Makes No Effort to Get Rid of It

October 14, 2017 Leave a comment

This just in: Mr. Trump doesn’t care about the Common Core… he’s all in on vouchers and privatization though!

Source: Trump and Common Core: He Makes No Effort to Get Rid of It

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