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Nick Kristof Bursts the “Personal Responsibility” and “Bad Choice” Bubbles in Cogent Op Ed

January 19, 2020 Comments off

A few days ago, Nick Kristof and his wife posted an extended essay describing the fate of the Knapps, a family that grew up in Kristof’s home town of Yamhill OR. The five siblings in that family all ended up dead, diseased, or incarcerated as a result of alcohol and drug addiction. It is a story of many working class families from rural outposts and one that puts a face on and explains the cold statistics showing that the life expectancy in our country is declining.

In today’s op ed column, Mr. Kristof offers several rejoinders to those who responded to this earlier essay with declarations that essentially boiled down to this: the Knapps got what they deserved. In his evenhanded and clear-eyed response to those who suggested this, Mr. Kristof burst the bubbles of personal responsibility and “bad choice” bubbles. The crux of Mr. Kristof’s arguments against these social Darwinists can be found in these paragraphs:

A newborn in a ZIP code of North Philadelphia with a largely poor and black population has a life expectancy 20 years shorter than a newborn in mostly white central Philadelphia just four miles away; that’s not because one infant has displayed “weak character.”

Britain reduced child poverty by half under Tony Blair. It’s not that British infants suddenly showed more personal responsibility; it’s that the government showed responsibility. Here in the United States, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine laid out a blueprint for reducing America’s child poverty by half, yet Congress and President Trump do nothing.

In that sense, Dr. Carson is right: Poverty is a choice. But it’s our choice.

I find it maddening that those who argue that poverty is a character flaw ignore the fact that good fortune plays a huge role in the ability to develop and retain good character. It is much easier for those who have reliable food, clothing to focus on character development. And as pointed out repeatedly in this blog, telling parents in North Philadelphia that their children have a choice about where to attend school is disingenuous at best and completely dishonest at worst. There isn’t a child in North Philadelphia who can choose to attend any school they wish anywhere in the city… and as for attending a school outside the city: forget it!

As is almost always the case with Mr. Kristof’s writing, he leaves the reader with a ray of hope after diagnosing the problem. Here are the concluding paragraphs of his op ed piece which come close to doing that:

We moved from an inclusive capitalism in the postwar era to a rigged system that hobbles unions, underinvests in children and then punishes those left behind. This is the moral equivalent of (placing) spikes on dashboards (to ensure there are adverse consequences for speeders or reckless drivers).

What would a better social narrative look like? It would acknowledge personal responsibility but also our collective social responsibility — especially to help children. It would be infused with empathy and a “morality of grace” that is less about pointing fingers and more about offering helping hands. It would accept that a country cannot reach its potential when so many of its citizens are not achieving theirs.

To which this reader can only say: AMEN!

Data Gathering Without Financial Support is Worthless… or Worse

January 9, 2020 Comments off

This article from a periodical touting the benefits of technology suggests that the mere collection of data can help schools address mental health issues, a notion that implicitly assumes that teachers have the time and training to intervene. Unless schools are able and willing to take on mental health issues as part of their mission and the public is willing to provide the funding to make that possible there is no way that data collection will help. Indeed, If the data is collected in schools and reported to the public it will be viewed as one more area where schools are “failing”.

Universal Free Lunch Program LOOKS LIKE A Good Idea… but COULD Be a Terrible One

October 19, 2019 Comments off

Common Dreams writer John Queally wrote a piece earlier this week supporting the proposal  advanced by Bernie Sanders and MN Representative Ilhan Omar that the US offer every child a free school lunch. This is an easy proposal to get behind for several obvious reasons, one of which was expressed in the subheading to the article:

“In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, no child should be turned away from a meal if they cannot afford it,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar.

It IS difficult to imagine how our country cannot provide free lunch to every child, especially when 1 in 5 children are going to bed hungry and a majority of students in many schools qualify for free and reduced meals. But there is one problem with offering a free lunch… and that is determining the contents of that meal. I’m listening to a book tape of Michelle Obama’s memoir and in it she describes the politics of school lunch, politics that have been in play for decades. The politics is not about Red and Blue: it’s about Green. The mega-corporations that grow and process food control what ends up on the trays of children because they can make cheap products that yield them big profits and result in result in over-sized children. Tater tots are easier to prepare, are more desirable to children, and yield higher profits for corporations than just plunking a potato on a child’s plate. The more food is processed, the greater opportunity for profits up and down the food chain, and the more likely it is that children’s diets will be compromised.

Universal free lunch is a good idea if and only if the lunch that is offered is healthy and well-balanced. Otherwise, it is unlikely to be contributing to the well-being of children though it may contribute to the bottom line of corporations.