Why Poverty and Mass Incarceration Do Not Matter in the U.S.

Ever wonder why poverty and mass incarceration do not matter in the U.S.?

Poverty disproportionately impacts women and children (see p. 15):

Povertygenderage

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Mass incarceration disproportionately impacts African American males. While white males outnumber AA males about 5 to 1 in society, AA males outnumber white makes about 6 to 1 in prison:

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Government and business in the U.S. remains dominated either by privileged white males or the norms associated with privileged white males.

Our leaders have no empathy.

Our leaders have wealth, privilege, child care, health care, food security, and job security—and they all believe they have earned it all. They also believe those who haven’t are lazy—also deserving their poverty.

Our leaders cannot and will not acknowledge their privilege.

Leadership without empathy is tyranny.

If poverty and mass incarceration were white male problems, we’d be working to end both.

Words and Deeds: The U.S. Is No Christian Nation

In Chapter 1 (“The Foul Ball”) of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, the narrator, John Wheelwright, declares on the first page, “I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” Later in the chapter, John and Owen are in the car with John’s mother:

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,” Owne said morosely. “THAT MAN SHINGLING THE CHURCH—HE NEEDED HELP.” (pp. 33-34, 35)

If you are looking for the U.S., there it is—John Wheelwright’s mother, who “noticed nothing unusual out the window.”

D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking-Horse Winner” presents the reader with a young boy, Paul, talking with his mother:

“Is luck money, mother?” he asked, rather timidly.

“No, Paul. Not quite. It’s what causes you to have money.”

“Oh!” said Paul vaguely. “I thought when Uncle Oscar said filthy lucker, it meant money.”

“Filthy lucre does mean money,” said the mother. “But it’s lucre, not luck.”

“Oh!” said the boy. “Then what is luck, mother?”

“It’s what causes you to have money. If you’re lucky you have money. That’s why it’s better to be born lucky than rich. If you’re rich, you may lose your money. But if you’re lucky, you will always get more money.”

“Oh! Will you? And is father not lucky?”

“Very unlucky, I should say,” she said bitterly.

If you are looking for the U.S., there it is—a working class fascination with luck and wealth, passed on to children, instead of the charity Owen calls for throughout Irving’s novel

From the grave, Addie Bundren reveals her philosophy of life in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying:

So I took Anse. And when I knew that I had Cash, I knew that living was terrible and that this was the answer to it. That was when I learned that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at. (p. 171)

If you are looking for the U.S., there it is—the failure of words against the possibility of deeds.

“With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea,” opens Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

Later in the story, however, the narrator explains:

Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.

In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is. The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes–the child has no understanding of time or interval–sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good,” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

If you are looking for the U.S., there it is—the sacrificed child, the dull resignation toward inequity.

While Daisy and Tom Buchanan flee, essentially unscathed, to Europe, the images of Myrtle Wilson dead in the road and Jay Gatsby face-down in his swimming pool haunt Nick Carraway’s final lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (p. 182)

If you are looking for the U.S., there it is—Myrtle’s corpse in the wake of Daisy driving a gold Rolls Royce, Gatsby and George Wilson both dead at George’s disillusioned hand.

The U.S. is no Christian nation—of that I am reminded, like Owen Meany witnesses again and again, each time I make a case that the U.S. is the wealthiest nation in the world, in human history, and that we tolerate and even loathe the growing number of poor, including poor children, who populate our country.

When I suggest we should end poverty directly, cries ring out for the interests of the wealthy: How dare I suggest that we take from the rich and give to the poor!

Certainly a sentiment that Jesus espoused often? No, in fact, Jesus speaks most about the least among us, the need to lay down our worldly possessions, and our moral obligation of charity.

The U.S. will have none of that, however.

A country will ultimately be measured by how the privileged treat the impoverished. About many things I am unsure, but about that, I am certain.

Many stood in line to buy the newest iPhone (which will be obsolete very soon so everyone yet again can line up for the new iPhone) while almost no one lined up to do something about 22% of children in the U.S. living in poverty.

If you are looking for the U.S., there it is—in line for the new iPhone.

Echoing the words of Jesus in many ways, Henry David Thoreau in Walden (Economy) recognized even in mid-nineteenth century:

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor….

The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind….

No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience….We know but few men, a great many coats and breeches….

We worship not the Graces, nor the Parcæ, but Fashion.

I imagine most in the U.S. would scoff at Thoreau, much as they scoff at my suggesting that the privileged have more than they need, and that what they have earned isn’t earned at all—and that those people and children trapped in poverty are our obligations to charity, not people to be shunned or ignored.

The U.S. is no Christian nation.

Although humanist Kurt Vonnegut, may he rest in peace, seemed to understand:

How do humanists feel about Jesus? I say of Jesus, as all humanists do, “If what he said is good, and so much of it is absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?”

But if Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being.

I’d just as soon be a rattlesnake. (pp. 80-81)

Amen.

The Doable We Refuse to Do: End Poverty, Confront Privilege

Since I have recently challenged the word magic behind claims that education is the one true path out of poverty and that the free market can ever address poverty and inequity, I want to highlight that the unwillingness of political leaders and the public to acknowledge the importance and potential of the Commons results in a refusal to end directly poverty and confront privilege.

Austin Nichols offers a powerful argument that We can end child poverty. Or, at least, do more:

We could effectively end child poverty now, at least in the short run. The question is whether we’re willing to do that.

If the United States offered cash benefits to children in poor families, we could cut child poverty by more than half. According to calculations using the 2012 Current Population Survey, poor children need $4,800 each, on average, to escape poverty. That’s $400 a month for each child.

If we issued a $400 monthly payment to each child, and cut tax subsidies for children in  higher-income families, we would cut child poverty from 22 percent to below 10 percent. If we further guaranteed one worker per family a job paying $15,000 a year, and each family participated, child poverty would drop to under 1 percent.

A child benefit is now common across developed countries, with amounts of about $140 a month in the UK, $190 in Ireland, $130 in Japan, $160 in Sweden, and $250 in Germany.  A smaller child benefit of $150 per month would chop child poverty from 22 percent to below 17 percent. Adding the job guarantee would lower child poverty to 8 percent.

As important as the need and ability to end poverty directly is the need to face the power of privilege, as detailed by Richard Fry’s The growing economic clout of the college educated. Note specifically the following data displays:

Fry explains the growing disparity:

For the first time on record, households headed by someone with at least a bachelor’s degree received nearly a majority (49.7%) of aggregate U.S. household income; nearly one out of every two dollars went to the college educated.  In 2012 one-in-three households was college educated, so, put another way, half of the aggregate U.S. income goes to one third of the households.

Buried in the strong correlation between level of education attained and household income is the very real causational relationship between privilege and access to that education (both the quality and attainment). While it remains statistically true that higher earning is associated with higher educational attainment, it is also likely that higher educational attainment is simply a marker for the privilege that led to that attainment.

In other words, identifying any person’s educational attainment may be more about that person’s relative privilege or poverty and not that person’s effort, ability, or genuine achievement. (Please note Bruenig’s recognition that birth-wealth without college still has higher income potential than birth-poverty and college attainment.)

The evidence is overwhelming that poverty and affluence are destiny, that inequity is growing in the U.S., and that the best and most effective methods for ending poverty and closing the equity gap is through direct action by our publicly funded institutions (and not waiting on the magic of the Invisible Hand).

Disaster Capitalism and Charter Schools: Revisiting New Orleans Post-Katrina

Andrea Gabor examines the rise of charter schools in post-Katrina New Orleans, raising an important question in the subhead: “Are New Orleans’s schools a model for the nation—or a cautionary tale?”

Gabor ends the piece suggesting caution:

But even for students who don’t fall through the cracks or get expelled, it bears asking: have the pressures and incentive systems surrounding charter schools taken public education in the direction we want it to go? Anthony Recasner, a partner in founding New Orleans Charter Middle School and FirstLine, is visibly torn between his hopes for the New Orleans charter experiment and his disappointment in the distance that remains between today’s no-excuses charter-school culture and the movement’s progressive roots. “Education should be a higher-order exploration,” says Recasner, a child psychologist who left FirstLine in 2011 to become CEO of Agenda for Children, a children’s advocacy organization. The typical charter school in New Orleans “is not sustainable for the adults, not fun for kids,” says Recasner, who is one of the few African-American charter leaders in New Orleans; his own experience as a poor child raised by a single parent mirrors that of most students in the charter schools. “Is that really,” he asks, “what we want for the nation’s poor children?”

In my review of Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope for The Wilson Quarterly, I found Carr’s work to suggest, also, that New Orleans was yet more evidence of the failures of charter schools, “no excuses” ideology, and Teach for America. Below is my expanded review:

Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children is a story of place.

Readers see first a map of eastern New Orleans, the 9th and 7th Wards, Treme, French Quarter, and Algiers—situating the three schools at the center of the story, Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) Renaissance, SciAcademy, and O. Perry Walker.

As a Southerner, I thought of Yoknapatawpha County maps in William Faulkner’s novels. That connection predicted accurately the narrative Carr shapes about the intersection of place, race, class, education, and America’s pervasive market ideology. New Orleans public schools have a long history of failure connected to the city’s high poverty rates and racial diversity, but post-Katrina New Orleans has experienced a second flood, a school reform surge characterized by charter schools, Teach for America (TFA), and education reformers from outside the city and the South:

But in 2007…Paul Vallas, the new superintendent of the state-run Recovery School District [RSD], helped bring hundreds of young educators to the region. Vallas arrived in New Orleans in 2007 after a decade spent leading the Chicago and Philadelphia schools….Vallas brought the mind-set of a frenetic businessman to the New Orleans superintendency.

An education journalist for over a decade (The Chronicle of Higher EducationNew Orleans Times-Picayune), Carr weaves a vivid story of twenty-first century education reform, examining the influx of charter schools in New Orleans as options designed to address high-poverty and minority students. The stories are drawn from principal Mary Laurie, student Geraldlynn Stewart, and TFA recruit and Harvard graduate Aidan Kelly in the wake of Katrina recovery efforts from 2010 through 2012.

The place, New Orleans, is Carr’s touchstone for six parts, each divided among The Family (Geraldlyn’s family), The Teacher (Kelly), and The Principal (Laurie). Geraldlyn expresses ambivalent attitudes about her KIPP education as it contrasts with her mother’s efforts to provide Geraldlyn a better life. Kelly personifies the “missionary zeal” of TFA recruits, but also offers insight into those ideals as they clash with the reality of day-to-day schooling. Dedicated to her city, Laurie was a successful public school educator before Katrina, but after the hurricane, the RSD laid off public school teachers and dissolved the teachers unions; charter schools gave Laurie a new start, but not without complications.

Carr crafts some of the best education reform journalism to date, presenting a critical eye on charter schools (specifically KIPP), TFA, and a market-based model supported by both Republicans and Democrats. Charter schools and TFA represent reform policies that view public school traditions, teacher certification and teachers unions, as root causes of poor academic outcomes. To eradicate those in-school problems, choice and competition are embraced as the primary tools for reform. Carr’s examination, however, calls these claims and solutions into question.

Education journalism often offers slogans such as “miracle schools” and “grit” (Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed and Whatever It Takes, David Kirp’s Improbable Scholars, and Jay Matthews’s Work Hard. Be Nice.). But Carr allows KIPP and TFA advocates to speak for themselves. For example, Kelly reveals his unwavering idealism as it intersects the no-excuses ideology of TFA and KIPP, organizations that attract and encourage privileged young people who believe they can change the world through their own determination.

Instead of silver bullets, Carr presents a nuanced analysis: “A trap confronted schools: If they took the students with the most intense needs, their numbers might suffer. But the state would shut them down if their numbers suffered too much and for too long. Then who would take the neediest?” That analysis is driven by stories. At the end of Part II, Rebirth, Carr quotes Laurie, principal of O. Perry Walker High School:

There are so many stories, she said one afternoon, sitting on a bench under Walker’s breezeway. “I worry that they will get lost, that there’s no one to tell them. My big fear is that all folks will remember is that when Katrina hit, people had to ride in on their white horses and save the children of New Orleans.” She shuddered at the thought.

Yet, stories are often ignored in twenty-first century education after the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Since NCLB, school and teacher accountability has increased, based primarily on high-stakes tests and judged against data such as the achievement gap. Later, a comment from Laurie stands at the center of the education reform movement that Carr’s narrative confronts, unmasks, and exposes powerfully:

“I think we’ve done good work, but I don’t know that the numbers (test scores, attendance and graduation rates) will always reflect our good work because of the kids we take on,” said Laurie, referring to the fact that the school accepts some of the city’s most challenged and challenging students….“Walker’s a twenty-four-seven school. We believe we’ve got to find a way to give kids a safe place to be,” Laurie said. “And that’s not spoken for in these numbers.”

To this, we might add that Laurie’s concern about her charter school in the crucible of New Orleans education reform parallels the often-ignored problem at the center of universal public education in the U.S., a system designed to serve any and all students with equity regardless of background.

While Carr challenges education reform and the limits of good intentions among KIPP and TFA advocates, she also grounds her confrontations in a larger commitment: “At times, both KIPP’s staunchest supporters and its fiercest critics insult and demean the very families they purpose to protect by assuming they, and they alone, know what is best for other people’s children.”

Furthermore, by echoing educator Lisa Delpit’s recognition that many reforms ask less of “other people’s children” by narrowing their learning to worksheets and test-prep, Carr forces critics of KIPP and TFA to examine why many low-income minority parents not only choose no-excuses schools but also enthusiastically encourage no-excuses practices. No-excuses ideologies place an emphasis on authoritarian discipline and a culture of intense personal responsibility that includes teachers and students being held accountable for outcomes that critics warn are beyond the control of either. No-excuses advocates, including parents, embrace the exact paternalism critics challenge.

Carr offers a skeptical voice against education reform mirroring “disaster capitalism” in New Orleans, when markets generate profit from the “blank slate” of disasters (see The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalismby Naomi Klein). Yet, she offers nuanced praise when reformers succeed. For example, students are told at KIPP orientation a Cherokee legend about everyone embodying a good and bad wolf. That lesson gains a life of its own among students: “The fable’s power over their actions seemed to suggest that appealing to a person’s high self, no matter whether they are young teenagers or adults, carries more influence than rules or demerits ever could.”

In the middle of the book, Carr discusses Woodson Middle School, supplanted by a KIPP campus after FEMA declared the building irreparable because of Katrina. Woodson Middle had been named for Carter G. Woodson, author of The Mis-Education of the Negro in the 1930s. Woodson “represented an evolution, and radicalization, of W.E.B. Du Bois’s philosophy, which emphasized black empowerment through political rights and educational attainment”—a “philosophy…[that] stood in stark contrast to the view of contemporary school reformers” such as Michelle Rhee (TFA recruit, former chancellor of education in Washington DC, and founder of Students First), KIPP advocates, and TFA supporters.

Hope Against Hope is a cautionary tale about ideology—reformers honoring market forces over democratic values by stressing indirect reform through choice and competition instead of reforming directly public institutions when they fail to achieve equity—and the muted and ignored agency of people in their own lives.

As Carr acknowledges in the Prologue, her narrative details “competing visions for how to combat racial inequality in America,” but anyone seeking silver bullets, trite slogans, or popular assumptions will find “inside the schools, the war over education no longer seems so stark and clearly defined. Edges blur, shades of gray abound, and simple solutions prove elusive.” Like Kathleen Nolan confronting zero-tolerance policies in Police in the Hallways (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), Carr shows that simple solutions cannot remedy complex problems.

Where claims of “miracle” schools and no-excuses mantras stumble, Hope against Hope soars in its bittersweet humanity, the rich and uncomfortable tapestry of living and learning in poverty in twenty-first century America.

Carr’s Epilogue offers advice for reforming education reform: “If the schools want to succeed in the long run, the education they offer must become an extension of the will of the community—not as a result of its submission.”

To understand U.S. education and education reform, then, Carr’s story of New Orleans is an essential place to start.