Wafer Thin

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I recently watched a documentary on HBO about an at risk school struggling to meet the demands of No Child Left Behind.

Hard Times at Douglas High and I noted on the boards at HBO there was a lot of “this is depressing” commentary or some general lashing out against poor people. A few teachers weighed in to echo similar experiences.

One of the dominant themes of addressing poverty in this country is to focus in on “what is wrong” with poor Americans rather than what it is structurally, culturally, and economically wrong with our country that consistently produces an under class. Now I am not arguing that we can climate poverty by tinkering with social programs although I think we can reduce it. First we have to examine our attitudes toward poverty, our disdain and fear.

A common meme is that the poor make “bad decisions” and that can account for their status but what is missing from that approach is the admission that the middle class and wealthy make bad decisions as well. When middle class and wealthy people make bad decisions they frequently have a broad safety net that cushions the impact composed of either access to funds or family and friends who are willing to “invest” in their problem to correct it. When a middle class kid gets involved in drugs or violence we are also far more likely to forgive them or ascribe it to some outside “bad influence” but when a kid from a bad section of Memphis gets involved in the same activity we dismiss them as “gang bangers” who can’t be helped or we assume they are already “bad kids”. We expect poor kids to behave badly and it simply emphasizes our already ingrained opinions and we still have some capacity to be vaguely shocked or disturbed when a middle class or wealthy kids act out in anti-social behavior. We assume poor people in general already have a capacity for inappropriate behavior because we have already decided “what is wrong with them”. It never occurs to us that poor people have jobs, raise their kids with some wisdom or decency and have the same dreams for them as the middle class do for their kids. We assume they want or aspire to less and feel perfectly comfortable seeing them assigned less as a result.

Indeed in the current political campaign there is much discussion about what can be done to help the middle class primarily as an impulse to prevent them from becoming poor or rebellious but little about how to create structures to help poor people either join the middle class or have a decent manageable life as poor people because of course being poor itself is something to be ashamed of.

Our patient population at work is economically diverse because cancer tends not be concern itself with class position. One night I got a call from a nurse who walked into the patient room and found a half empty bottle of vodka and she was pretty certain the three year old wasn’t drinking. She called me and warned me that the parents were “rough”, they had been made homeless after Katrina bounced around and never really recovered from the trauma only to be hit with another one. Drinking alcohol on our premises or being intoxicated can result in removal from the hospital and possible ejection from housing for parents/family members.

I had to have a conversation with them, so I retrieved the empty bottle and disposed of it and prepared from my conversation with potentially intoxicated people. I introduced myself and got right to the point: the alcohol. They readily admitted having a few drinks but did not appear grossly impaired. We had a long conversation about how shitty things were. I disclosed to them I had made some questionable decisions myself while under stress. Dad admitted to me he had no earthly idea how to cope and was angry and felt that nobody had really been available to listen to him. I asked him if he felt safe talking to me and he said he did. I suggested the next time he was pissed off and feeling like he couldn’t cope instead of yelling at his wife or drinking he have the staff page me. I told him it was likely I wouldn’t be able to “solve” anything but he could at least vent without being judged and he liked the idea. Despite the fact that things haven’t gone well with their son and I think in their marriage we haven’t had any major acting out behavior. So, it turns out that contrary to many assumptions poor people in crappy circumstances can in fact function without being destructive. I can’t take any credit for it either. I wasn’t the great middle class Saviour, the guy just realized I was sincere in my offer and put it in his back pocket and tried to move on.

I saw a recent article that gives a very simple example of what we as Americans can do to tap into the potential of those who are poor. Because believe it or not middle class America the poor have as much inborn potential and talent as you do. I thought it was quite revealing that the article was republished on Alternet from an article in a UK newspaper. You can read it all here.

Berea University in rural Kentucky is one of the wealthiest colleges in America but it only accepts the poorest applicants. The dropout rate is negligible and its students go out into the world debt-free, unlike the majority of those who emerge every year from America’s universities, proudly clutching a degree but burdened by massive debts

The college in question has a one billion dollar endowment and invests it wisely. But as the article goes on to say there are several ivy league colleges that have much larger endowment and do significantly less for the poorest students.

Harvard’s endowment is worth $35bn for example; Yale’s $23bn; Stanford’s $17bn and Princeton’s $16bn — amounts that make them among the world’s richest universities. But there is a drumbeat of criticism about whether they are doing enough for the public good to deserve their tax-free status or just hoarding money for the benefit of an intellectual elite

Berea University is not easy to get into and about 75 percent of applicants get rejected and it has a small student population.

One particular student is profiled who had a self described dismal background.

I come from one of the poorest and most disturbed backgrounds you could imagine,” he said. “All my family were involved in violence and drugs and I was brought up by a single parent and then no parents when my mother died while I was 16.”

Alex Gibson goes on to say was not a top scholar or the hardest worker. So in that respect, not dramatically different than many young Americans from a middle class or wealthy background. We always seem to expect if we “reward” the poor they will prove themselves to be the smartest, better than the rest, which somehow justifies the effort made. However, Mr.Gibson like many young people who were not top scholars or very hard workers ended up thriving at college. Berea requires all student to work ten hours a week.

Every student must put in at least 10 hours a week, whether helping on the college farm, working in the admissions department or making furniture in Berea’s crafts workshop.

Mr Gibson did community outreach. “It was great,” he said, “we organized anti-Iraq war demonstrations

The college philosophy…..

The college uses its nest egg to attract students who otherwise could not afford college and draws exclusively from the bottom of the economic pile. It is extremely selective, rejecting 75 per cent of applicants as it tries to find those with the most potential. Those who apply have often endured appallingly bad secondary education and come from dysfunctional homes.

One of the things elites tell us is how difficult it is to combat poverty. I am not suggesting that it is easy, but clearly as this college demonstrates, what it require more than fancy policy initiatives is commitment.

What would happen if all the universities with large endowments decided to follow the lead of Berea College and charge their students no tuition? What would happen if we really started looking at education as an investment and not an entitlement?

Do we fear that poor people might actually start reaching their potential once they are in an environment that is committed to their excellence? Do we fear they will become radicalized and start coming up with their own ideas about what should and shouldn’t’ be changed. If the poor started advocating and speaking perhaps they might even wake up the middle class humbled by the effort required to sustain and unsustainable lifestyle.

Answers are out there once we start rejecting the dominant themes that the poor cannot change or grow if the tools are made readily available. the middle classes are not innately superior just a tad luckier.

Does any president or influential political leader dare take that risk?

And why did I have to read this article in an alternative setting? Sometimes, “radical” is fairly ordinary and sensible.


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    • Robyn on July 27, 2008 at 20:12

    The endowment at Bloomfield College, where I work, was $5 million when I started working here.

    • OPOL on July 28, 2008 at 00:35

    we could do wonders for the poor…if we cared about them.  It’s just that too often we don’t.

    Really nice essay though.  Thank you.

  1. very nice…

  2. I frequent places like Berea may figure heavily in the future recovery of mankind.  It does portray several dismal years when the prefix “Fort” is applied to the areas surrounding a university meaning a safe haven and sea of knowledge people need to survive.


  3. i read the story about Berea and the Harvard reply to it. I know Vassar College is one that has become a needs blind college. meaning that if you are accepted, your lack of ability to pay will NOT keep you out of college there. they will find a way for you to finance your education. that includes loans, grants, scholarships.

    maybe one thing we could consider is changing the way we label people. “the poor” sounds like something from Dickens. i just struck me that i makes them seem and sound like “others”. anyway, just an idea that hit me.

    and maybe middle class people think the poor make bad decisions because, certainly, the problem of the poor is not the fault of the middle class. but the decisions of individuals who end up poor. see the dynamic at work here?

    what i’ve been thinking lately is we play the negatives that only reinforces the divide. and perhaps that’s part of the reason we have a hard time getting at baselines… like university education in countries like America should be free or nominal fees for ALL kids. and entry is by lottery, so nobody gets into Yale by patronage.

    planetary affirmative action.

    anyway… maybe it sounds, to those middle class people, like they should willingly step out of the way and let poor people take the opportunity the middle classers think they earned and want to give to their children. we are animals, after all.

    how do we change that to: self interest is in the common good and in the stability for all our fellow humans…

    i was really taken by your working with the parents. brilliant. lovely.

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