Last week’s Dropout Nation commentary on why school reform is critical to stemming unwed pregnancy and poverty evoked plenty of e-mail responses to yours truly. Those who view poverty and unwed pregnancy as consequences of bad choices — also known as the Personal Responsibility Myth that is a dominant strain in anti-poverty and education policy discussions — were particularly vexed that your editor didn’t fully validate their perspective. After all, from where they sit, if single mothers and others exercised some form of personal responsibility, be it not getting pregnant until they got married, or spending wisely, then they wouldn’t be impoverished.
Such arguments are seductive, especially to your editor, who is conservative on social issues (even as I am libertarian on economic and political matters, and a creative radical on education policy). Yet as an editorialist and reporter, I’ve learned to dismiss simple answers because they don’t explain everything. This is true when it comes to arguments from those who espouse the Poverty Myth (or that structural and other issues render the poor fully incapable of helping themselves). And this is especially so when it come to Personal Responsibility myths.
If bad choices were the sole or even the predominant reasons why so many people are mired in poverty, then Paris Hilton would be suffering economically and socially from her myriad bouts of misbehavior, my mother (who gave birth to your editor at age 16) would be on welfare, and Watergate player Charles Colson would have died as impoverished and ostracized as most convicted felons. Yet none of these things have happened. Hilton has been greatly rewarded financially and socially thanks in part to her infamous porn tap. My mother is a college-educated second-generation member of the American middle class with a lovely suburban home to boot. And Colson died last year after having spent the last three decades attaining redemption (and even a pardon) through his ministry to his fellow convicts.
Keep in mind that Hilton, my mother, and Coulson are not outliers. Humans being, well, imperfect creatures with a penchant for error, this isn’t possible anyway. From suburbanites in the D.C. suburbs living way above their six-figure means, to movie stars self-medicating their pain through drug and alcohol addictions, to middle-class moms and dads who hire maids to clean up the homes instead of having their kids do some chores, bad decisions are as common as crab grass. This is especially true when you keep in mind that you and your next-door neighbors in Alexandria have engaged in the same vices — including as alcohol consumption and premarital sex — as people who live in Anacostia.
Yet your decisions, and those of Hilton, my mother, and Coulson, haven’t been harmful in the same way as they are for those in poverty. Why? The first reason lies with the fact that unlike most poor people, those of us in the middle class had the resources (from income to health care) available to overcome bad choices. For Hilton, her status as a scion of the most-famous name in the hospitality industry has given her the money and the connections needed to parlay even the worst decisions into profit and fame. My mother? Thanks to my grandparents, whose middle class status and high levels of education were the resources they needed to help care for me during my childhood, my mother could go on to overcome one not-so-great decision (for which I am grateful she made) to make smart decisions. As for Coulson? His friendships in Republican political circles, among with his notoriety and sensible decision to become born again, helped him focus his life away from the amorality of politics and towards helping other ex-convicts change their lives for the better.
The other reason lies with the most-important of resource of all: Knowledge. Not only is it power, it is the most-crucial tool for acquiring the financial and social resources needed to emerge and stay out of poverty. This is especially true in an increasingly knowledge-based economy and society in which what you know is more valuable than what you can do with your hands.
My mother is a perfect example of how knowledge can keep people out of poverty. Even as my mother carried me in her womb, my grandparents made sure she stayed in high school, and kept her on the path to graduation even after I was born. Because my mother was in a household where my grandmother was also college-educated and my grandfather was an avid reader and learner, she also became a lifetime acquirer of knowledge. A decision she made in the early 1980s to move from working as a claims adjuster for an insurance company into the information technology field put her into a field in which incomes were (and are still) increasing; this gave her the income she needed to support my siblings and I. By the 1990s, she sought her college degree, and then a graduate degree, providing her with a six-figure income that has helped her buy a home and thrive.
As I pointed out last week, poverty is in part a result of the interplay between how skills (and the lack thereof) are rewarded in the marketplace, and the choices that result from levels of knowledge. But it is more than that. Poverty is also the consequence of the interplay between resources, knowledge, and decision-making.
For middle class families, bad decisions can be easily overcome because they have the means — from higher incomes to social connections — needed to do so. This includes bad decisions made by laggard teachers and school leaders. One out of every five young white male high school seniors from college-educated read Below Basic on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress. But most middle-class households have more means to ameliorate the consequences of the nation’s education crisis — including the ability to send their kids to tutoring services — while the wealthy can insulate their kids from the worst American public education offers.
The poor aren’t so fortunate. Because poor families are the ones most-likely to attend dropout factories and failure mills — and because Zip Code Education policies such as school zones restrict their options — they are less likely to graduate from high school or even complete any form of higher education, the keys to gaining financial and social capital. As a result, the consequences of any bad decisions are even more pernicious because they have no means to bail themselves out of them. And even good decisions may not be enough if the resources — especially a wide array of high-quality school options — aren’t available for those choices to be beneficial to their lives.
Just as importantly, because poor families have been subjected to educational neglect and malpractice, they also lack the academic knowledge (including understanding of how to ask questions and find resources) they need to even make the best of good decisions. Natural curiosity just isn’t enough; it must be honed by practices of the mind that come from being nurtured by high-quality teaching, college-preparatory curricula, and even religious instruction. The fact that they cannot access high-quality data, either on schools or teachers, that they need to make smarter decisions makes it even tougher for them to emerge from poverty.
In fact, the lack of academic and social knowledge ends up obscuring the ability to make good decisions. The negative becomes the positive because the truly positive isn’t visible. It is why a young woman who dropped out of high school at age 17 ends up pregnant at 20; the better solution may be to avoid pregnancy, go back to school for learning remediation, then attain a high school diploma and a college degree. But you don’t know what you don’t know. So you make decisions blind. The more decisions you make without high-quality knowledge, the more likely the choices will be negative. And without the resources (which come as a result of acquiring knowledge) to ameliorate bad decisions, the consequences are even more pernicious.
[The lack of knowledge also explains why the arguments of Poverty Mythologists that more money is the solution also doesn’t work; as I noted last week, knowledge is critical to managing resources and acquiring more of them.]
This isn’t to say that poor families are helpless automatons in structures that work against them. When poor families are provided the knowledge they need to make smarter decisions, they will often do so because, as the legendary civil rights activist Ella Baker would likely say, strong people emerge from knowledge. This is why systemic reform — from overhauling how we recruit, train, and reward teachers, to expanding school choice — is so critical to stemming poverty and the ills that emerge from it in the first place. In fact, transforming public education can help provide to our poorest kids schools that can nurture them both academically and emotionally, helping their families help them stave off the mental illnesses that can keep them mired in poverty when they reach adulthood. But thinking that bad choices alone explain poverty is as wrongly simpleminded as believing that impoverished people are too tied down by structural inequities to emerge from their conditions.
Reformers have an opportunity to help anti-poverty activists on all sides engage in more-nuanced thinking about what poverty is and how we can stem it. And it starts by reminding all sides that education is a critical solution to helping poor people help themselves out of poverty.
Featured photo courtesy of Arleen Hodge. Please support her work.