My children are seven and 10 years old, and in teaching them to navigate the world, I find myself swimming against a great tide of distrust in the world. Despite data to the contrary, the prevailing notion among the middle class parents I meet through my kids’ suburban school is that children today simply cannot do the things that we did as children because there are too many lurking perils, principally in the form of bad people who will do bad things if given half a chance. I try to counter this notion, urging my boys to go outside, to explore the blocks surrounding our building, to make the world their own. Of course they know not to get into a stranger’s car, but I think they also know that most strangers are just people like us, people with kids of their own and jobs and places to go. Even when we talk about the people I represent in court (children charged with crimes and adults accused of abusing their children), I try to put bad deeds in the context of complex circumstances: “People are generally good,” I always tell them.
But then this: the 10-year-old is playing some seemingly innocuous game on the iPad when he asks, “Dad, what’s your email address?”
I start to tell him, then hesitate. “Why?”
“It says that if I sign up to get some emails, I can get free points in this game and…”
“Forget it,” I say. “It’s a scam.”
“What do you mean, a scam? They just want to send emails! And it’s the only way to advance to the next level!”
Of course. He thinks people are generally good. What could be the harm in sharing my email address with the folks who already proved how thoughtful they were by providing us with a FREE IPAD GAME?
So that is the dilemma: In everyday interactions, most people are good and kind. But when they organize themselves into corporations, most people are trying to get over EVERY TIME.
This is not news, but in case you needed more ammunition to shoot down the rags-to-riches dreams of the naïve up-and-comers you meet between the dive bar and the OTB, there’s a 30-year, longitudinal study of 800 Baltimore children that proves, as Mother Jones happily summarizes, that “family determines almost everything, and that a child’s fate is essentially fixed by how well off her parents were when she was born.”
And (surprise!) the data reveal additional barriers to upward mobility for black children:
Alexander found that among men who drop out of high school, the employment differences between white and black men was truly staggering. At age 22, 89 percent of the white subjects who’d dropped of high school were working, compared with 40 percent of the black dropouts.
These differences came despite the fact that it was the better-off white men who reported the highest rates of drug abuse and binge drinking. White men from disadvantaged families came in second in that department. White men also had high rates of encounters with the criminal justice system. At age 28, 41 percent of the white men born into low-income families had criminal convictions, compared with 49 percent of the black men from similar backgrounds, an indication that it is indeed race, not a criminal record, that’s keeping a lot of black men out of the workforce.
Now, I realize that for those among us who, through poor planning, were born poor and/or black, there’s not much to do but keep on struggling and hope to beat the odds. But I do sometimes wonder how long the American Dream will continue to edge out Armed Insurrection Followed By Workers’ Paradise as our favorite unrealistic formula for working class salvation.
Photo by the author
Over at The Atlantic, Stephen Lurie wonders whether Congress can sensibly legislate on poverty when its members are increasingly economically distant from the rest of us:
For the first time, more than half of the members of Congress are millionaires. Nearly 200 are multimillionaires. One hundred are worth more than $5 million; the top-10 deal in nine digits. The annual congressional salary alone—$174,000 a year—qualifies every member as the top 6 percent of earners. None of them are close to experiencing the poverty-reduction programs—affordable housing, food assistance, Medicaid—that they help control. Though some came from poverty, a recent analysis by Nicholas Carnes, in his book White Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policymaking, found that only 13 out of 783 members of Congress from 1999 to 2008 came from a “blue-collar” upbringing. None of them have experienced that poverty in decades; those who did did so under vastly different public-policy circumstances.
Is first-hand experience absolutely necessary for thorough understanding? On the one hand, I’m personally inclined to say no: I do a lot of thinking and writing about race and racism, and I’d like to think that I have some good ideas and insights, notwithstanding my whiteness. On the other hand, Lurie suggests that members of Congress who voluntarily undertake some experience of poverty, like living on a food stamp budget, tend to show greater understanding of issues surrounding poverty and hunger. That lines up with the idea that subconscious bias might be overcome by increased familiarity.
What do you think? Can a person fully understand the constant psychological strain of poverty without living it? Is living among the poor or undertaking aspects of poverty enough?
Photo: Jacob Riis
Scott Catts and his two children, Hayden and Abby, are serving time in prison for the two bank robberies they pulled off together, as a family. Skip Hollandsworth interviewed all three of them for Texas Monthly, and the story of how it all came to be is WILD and almost…understandable?
Things that North Camden, NJ, is known for: drugs, poverty, and a devastating murder rate (12 times the national average at last survey). Things that North Camden, NJ, will soon be known for, if Bryan Morton has anything to do with it? Just one: Little League. The 42-year-old resident, a born-and-raised local, started playing baseball with the neighborhood kids around the same time that the city, faced with mountainous debt, decided to lay off about half it’s police force.
Here is your openest thread.
Here is a little personal finance quiz, as referenced in this Moisés Naím piece for the Atlantic. Only 30% of Americans aced this thing, so if you do, give yourself a little pat on the back. And a cookie. It’s Friday.
Cellphone theft is on the rise, phone manufacturers won’t do anything because well, replacing cellphones is kind of their thing, the police don’t really care because it’s a misdemeanor. THE PEOPLE ARE FINDING THEIR PHONES FOR THEMSELVES, and the Times is on it.