It is unjust enough that scores of young people in the United States are denied basic human rights; that even in a country which paints itself as a global model of human rights, kids go without food, safe and affordable housing, equitable schooling opportunities, and healthcare. Heck, in a country with the level of resources the U.S. has, the very existence of homelessness, hunger, and poverty in the face of growing corporate profits is inexcusable. In this way, the U.S. is the very definition of systemic classism: a country in which poverty rates, income inequality, and corporate profits often grow simultaneously.
What’s worse, though, is that poor youth bear the brunt of this injustice. They are denied opportunity themselves, piled, as they often are, into over-crowded and under-resourced schools in which they are offered less rigorous curricula and pedagogies and more skilling and drilling than their wealthier counterparts. But they also carry the burden of their families’ disenfranchisement, suffering society’s refusal to provide their parents or guardians with living wage work or decent healthcare. It’s a sort of double-whammy of economic injustice.
Make that a triple-whammy. Because even while poor kids and their families suffer these injustices, they are blamed, not only for their own poverty, but for the very economic conditions that press upon them most vigorously. It’s been maddening to watch Reagan’s “welfare queen” rhetoric reappear in the midst of the economic crisis (as if the economy hasn’t always been in crisis from the perspective of poor people) in a new “entitlement class” discourse. Both terms serve the same purpose: to deflect collective attention from gross economic injustices driven largely by corporate greed and to aim it, instead, at those people with the least amount of power to popularize a counter-narrative. But, what’s more, it’s been horrifying to observe mass compliance with this deflection. The result: Republicans return to office en masse, where they no doubt will attempt to extend Bush’s tax cuts (read: welfare) for the wealthy while continuing to kill those social programs meant to aid poor families. Classic deficit ideology in motion.
Symptoms and scars from this compliance abound. For example, I have watched in utter disbelief as those once infuriated to action by Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol’s tome describing the proverbial shafting of poor students in the form of school funding inequities, similarly embrace Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty, a book which is, itself, both regression and shaft. The former forced us to take on systemic injustice against youth head-on, identifying the “problem” to be solved as existing within an unjust system, as one pressing upon our country’s most disenfranchised families. The latter gave us an “out”; it permitted us to ignore injustice altogether and to imagine ways we might redress poverty by fixing poor people rather than by fixing that which necessitates the existence of poor people in the wealthiest country in the world.
At last count, Payne and her stable of trainers have found their ways into upwards of 70% of school districts in the U.S., making millions of dollars a year by telling us how badly poor kids need to learn to act like middle class kids, while federal education policy continues to demonize poor students (as well as students of color and ELL students) and the teachers who teach them. Ugh. Make that a quadruple whammy.
Meanwhile, in those same schools, the very students who are denied opportunity because they are poor simultaneously are learning the Great Lie: that the U.S. is a meritocracy, that they can be Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates if they just work hard enough. If they just work hard enough. This is a set-up. Because, on average, it makes no difference at all how hard poor kids work. Some will find their ways into higher socioeconomic brackets than their families, but a vast majority of them won’t. And it’s not a matter of merit. Not mostly, at least.
People often ask me what I propose to do about all of this. It’s a fair question, I suppose, although I think the eagerness for practical solutions even when we don’t fully understand the problem is what leads us down the Ruby Payne path. If we find ourselves committed to understand and then act, I have found a few reflection-and-action steps to be a good place to begin.
First we should ask ourselves, Why are poor people poor? In a capitalistic and classist society, social conditions exist because somebody profits from them. Who profits from poverty?
Secondly, we should ask ourselves, with the previous question in mind, What were we socialized to believe about why poor people are poor? Part of understanding a problem, after all, is in understanding how we are encouraged to misunderstand it and, of course, to misunderstand who profits from our misunderstanding.
Thirdly, we should resist the temptation of deficit ideology, which locates the problem of poverty within supposed deficiencies of poor communities rather than in that which disenfranchises poor communities. This also means rejecting solutions to classism aimed at youth (and adults) that are meant to fix poor people rather than fixing economic injustice. (And who, by the way, profits from deficit ideology?)
Fourthly, we must realize that fixing classism means fixing economic injustices and that this requires attention to systemic concerns. The worst classism is not peer ridicule or biased media, although certainly these contribute to a larger process of hierarchy-maintenance. The hierarchy won’t crash with the mitigation of teasing or even with more programs to feed, clothe, and house poor people (as important as these programs are). So rather than focusing on mitigating classism or sustaining poor kids in poverty, fight the conditions that necessitate or recycle poverty, such as the scarcity of living wage jobs, the dissolution of labor unions, the neoliberal shift of welfare from the poor to the corporate elite, and the influence of corporate lobbies on local, state and federal policy. I know these actions sound big, so connect with groups, like United for a Fair Economy, which already are organizing around economic justice and taking on those who profit from these conditions.
It’s a long road—social reform. So let’s commit, at the very least, to not making it longer with diversions.
Paul Gorski is an assistant professor of Integrative Studies in George Mason University’s New Century College, where he teaches classes on class and poverty, educational equity, and environmental justice. He created and continues to maintain the Multicultural Pavilion, a Web site focused on critical multicultural education. He has published three books and more than 35 articles in publications such as Educational Leadership, Equity and Excellence in Education, Rethinking Schools, Teaching and Teacher Education, Teachers College Record, and Teaching Tolerance.