At Risk Low Income Students: Sometime Victims of a Blame Game

Summary: Stereotypical assumptions about low income kids should not cloud the will to social investment, via schools, in their economic future.
Yesterday I visited with an old friend and neighbor in a community in which I had lived for 35 years. He is indisputably a good man, of what I understand to be a progressive history. So it was with an initial sense of dislocation when he voiced concern about government supporting people on welfare. He had relatives, he said, who have found a kind of sweet spot for themselves in part time or low paying jobs, with food stamps and maybe some tax credit on the side. They had no motivation, he said, to “better themselves,” but were content live in that margin, and accept some measure of dependence. Exposure to his relatives had left my friend wary of the effect that government support has had on citizens.
In fact, it was exactly this concern that lead to successful welfare reform in the Reagan years, in which the line between support and independence was re-drawn in a more strict fashion.
In a related vein, in a blog post to the Seattle Times web site, Claudia Rowe reviewed Washington State’s College Bound Scholar program, which supports low income student candidacy for higher education. A highlight was the report that among students who participated in the program, the gap between middle income and lower income matriculation in higher education of some sort virtually disappeared. While these figures of course do not guarantee graduation, or the transformation into a middle class life style, in my mind they are cause for buoyant spirits in the effort to lift low income kids off the low income treadmill.
But apparently not for some of the commentators to Ms. Rowe’s blog post. Though individuals raise valid questions about the details of what happens down the road with these College Bound Scholars, and make appropriate points about the need for each student to contribute something financially to their education (so as to appreciate it more), I am struck by the mean streak that threads through some of the commentary, on the order of, “I worked my way through school, and they can damn well do so themselves.” Or “Be damned if I want to pay (in taxes) so someone else doesn’t have to work as hard as I do.” In short, assorted resentment erupts toward those students who have taken advantage of a plan that didn’t exist for the commentators. Within the anger, stereotypes of lazy good for nothing low income people fester. “Be damned if I’m going to do for them what they won’t do for themselves.” Etc. You know the drill.
Don’t get me wrong. I do understand both my old friend’s sentiments, and those of the anonymous commentators to Ms. Rowe’s blog post. A free ride in a context where others are working their butts off is a hard sell, and should be.
In my experience with low income parents, as a counselor, however, I can testify that there are plenty of low income parents out there struggling mightily to make ends meet. The butt of the popular resentment, the welfare devotee, is only one character type among a very complex population, though the welfare rider clearly provides the stereotype when social anger needs a scapegoat.
Parenthetically, how do the self-righteous regard the middle aged factory worker who has been rendered superfluous by the forces of globalization?
So let us reason together here. Let us not blast all with a broad sweep blunderbuss. How is it that low income kids, for example, can be held fully accountable for the niche in society in which they find themselves?
It is not unreasonable to ask mature adults to modulate their knee jerk reactions and look more deeply, beyond stereotypes, and understand the dilemma of low income kids who may not know how to rise above their circumstances nor have role models who show them how to do so.
Middle school and high school students, toward which College Bound Scholar is pitched, are still relatively unformed passengers on the conveyor belt that tends to get stuck in a generational stasis on a low income track. If we have evidence, which we do, that the cultural framework of some low income circumstances ill prepare young people for success in schools or in a technical job market, then blame tossed in the direction of those young people is misplaced.
There are consequences to the economy and the nation if, in social isolation and neglect, low income kids make the transition to adulthood without perceiving a viable ramp up, and so continue to need the same food stamps and tax credits that are attacked by the scornful. That is what we call a vicious cycle.
While study after study has demonstrated that social investment generates multiple dollars in savings down the road (for example, see the work of Child Trends, a Bethesda think tank), all the shrinkage of government spending as envisaged in some quarters will ultimately trap more kids in poverty, beholden to food stamps and other parts of the public dole.
We are called, it seems to me, in the name of self-interest to short circuit the cycle that trains kids into their own adult poverty; that is, intervene via schools and probably also health care to ramp such kids up into a cycle of better economic circumstances. Otherwise – and this is the self-interest part – they are unproductive drags on the economy, at best marginal workers, and a social welfare drain as well. Anger and self-righteousness will not solve those problems.
So, to my friend and to the commentators on the blog site, please slow down and think, look at the whole picture, and remember that the heat of passion can cause one to shoot oneself in one’s foot.


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