thoughts on accidental racism and passing as “normal”

Someone in my FB feed posted this Sun Magazine article, “Some Thoughts on Mercy,” by Ross Gay. It’s a poetic and gripping read; both relatable and thought-provoking.

I especially like his points about how suspicion — of ourselves, of others — taints our daily interactions. He calls it suspicion, I think of it more as the white fear of accidentally appearing discriminatory — the microaggression perceived, rather then intended. What is interesting is that he points out that this suspicion (of self, of others) seems to be pervasive in all interactions, regardless of skin tone.

For example, when we lived in Centralia, there were a series of robberies. During that time, John and I went to the reservation store to buy smokes (because cigs were cheaper at the rez). While we were at the store, John and the cashier were making small talk about the robberies, and John made an off-handed comment about, “Well, what else do you expect around here?”

The cashier slammed the cigarettes and change down on the counter and snapped, “The robberies were committed by white guys.”

John blinked, confused by her sudden change in demeanor, took the smokes, and walked out of the store with me. As we got in the car, he wondered at her sudden bad attitude, and we realized she thought when he said “around here,” he meant specifically the reservation (and the Chehalis tribe residents). In fact, he meant the predominantly poor white tweakers that Centralia is sort of infamous for.

That’s the type of situation I call “accidental racism,” and I believe it occurs because we live in a cultural moment that — as this article explores — perpetuates suspicion of ourselves and others.

I do not have a solution or idea on how to address this. I wouldn’t for a moment even dream of suggesting that people should “just stop being so sensitive.” It is absolutely necessary that we speak out against discriminatory language and behaviors, even the ones that are often performed by rote and not out of a desire to be discriminatory. I mean, if we didn’t point out and object to discriminatory language and behavior, things would be a hell of a lot worse in our society right now.

Btw, I know some people complain about this change in language as too “p.c. (politically correct). I’m always amused by that, because as far as I can see, so-called “p.c.” language is just polite language. It’s a teensy bit like how I don’t see any problem with swearing and I think religious strictures against it are childish and silly … but I am still respectful to my religious friends and family who abhor swearing by choosing to abstain from the language they deem offensive while in their presence.

Anyway, back to accidental discriminations … I may enjoy the privileges society affords cis-gender straight educated white women, but I have also run into my fair share of stereotypes. After all, I am still a woman, and I did grow up diagnosed as having bipolar (and being treated for it).

I’m lucky. All I have to do is cut my hair and shut my mouth, and I start to disappear into the crowd, androgynous and unnoticeable. Small-breasted and short-haired, I am often mistaken for a young man. If I keep quiet and keep my head down, I don’t get hassled for being female, or for being a mental health ally. I can glide through life almost invisible, untouched by the stereotypes that swirl around about women and mental illness. On my motorcycle, with my full-face helmet, gear, and tall frame, I am even more androgynous. I can hide in my blandness, however temporarily, escape the stereotypes that define women and the mentally ill.

I do not wear cultural markers of “otherness” in the texture of my hair and the color of my skin. A cop will not pull me over for being bipolar while driving — a cop will not even realize I am bipolar. I have this respite from the discriminatory beliefs our culture still holds about people like me. Yet the tastes I have had of being stereotypes and “othered” have allowed me the space to imagine and empathize how awful it would be to deal with that every single day; to expect it. To have it be so common that it becomes a default understanding of the world, read even into neutral or benevolent interactions.

More times than I can count, I learned that if I shared my family background with mental illness, I would be told that mental illnesses aren’t real. I would be told to just focus on being happy, to sleep more, to eat right. To go on a strict fruitarian diet. To buy lights that mimic the sun. I would be told that medications and therapy are useless, that it’s all just a state of mind. Implicitly and explicitly, I would be told that mentally ill people are weak and selfish — that my mom, who was the greatest mom ever, was a bad mom. Weak and selfish for having bipolar, for committing suicide, for giving in.

When mom was alive, she told me never to tell anyone I was diagnosed with bipolar. She said people wouldn’t understand. She said they would treat me differently. She was right, but I didn’t care. I figured it was a test. Anyone who learned mental illness ran in my family and shunned me for it wasn’t someone I wanted as a friend anyway.

I didn’t learn to shut my mouth about bipolar until my mom died. I can handle the slings and arrows and suspicions when they’re hurled at me. But there’s no cause, no reason, no heart in speaking ill of my mom. She suffered enough. We suffered enough. There’s no need to hear people call her weak, call her selfish. She was the strongest woman I’ve ever known. She battled bipolar for 20 years. She was amazing.

All I have to do is shut my mouth, and I don’t have to hear it. I listen, I observe, I decide if the person to whom I am speaking is compassionate about mental illness or not, and then I can decide whether or not to risk it. Whether or not opening up will result in being lashed at with idiocy and discrimination, or met with compassion. It’s like my own version of a closet. I pull the door shut time and “pass” as normal for a little bit, just long enough not to deal with uneducated bigots.

But people of color, they don’t have a closet to hide in. They can’t pull down their melanin and shake their hair free of texture in order to slide by uneducated bigots. They have to face it all head on, the bad, the neutral, and the good. And I know I have a hard time reading neutral or well-intended jokes/ sarcasm as harmless or teasing when I’m having a bad day. When my period cramps are acting up, and I’m on edge from noise, and I just want the world to recede for 30 goddamn minutes, but I have to go to the store to get this stupid thing I forgot. I can only imagine what it would be like to be having an already fucking shitty day, and then you go to work and some white guy makes a crack about crime in the neighborhood … yeah. I can see how sometimes when the world sucks balls, miscommunications like that happen, and its no-ones fault.

All I know is that sometimes I spout things without realizing possible alternate interpretations, and that I am grateful when grace and understanding is extended to me — so I feel it is only right that I extend grace and understanding when I speak clumsily or in ignorance and am met with frustration and anger.

Voting is a Right, Not a Privilege

For our week 3 assignment in Crime & Punishment, we listened to the Talking Justice episode, Liberty Lost: Felon Disenfranchisement on NPR. We were also supposed to read three articles regarding the pros and cons of suffrage for felons:
Credit: Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

Credit: Orange is the New Black (Netflix)


For whatever reason I couldn’t open, “The Case Against Felon Voting,” by Clegg, Conway, and Lee, so instead I read, “The Bullet and the Ballot? The Case for Felon Disenfranchisement Statutes,” by the same authors. I assume because it is the same topic, written by the same authors, arguing the same position, that they use many of the same arguments.

Okay. So after listening to the Talking Justice debate and reading both the pros and cons, I come down (perhaps not unsurprisingly) on the side of providing voting rights to felons. I am reminded of a quote I came across in my readings on undocumented immigrants, which paraphrased essentially said that in preventing undocumented immigrants from participating in the debate on immigration — a debate that directly affects them — we are preventing democracy.

I feel the same about this situation. The primary arguments of those who are proponents of felon disenfranchisement appear to come down to these beliefs:

  • It is constitutional to deny voting rights to felons
  • They did the crime, so they deserve to lose their ability to participate in a democratic society.

It was also constitutional to deny voting rights to people of color, women, and those who didn’t own land. Things change. Just because something was constitutional in 1787 does not mean it should remain constitutional some 230 years later. The United States Constitution is a living document, which has been and must continue to be reinterpreted in light of the changing demands of humanitarian understandings of what constitutes a democratic society.

In 1787, the working poor, women, people of color, and felons were considered so subhuman that they could not participate in a basic democratic process.  Today, the three of those four populations are nominally considered acceptable to participate in the democratic process — but disenfranchisement laws aimed at felon (and immigrant) communities continue to enforce a policy that protects the voting rights of the wealthy and white, while overwhelming silencing the voices of those who are considered by too many to be nonproductive members of society — the working poor, undocumented immigrants, and felons.

Voting is a right. In the Declaration of Independence, the founding fathers say that all men (which today is understood in the colloquial sense of all human beings) are endowed with certain unalienable (or incontrovertible) rights. We are all familiar with the bit where named as among these rights are listed the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Most people seem to forget the next bit, where the framers explicitly say, “that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

I know the Declaration of Independence is not a legal document. It is essentially an angry break-up letter to England — but it is an historic document which outlines the core values of the founding of the United States of America. It is a document we continue to refer to as a nation when we assert our national character as a democratic country. And “the governed” in our country, like it or not, include thousands of disenfranchised voters who are excluded from providing consent to the “just” powers of the government that determines their rights and freedoms.

How can we say that the government and the laws which affect felons (and, for that matter, undocumented immigrants) are just and fair, when those very populations have not been given a voice in the creation and passage of those laws, even though their lives are shaped and silenced by them?

In the Talking Justice debate, an audience member said he thought such disenfranchisement laws are essentially classist, and a better solution would be to allow the sentencing judge discretion regarding adding or removing this right at the time of sentencing. He asked Ron Godbey’s thoughts on that solution.

Godbey completely ignored the suggestion of classism, and although he acknowledged that it might be preferable for a judge to have discretion in sentencing when it comes to voting disenfranchisement, he noted that judges do always inform the accused of the rights they will lose. Godbey did not seem aware that there’s a pretty key difference between a judge having the discretion to remove such rights, and having to inform someone their rights will be revoked. There is a difference. In the former circumstance, the judge is relied upon as a legal expert and the arbitrator of the law to determine the best course of action regarding the specific situation at hand. In the latter situation, the judge is compelled by law to enact a mandatory removal of a civil right on which the crime in question may have absolutely no relationship to.

Importantly, as I noted earlier, Godbey did not even address the classim portion of the comment — yet he repeatedly references his opinion that felons, by dint of committing a crime, recuse themselves from the democratic process. On page 4 of The Ballot and the Bullet, a similar argument is made, as the authors say,

“Finally, Section IV discusses the policy rationales for such laws: society deems felons to be less trustworthy than non-felon citizens, and those who cannot follow the law should not participate in the passing of laws that govern law-abiding citizens …” (emphasis mine)

Yet many people who cannot follow the law are allowed to participate in the passage of laws which govern law-abiding citizens. We see this every day. Corporations add clauses to their contracts that essentially protects them from consumer utilizing consumer protection laws by forcing arbitration instead of allowing individual or class-action lawsuits if the corporation endangers/ defrauds the consumer or otherwise breaks the law. Wealthy bankers, lobbyists, and Wall Street employees utilize loopholes in oversight requirements or tax code so they can follow the letter of the law while breaking the spirit of it. Others simply outright break the law, trusting in their wealth and privilege to protect them — and most do not end up like Bernie Madoff for their crimes, but instead continue to collect fat bonuses and influence the political process to their benefit.

Speaking of Bernie Madoff, Alexander noted in chapter 6 of The New Jim Crow that part of this new system of racialized control relies on the notion of black exceptionalism. Alexander argues long as people like President Obama and Oprah Winfrey exist, our society can continue to ignore the discomfiting evidence of racialized oppression inherent in the current criminal system. The success of President Obama and Oprah Winfrey supports the myth of meritocracy. Black exceptionalism, argues Alexander, undermines widespread recognition that social structures create racially biased and widespread disparate impact that perpetuates a systemic inhibition of the agency of people of color in poor communities to overcome the circumstances of their birth and education.

I would take that argument and repurpose it slightly to apply to systems of class control. So long as the occasional widely-publicized Bernie Madoff or Martha Stewart ends up in the news for financial crimes, the working class of America continues to toil on, assured that the wealthy are held responsible for their crimes just as the working class are.

In reality, the disparate responses to the criminal element of the American wealthy and the American poor is appalling, and I think that if felon disenfranchisement was applied as evenly to the wealthy movers and shakers of society who commit crimes as it is applied to criminal element drawn from the poor and working class, we would see a much different argument playing out.

In short, felony disenfranchisement is yet another system of racial and class control. Those who are unable to vote are overwhelmingly and disproportionately from poor communities and communities of color. Those who reserve the right to vote are overwhelmingly from white and affluent communities. A small, wealthy, white minority is dictating the rights and legislation which negatively impact the rights and movements of a much larger, poorer, and diverse majority.

Huh, I guess that is just like the original constitution.

Reading Response: Eyes on the Prize

book coverEyes On The Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1945-1965by Juan Williams (Fox News)

As I began reading Eyes on the Prize, I was particularly caught by the story of Kenneth Clark and how his Dolls Study was used as evidence in the Briggs v. Clarendon County case. I think this is a great example of the combination of legal strategy and action with the intent to change public opinion. From the quote on page 20, “It was highly unorthodox evidence to present in a courtroom, but the situation called for unusual legal ammunition.”, it is clear they were aware of the charged nature of this decision.

This choice must have had more impact in the legal and public spheres than is focused on in this book, as it is now relatively common for a court of law to seek the expert opinion of a mental health worker. Psychologists and others who work with the mentally ill are often tainted with a sort of stigma-by-association, yet in a high-stakes trial, they chose to highlight not only a psychological study, but a study done by a black psychologist.

It is clear why: Not only is the study itself sound, the ramifications are unsettling on an instinctual level. To prove the effect of discrimination on innocent young minds is an extremely effective way of inciting both sympathy and desire to act in the viewer — it draws on the innate human desire to protect our children from harm.

Segregated school in Georgia, 1941

Segregated school in Georgia, 1941

In many ways, both the legal strategy and the public action of the civil rights movement danced around this desire. Charles Houston drew on it when he focused his initial efforts of educational desegregation on the higher education levels, knowing that it would be less threatening to whites if it started in adult institutions rather than with children. He drew on this human instinct, too, whether consciously or not, when he filmed the contrasting situations of white and black children in their segregated learning environments. I suspect it is easier for a moderate white to be unconcerned about the plight of black children if they are not aware of the reality of that plight.

Who looks like the real danger here, Elizabeth Eckford or the angry white girls?

Who looks like the real danger here, Elizabeth Eckford or the angry white girls?

Clearly, hard-core racist segregationists didn’t particularly care if black children were in school, in the gutter, or dead. But it wasn’t the hard-core segregationists they needed to sway; it was the moderates and public opinion in general. I think Martin Luther King’s advocacy of nonviolent, passive resistance also appealed, in a sense, to the parent’s desire for their children’s safety. The nonviolent movement showed through both word and actions that blacks were not the threat segregationists were trying to paint them as. Indeed, as the movement progressed, the juxtaposition of dignified non-violent resistance of the blacks and their white allies to the lashing anger and rage of the of segregationists highlighted who the real danger to society was.

This is further alluded to on page 113, in an interview with a white student at Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas:

“Other Whites, however, lost sympathy for the governor. ‘I began to change,’ remembers Craig Rains, a white senior at Central during the 1957-1958 school year, ‘from being . . . a moderate, who, if I had my way, would have said, ‘Let’s don’t integrate, because it’s the state’s right to decide.’ I changed to someone who felt a real sense of compassion for those students, and felt like they deserved something that I had, and I also developed a real dislike for the people that were out there causing problems.” (pg 113)

I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that the entire civil rights movement was predicated on the human urge to protect the children, but I do think that a sensitivity and awareness of this shared human instinct permeates the movement. It is present in the cases they choose to argue and the order they chose to pursue them in. It was a consideration in the way blacks and their white allies presented themselves to the public.

In the arena of national attention, they often focused on the violence done to black children. In the arena of legal cases, they chose defendants who were either children or adults who were not considered a threat to those who needed to be protected. They also chose to focus on litigation that either did not affect children and was therefore not perceived as a threat to white children, or that focused on the harm done to black children, which incited sympathy in moderate whites.

Demonstrators Facing Fire Hoses in BirminghamOn top of these choices was the decision to allow children to participate in many marches and boycotts, which both made for moving publicity and allowed their parents some potential level of protection from being arrested or fired for participating in the civil rights movement. Whether such decisions were conscious or subconscious, they positively impacted both the participants in and the observers of the freedom movement on a very instinctive level.

The impact of this was even evidenced by segregationists, who in the immediate wake of the Emmett Till murder were, “outraged at what happened,”(43) and promised justice would be done. As it turned out, justice was not done — but I do think it’s telling that in the immediate aftermath of the murder, the reported reaction of, “all ‘decent’ people,” was outrage and horror.

Emmett was 14 years old when he was murdered by an angry white mob.

Emmett was 14 years old when he was murdered by an angry white mob.

The Southerners did not initially respond with a meh, or (worse), glee: They reacted with the disgust any right-thinking person should feel upon learning of such an incident. As the media attention grew and swelled, the white community drew back on itself and became defensive and angry, but their first reaction to the murder of a child was one of horror.

It is appalling that the community reaction underwent the shift from horror to defensiveness, and even more horrific that we as a nation continue to defend the baseless stereotyping and murder of black youth today, despite the reality that whites are far more likely to commit horrific crimes. That we as a country apparently learned nothing from the unnecessary murder of Emmett Till is indefensible.

Today, many social activist groups say, “Think of the children,” when they try to defend or argue some stance or other. I suspect the segregationists said this phrase, too, or some 1950’s equivalent of it. It is interesting that a successful social movement is the one that does think of the children, and that considers the impact of their movement on all children, rather than just their children.

Final Thoughts on Classism Series

I can get a little verbose.

As a final note, the class differences explored in this series are not based solely on 1:1 comparisons of low income friends/ family and my family — early on, my husband and I had some disagreements that he (more sensitive to class differences) attributed to my middle class privilege. This sparked in me an ongoing academic interest in class and how it is perceived/ enacted in modern American culture, so the general differences I note throughout the series are based on a range of studies and research, as well as personal observation.

There’s a strong tendency for anyone to try and relate information to themselves and their own lives, which is reflected in my choice to include personal anecdotes and observations in a lot of the entries. When we discussed Lareau’s book in my Law and Outlaw class, my classmates related their reactions based on their personal experiences, and tended to discount the larger statistical data on that basis.

I find this frustrating.

This is a natural and obvious reaction, but it’s important to remember that these studies examine social trends, not individual facts. There can be a larger trend of poverty repeating and amplifying from one generation to the next with occasional success stories.

Lareau is also careful not to make value judgements on which style of parenting is preferable. I’ve also tried to maintain a neutral tone, although I don’t know if I’ve succeeded.

The middle class values so common in social institutions like schools, medical offices, and government have definitely primed me to see certain poor and working class behaviors (such as corporal punishment and lack of parental interest/ involvement) as physically and emotionally abusive. While I do see the drawbacks in concerted cultivation (*cough* helicopter parenting, *cough*), I honestly feel the best approach is to balance the two parenting styles.

Admittedly, this conclusion is based on my own parenting standards, which are based largely on the assumptions and resources was raised with, in addition to the conclusions from my research. That said, all the research indicates that most parenting styles rely less on the examples of our parents and more on the availability of resources.

In laymans terms, this means that if the children of a working class couple exceed their parent’s income earnings as adults, they’re more likely to practice concerted cultivation than natural development. It really is a question of resources — if all the parents are working full time (or at two or more jobs) just to pay the bills, then it makes it more difficult to engage in concerted cultivation on every level.

Lower-wage jobs often don’t allow the freedom of movement that salaried and white collar positions do. Consider when I worked as an errand girl/ receptionist in a law office — the paralegal was allowed to bring her children (same age as my child) to the office on half days, while I was told that my son would be a distraction to me if I took him on my shopping errands on half days.

That boss was such an entitled bitch.

I know many parents who’ve missed their kids’ parent-teacher conferences due to work conflicts. When it’s a decision between intervening on behalf of your child or getting fired, the ability to pay the bills wins out. That’s a resource difference in terms of time.

Lower-wage positions also make it more difficult to support a stay-at-home parent, or hire a nanny, which is why kinship relations are often so strong in poor and working class families — consider my husband, who was raised by his nana while his parents both worked full time, or the previously mentioned neighborhood mom, whose boyfriend’s cousin moved in with them so he could watch her sons when she travels or works extensive hours.

Ironically, the stronger kinship relationship don’t actually translate to healthy long-term relationships — family can often only rely on family for assistance. When someone in the family has an addiction or mental illness or PTSD or debilitating medical issues, it falls on the low-income family to shoulder the entire burden, instead of offsetting some of the stress to experts such as rehab, counseling, or medical care.

A jobless family member will live with them rent free, financial loans will go unpaid, unpaid childcare is expected. All these things, when stretched out over months and years, contribute to family stress and discord, and are far more common in low-income families.

You should watch The Heat. Excellent movie.

In contrast, consider the response of some local small business owners to the demands of childcare and medical stress: they hired a childcare provider to take care of their preteen children when they were both at work, but since the wife was not only an employee of the business, but the owner, she could work reduced hours and did so, choosing to come into the office for half a day two days a week. They also outsourced many of the scheduling and errand demands of middle-class parenthood to paid employees (such as having office employees pick up their groceries and deliver them to the house, schedule her kids’ activites on their calendars, and remind them when to leave the office for parenting duties).

That is what affluent middle class looks like — the ability to not only engage in concerted cultivation, but to set their own schedules, outsource the tedious parenting tasks, and provide around-the-clock supervision for the children.

To compare, John and I are lower middle class: we can afford to have a stay at home parent who can negotiate on behalf of our child with institutional authorities. We take family vacations and arrange scheduled enrichment activities for our child. Our communication and disciplinary choices reflect middle-class values. But we cannot outsource the tedious daily chores or set our own work schedules. John is lucky enough to have lots of paid personal leave with his employer, so he can usually take time off in order to attend parent-teacher conferences or other child-focused activities without a cut in pay, but he doesn’t have the freedom to simply leave the office whenever he feels like it.

A low income family is in a situation where both hiring childcare and maintaining a long-term stay at home parent is untenable. Instead, friends and family are relied on to provide childcare or help out financially by providing room and board to a homeless friend, sibling or parent– although the relationship is often expected to go both ways, and the boarder is expected to help out financially by contributing what they can to the household income. When one (or both) parties are unable or unwilling to live up to the expectations, that just increases family stress.

If you’re interested in learning more on the role economic stability or instability plays in family dynamics, I suggest the following resources:

Windfall Parenting and Money Mismanagement

One of the interesting topics I’ve come across in my readings is the class difference in money management. It’s part of the whole independence/ meritocracy myth that permeates American culture — you know, the idea that the U.S. is a nation of independent individuals, built from the grit and toughness of specific heroic figures whose singular actions shaped a nation.

Sculpture of George Washington, from Wikimedia Commons

Sculpture of George Washington, from Wikimedia Commons

People talk about the midnight ride of Paul Revere or the lone cowboy/ wild west, but ignore the other two participants of that midnight ride or the pioneer communities. All our historical narratives devalue the importance of community in our culture and reinforce the myth that individual merit is the factor that creates or destroys success.

By John Boyd [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This is a barn raising. Tools needed to complete: Wood, horses, A COMMUNITY.

So when you have this idea — whether conscious or unconscious — that your own individual merit is the sole thing responsible for your success or failures in life, then you obviously project that onto other people. Even when you’re aware of the ways that your race, gender, or parents’ financial situation and community opportunities impact lifelong choices, it’s still disturbingly easy to fall into the trap of judging the financial choices of others.

Apparently common reaction when someone has a nice phone and is on food stamps.

Okay, imagine this couple, Anne and Bob Pretend. They have three kids, one with each other and two from a previous relationship of Anne’s. Anne has a GED instead of a high school diploma, while Bob has a high school diploma but no college. Bob is a former Army vet, while Anne has a Nurses Aide certification. They are white, and their parents were also low income. Bob used to live here, while Anne’s family comes from another state. They met when Bob was stationed in her town, and have recently moved from her home state to Washington in pursuit of a job opportunity.

This is sort of a composite sketch inspired by several actual low-income families I know, so I’m not just pulling this out of my butt. Data shows that most low-income families on welfare are white, in a relationship, and have a statistically average amount of children. Just imagine your typical t.v. “working class” family, and you have a good picture of what welfare families actually look like.

Family Guy: Is Peter even employed? How come t.v. families never seem to live in duplexes or apartments?

Family Guy: Is Peter even employed? How come t.v. families never seem to live in duplexes or apartments?

Their monthly income primarily consists of child support sent to Anne for the two kids, which is about $750/ month, and Bob’s VA benefits, which are about $300/ month. They also get food stamps, and bring in under-the-table earnings from various odd jobs like housecleaning and vehicle repairs. They are often short on rent, and frequently borrow money from friends and family to meet their financial obligations.

In December, Anne was given $1,000 by an aunt to buy her kids Christmas gifts, which she bought … and then immediately gave to her kids, not waiting for Christmas morning. She spent the rest of the month venting about her inability to give the kids a Christmas morning, and several family friends came through, showing up on Christmas with gifts and treats for the family.

A few months later, Anne and Bob received their tax rebate, which was significant. They paid their unpaid back rent and a few bills, and then they bought their kids brand new bikes, a game system, and several other expensive toys.

What? Why? Why would you do that?

What? Why? Why would you do that?

You’re probably judging this imaginary family pretty hard right now, aren’t you? You’re thinking that they blew their money on stupid stuff, and this is why they’re poor. You’re probably muttering that if they managed their money better, they wouldn’t be so poor — it’s their fault for blowing it on toys instead of bills, or putting it in savings.

Let’s go a little bit deeper into their character history, though. Both Anne and Bob were raised by low-income parents. They went to poorly-funded, overcrowded public schools, and their employment opportunities are constrained by that background. They would both like to go to college and get higher education degrees, but their poor credit prevents them from qualifying for a loan. Plus, contrary to popular opinion, current research shows that the lower income a family is, the less financial aid grants they are awarded. So they can’t better their income situation through college.

Their income situation is constrained by their educational level, which was shaped by factors outside of their control (the income level and living situation of their parents). One might respond that any job will do — they don’t need to be CEO of Facebook, they just need to have a job. True.

But, the thing about jobs is that they’re actually still pretty difficult to find. On the low education/ low income side of the scale, jobs are a little easier to find … but they have demanding hours that don’t balance well with the demands of family, pay very little, and often don’t offer benefits (let alone affordable benefits).

In the case of our example family, the promised job opportunity they followed fell through after they arrived. Bob found work with a local telemarketing company known for exploiting and discarding low-income workers, but stopped going to work after their truck was repossessed and regular attendance meant navigating a bus ride that took about an hour each way, and often was unavailable during the hours he was scheduled.

Bob is chronically unemployed, due to serious and largely undiagnosed/ untreated mental health issues that prevent him from maintaining long-term employment — basically, every time he gets a job, he gets depressed or socially anxious after about 3 months and finds a reason to quit, or just stop going to work. Given that he is former Army, it’s more than likely he suffers from some form of PTSD. Although the Army is improving in their response to and treatment of PTSD, this is a recent turn of events, and Bob is both undiagnosed and out of the military.

Anne has been looking for work since they moved to the area, but has been unable to find employment yet. She does have her Nurses Aide certification, but the certification and experience were acquired in a different state, and she needs to take a few more classes to be compliant with the local requirements.

If she does find work as a Nurses Aide, the starting wage is state minimum wage, which is about $20,000/ year — still significantly less than the $82,175 budget the Economic Policy Institute estimates is needed to support a family of five. According to the MIT living wage calculator, even the median Nurses Aide income of about $13/hour is only slightly above area poverty wages, and does not approach the $22/hour estimated for a living wage. Even if both of them were working full time at the current local minimum wage of $9.19, they still would not be able to afford the cost of daycare for their kids — one of them has to work part time or less.

Starting to get the picture?

Since they moved to the area, Anne and Bob have faced difficulty in being able to meet their basic financial needs, and do not have the savings to cushion their situation or assist them in moving to an area with higher employment. Their family of five lives in a 3 bedroom rental home owned by Bob’s dad.

The rent is about $1,100/ month, which they cannot afford. Because Bob’s dad has his own financial issues, he can’t let them live there for free, but he does not charge late fees and is generally understanding. Though Bob and Anne are lucky enough to have a forgiving landlord, they often have to borrow money from friends or family to pay their rent and utilities, or buy groceries.

All that sounds really stressful and upsetting, and no doubt contributes to marital strain and household discord. But it has another effect, too, a very specific one. It influences their parenting choices.

Wh-what? Economic situation impacts parenting decisions?

Imagine that your child comes home from school with a note. It is from their teacher, praising your child on an essay that was so well done, they want to submit it to a statewide contest. If they win, your child will be recognized in an assembly and given a ribbon.

As a parent, you’re delighted. You’re proud of your child, and excited that other adults recognize potential in them. You praise your kid, and tell them how proud you are of them, and ask to read the essay in question. Maybe you put it on the fridge. Because you’re so pleased with your kid, you take them out for ice cream. You are explicitly rewarding good behavior. Child performs well in school, gets praise and ice cream.

Image Credit: Miss Jones Media (tumblr)

In middle class parenting, good behavior = reward.

This is true in smaller scenarios, too — you’re out grocery shopping, and your kid is quiet and helpful instead of a noisy pain in the patootie. At the check-out counter, they ask for a candy bar or pack of gum, and you say, “Sure, you’ve been really helpful. I think you earned it.”

Again, good behavior = reward. The two are explicitly linked in those situations. You don’t buy your kid ice cream or get them candy bars when they get in trouble, though. You don’t want to reward bad behavior, so a kid who comes home with a detention notice or a kid who spends the entire grocery store trip whining and begging doesn’t get little fun rewards.

Most parents like to both make their kids happy and reward good behavior, so we do this kind of thing all the time, and it’s great! It’s a widely accepted and acculturated parenting practice that rewards desirable behavior and links the value of effort and reward in the child’s mind. This parenting practice implicitly teaches kids that their work ethic is what will dictate their financial rewards in life, and it’s a normal practice for middle class and affluent families.

The only downside (in my opinion) is that unless parents explicitly teach their kids about the role of luck and circumstance in acquiring and maintaining financial stability, that awareness may never develop.

Wealthy people solutions: If you can't afford to go to college, ask your parents for a loan!

Wealthy people solutions: If you can’t afford to go to college, ask your parents for a loan!

But Anne and Bob, as seen above, are operating on a negative budget 90% of the time. They buy their kids stuff whenever they’re lucky enough to have extra money. They’re not trying to be financially irresponsible, or to teach their kids that good behavior is not rewarded. They just have the same desires any parent does — they want to make their kids happy, and they want to reward good behavior.

The difference is that if their kid comes home with an award, or is particularly helpful and cheerful on a given day, Anne and Bob don’t have the funds to get an ice cream or candy bar. They are in a situation where literally every penny counts, and on the regular day-to-day cycle of life, they can’t afford the little thoughtless extras that we should be able to take for granted, like a pack of gum at the supermarket to reward good behavior. Sometimes they can’t even afford to celebrate holidays or birthdays when they arrive.

So what happens is that when Anne and Bob get the surprise influxes of money — the tax return, the $1000 gift from a family friend — they spend it immediately on all the rewards/ gifts that their kids either earned or were promised over the past few months, which their kids get even if they are being bad that day, because they can’t afford to reward them in ways both large and small the rest of the time.

Splurge while you still can!

Because the gifts are not tied to good behavior, but to the economic ups and downs of the adults in their life, the kids learn to associate financial and material excess with luck, rather than good behavior. This is the essence of “windfall parenting.”

Windfall parenting actually decreases the ability of a family to teach frugality. Let me borrow and repurpose an analogy one of my son’s teachers used about bullying: Everyone has a bucket that they carry around with them. The bucket is full of good feelings, and we can dip into other people’s buckets and take their good feelings away, or we can share our good feelings and fill up the buckets of other people.

As parents, our ability to offer moderate or frugal rewards is tied to our ability to keep our child’s bucket full. If a family takes their kid to a museum on Sunday, and out to eat with the family on Wednesday, and pays for a class field trip on Friday, then the parents will feel more justified in choosing more frugal gift or restaurant options. Instead of the $150 bike, they might find a used bike at a garage sale for $50.

Instead of buying a newly released video game or console regardless of price, a parent might promise that the item will be purchased when it goes on sale if the child continues to behave well. After all, if the kid complains, the parent can point to all the other ways they’ve filled their child’s bucket of happiness.

Anne and Bob don’t have the economic stability, ironically, to wait for sales or good behavior that would teach lessons of frugality, saving, and rewarding work ethic. When they get a windfall of cash, they pay the overdue bills and spend the excess on the family. In response to internalized guilt for not being able to provide regular rewards for good behavior, Anne and Bob will be less likely to feel comfortable with buying the used or less expensive option, especially since the status-quo for their kids is making do with used and hand-me-down items.

When there is an influx of cash, Anne and Bob purchase new items at full price precisely because there are so few opportunities for their kids to own new items that bring admiration and envy from their social group.

So the next time you find yourself silently judging a low-income parent for money mismanagement, remember all the structural social, historical, and familial elements that are shaping their choices. There’s a lot more to it than just a perceived inability to budget.

Think about it.

Welfare Queens and the -Isms of Poverty | Socioeconomic Class & Child Development

V. Welfare Queens and the -Isms

welfare queenYou’ve probably heard about the welfare queens who scam thousands of dollars from hard-working taxpayers, right? Reagan apparently talked about one in particular so much that she became a cultural meme. Josh Levin over at Slate actually did a long-form feature on the welfare bogey woman of Reagan’s nightmares, and dug up some interesting facts in his research. For one, the original welfare queen was not a woman of color — she was a white woman who “passed” as various ethnicities at various times. For another, she was well-known as a bit of a sociopath and a con-woman — not your ordinary American. And finally, she was being investigated by a police officer, but the investigation was stopped, thanks to internal political conflicts of interest.

By Dan Piraro

By Dan Piraro

But we’re not here to talk about Linda Taylor, the first “Welfare Queen.” We’re here to talk about why single moms on welfare have become such monsters, and that’s a different story all together.

That’s a story about class and classism, the changing dynamics of the family over American history, and the stories we tell ourselves about our shared history.

In a nutshell, the American family has undergone some pretty drastic changes since the first colonists built their homes on American soil. Early American families were more agrarian/ community based, with the entire family contributing to domestic household production. As the country became more industrialized, production (and men) moved into the public sphere, and women shifted into the primary role in the domestic sphere. At the same time gender roles became more demarcated, class became more of an issue.

Ironically, the individualism that feeds American self-perception has a great deal to do with creating class discrimination. See, under the older community-based models, religiously informed perceptions of the world were a little different. Religious belief at the time said everyone had a divinely mandated role in life, and that earth was like heaven, where God ruled over angels and lesser nephilim. When God put you on earth, he put you into the role you were born to play. So nobles were nobles, and peasants were peasants, and everyone just accepted this idea of a divine plan guiding their life situation. It was not the fault of a peasant that he was a peasant, anymore than a king being a king — that was God’s plan.

Pictured: God's plan.

Pictured: God’s plan.

This meant all the moral individual blame of poverty was absent from the situation. The peasant was poor because God needed peasants for kings to rule over, not because he was lazy or stupid or immoral. So it was seen as the moral duty of the wealth and ruling class to make sure that the basic needs of the poorest in their community were met. It wasn’t a perfect system, and it was just as subject to abuses as modern systems are, but in general people understood involvement in the community to be divinely mandated (for good and ill — this mindset also justified spying on your neighbors in their house in order to catch them in wrongdoing).

Cartoon of a lazy Irish hobo.

Cartoon of a lazy Irish hobo.

The idea of predestined class roles is so counter to the values of a democratic society valuing individual effort that it became necessary to justify the existence of the poor. So after the American Revolution, as we moved into the 19th century and an industrialized economy, we start getting these moral judgements about how poor people are poor because they’re lazy, or greedy, or immoral.

In middle and upper class families, there was a shift toward valuing their children as individuals to be carefully cultivated. While this attitude slowly trickled down to working class/ poor families, the reality was that they needed the income their children could bring in by working. It wasn’t until labor laws restricting child labor were passed that there was a large drop in child labor across all classes.

Around the time of the Great Depression, there was a bit of a hearkening back to the original community values our country was built on, as the economic crash affected not only the usual poor and working class populations, but vast swathes of the American middle class. Suddenly, people realized that poverty wasn’t necessarily a personal moral failing, but just bad luck combined with the fluctuations of the economy.

The Great Depression affected all classes.

The Great Depression affected all classes.

Social welfare programs were put into place, and because of the specific historical trends that led to valuing women in the domestic sphere and men in trade/ politics/ business, a lot of these social welfare programs were focused at taking care of the needs of white single mothers who lacked a household producer (man). In fact, the program was called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

A mother and her children, Elm Grove, CA, 1936. Photo by Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration.

A mother and her children, Elm Grove, CA, 1936. Photo by Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration.

Black women were not eligible for the program because they had “always” been in the labor force. Not-fun fact: At the time AFDC and the first labor law protections were introduced, most black women worked in domestic labor, which was not protected by the new labor laws. In fact, domestic labor is still not fully protected under Federal US labor law, which is why organizations like the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance are fighting for the rights of domestic workers state by state.

Anyway, the point is, AFDC was an extremely popular program when it was first implemented, and one that primarily benefited (and was seen as meant to benefit) white women and children. Other government aid programs in the past also enjoyed general popular support, such as the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave essentially free land to eligible US citizens (white men). Later, the G.I. bill post-World War II would primarily benefit white soldiers and their families, while the service of Black, Latino, Native, and Japanese soldiers was largely ignored or downplayed.

So when did welfare start to decline in popularity? That would be the 1960s. In 1964, as you’ll recall, the Civil Rights Act (take two) was signed into law. Black Americans — all Americans of color — were now protected under labor law and eligible for the government aid benefits their white peers had been accessing for decades. At the same time, the new wave of feminism coincided with a new sexual and contraceptive revolution, and suddenly, welfare turned sour in people’s mouths.

This was hardly the first sexual revolution in America. We’ve had several — notable tidal moments in the historical struggle for women’s rights include the Revolutionary War, when women increasingly joined political and business matters and looked toward their own rights. Abigail Adams famously wrote her husband,

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Obviously, Abigail’s request was ignored, and women were increasingly pushed out of the public sphere and into the domestic. However, education for middle and upper class women did increase after that, as the new role of domestic centers of the home also cast women as the primary educators and moral guides for their children. Another tide of sexual and feminist revolution, popularly known as the “Suffragette movement,” occurred from the 1870s to 1920s as more single middle and working class women moved into the workforce and changes in courtship patterns altered gender dynamics once more.

So despite the popularity of claiming that modern women’s rights came from the “first” feminist movement of the 1960s, that’s inaccurate. Interestingly, some decried the 1960s feminist movement as unnecessary, since women had “achieved equality” 50 years earlier when they entered the workforce in record numbers and acquired the right to vote. What made the 1960s feminist movement and sexual revolution so different from the previous historic tides that promoted the rights of women was the invention of women’s contraception concurrent with the increasing popularity and acceptance of marriage for love.

Companionate marriage

Victorian wedding portrait (Source: Wiki commons)

See, marriage has also been undergoing some pretty massive shifts since our colonial immigrant ancestors first stepped foot on America’s eastern shores. Marriage started out as contracts arranged between the parents of the couples to benefit the families and, to a lesser extent, the community.

Over time, as parents lost the ability to hold an inheritance over the head of their children, companionate pairings became popular. In a companionate pairing, the friendship and affection of the partner was valued as much as their economic value and social status. The companionate pairing eventually shifted to the love match, which is what we deal with today.

The biggest similarity between arranged matches and companionate matches was that the family was seen as existing for the production and care of children. If a marriage turned unhappy or sour, the perceived needs of the children were expected to take priority over the desires of the spouses. By the 20th century, the companionate marriage was already shifting toward the love match as we understand it, but it was really the creation of readily accessible birth control that kicked off this current movement of focusing on the couple relationship before the parent-child relationship.

By that, I don’t mean that modern parents are selfish or hate their kids. I mean that birth control allows couples the freedom to delay having children in order to strengthen the bond between themselves and make sure they are “set” economically, and to limit the size of their families. Middle class values have accordingly shifted, until it’s become normal and acceptable to delay pregnancy and childbirth until your education is complete, you’ve been married for a few years, and you are set in your career. Having children earlier in life, or before you’re educated and financially set, is seen as irresponsible and selfish.

rosie riveterDuring WWII, women of all races entered the workforce in greater numbers, and although they left (or were kicked out of) the workforce in droves after the war, black women in particular were negatively impacted by the post-war situation.

As noted above, black men generally did not benefit from the G.I. Bill, which led to economic distress for families. The strain of war marriages, enforced housewife status, and PTSD led to skyrocketing divorce rates across America in the years immediately after the war.

Chicago protest of redlining practices

Chicago protest of redlining practices

In black families, the reduced income of now-jobless black women and men led to increased financial strain in the black community of a whole. The increased production of post-war America shined a brief light of hope on the situation, as black men were more likely to find jobs and even union protection.

Unfortunately, union membership and representation was already plummeting by the 1970s. Practices such as redlining and white flight led to the rise of ghettos even as manufacturing jobs and other forms of employment disappeared.

This is where we loop back to welfare, feminism, and racism. So, back up a bit to the 1960s and the Civil Rights Act, which was enacted at about the same time hormonal birth control became readily available and the high post-war production economy turned downward. All these previous factors I’ve described coalesced to create a situation where suddenly the predominant single mother in the public’s eye is the black low-income mother, instead of the white one.

Mother and child, Chicago South side.

Mother and child, Chicago South side.

Now, welfare still predominantly benefits white people — Blacks comprise 22% of the poor, but only take in 14% of government benefits. Whites make up 42% of the poor, but take in 69% of government benefits. But now welfare also benefits people of color, and apparently that leaves a really sour taste in the mouths of a lot of people. A program that was once pretty popular with the average working American is suddenly increasingly controversial. So … besides race, what’s that all about?

Well, it actually is about a few more things then race. It’s about feminism and classism, too. It’s about the myth of meritocracy, and representing poverty as an individual moral failure instead of a systemic social issue. It’s about blaming poor women for having sex outside of marriage instead of recognizing that our social structures are such that poverty is replicated and intensified from one generation to the next. Don’t believe me? Answer this: What are some of the most popular complaints about welfare today?

The Welfare Queen

Linda Taylor: The original welfare queen

Linda Taylor: The original welfare queen

She’s single, unemployed, probably a woman of color, and she keeps having babies to collect fat government checks. Unspoken moral judgments of that description: She is lazy, promiscuous, and irresponsible.

THE FACTS: Actually, from the 1980s on, welfare payments were not tied to inflation, so welfare benefits plummeted. As anyone who’s actually had a child knows, kids are expensive, and $60 extra a month in welfare benefits is not going to help. Also, other developed countries that have invested in their welfare programs have actually seen a decrease in family sizes among the poor. The Welfare Queen is a myth.

The Teen Mom/ Welfare Princess

photography by Joe Niem

photography by Joe Niem

She’s seen as a welfare queen in training, the young woman who romanticizes pregnancy and is too stupid to realize she’s putting her entire future at risk. Moralizers tut-tut over her perceived lack of concern for marriage and her tendency to have several children by various fathers.

THE FACTS: In what may be a surprising twist to many, research is showing that poor teen moms don’t delay marriage out of a lack of respect for the institution, but because they value it so highly. The poor have internalized middle class values that say an ideal marriage is not about having kids, but is about the love between supportive and equal partners. They’re putting off marriage not because they think it’s pointless, but because they want to avoid the failure and stigma of divorce.

Research also shows that for poor populations in American, teen parenthood has almost no impact on their lifetime economic situation. In fact, a study on two sisters — one a teen mom and one who was childless — show that their long-term financial situation was not at all impacted by the presence or absence of a child. Also, many teen moms credit their pregnancy and child with “straightening them up” and inspiring them to leave their wild ways behind and become responsible adults in the community.

The Drug Dealer


Too lazy to get a real job, he supplements his drug habit with occasional dealing and welfare benefits.

THE FACTS: Like the welfare queen, this one is a giant bogeyman. I’m not saying drug dealers are a bogeyman — clearly, they’re not. But I guess black market drug dealing must be lucrative enough that it isn’t worth the humiliation and hassle to apply for and maintain the lifestyle qualifications for welfare benefits. In the end, the few places where this has been implemented (and subsequently struck down), the program showed few results. Only 2.6% (108 out of 4,086 people) of those tested were found to have been using illegal drugs. It actually cost more money to carry out the program than it saved in cancelled welfare benefits.

Welfare Programs Failed

welfare state

We’ve been dumping money into welfare programs for ages, and the poverty rates have just kept rising! Therefore, the programs have failed.

THE FACTS: As mentioned earlier, welfare payments have not been tied to inflation for over 50 years. In fact, measurements of poverty and welfare are too conservative — they’re tied to an equation from the 1960s based on food prices, which were more expensive than the costs of lodging or utilities at the time. An updated equation would dramatically increase the official poverty rates in America, which would look bad for whichever political party is in office. Hence, incentive not to change the formula, which means both the issue of poverty and the social programs with which to address it are working with bad data.

Furthermore, welfare programs have been subjected to a war of financial attrition … Nixon, Reagan, and Bush all made budget cuts to AFDC, and then Clinton just sliced the entire program with his Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) “reform.” Actually, at the rare times in our country when welfare programs have been well-funded, they have been extraordinarily helpful in addressing poverty rates. The implementation of social welfare programs helped America survive the Great Depression, and poverty across America dropped from 24% to 12% when Johnson’s funding of his “war on poverty” was at its peak.

The thing about poverty that a lot of people don’t seem to realize, or don’t want to realize, is that it’s not about the individual. While the economic cycle is an established fact of capitalism, the natural result of this type of economic cycle on the poorest members of society is an uncomfortable truth that many people prefer to ignore. It’s easier to moralize and pretend poor people are poor because they failed in some way; they are weak of character or lack work ethic. In the paraphrased words of John Steinbeck,

“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

Money, Family, and Class | Socioeconomic Class and Child Development

This is the fourth in a series of posts on child development and social class. It’s my final project for my American Families class is on, so I need to know this material inside and out!

In section 4, we’re looking at the impact class can have on the life-long financial situation of a family.

IV. Money, Family, and Class

When family members transfer wealth from one generation (like parents to kids, or kids to parents) during their lifetime it’s called an “intergenerational transfer of wealth.” I actually learned the name for this at the WPC-14 in spring 2013. I’ve benefited from this my entire life, but I didn’t realize it had an economic term that could be applied to it.

In middle class and affluent families (MC&A), intergenerational transfers of wealth tend to go from the adults to the children — things like helping the kids with a down payment on a house, or co-signing a loan, or financial gifts, or business start-up funds.

This has an obvious benefit to MC&A children, since it reduces their financial burden and adult debt as they move from childhood to adult independence. Additionally, when MC&A individuals are adults supporting their own children and SO’s, they don’t have to spend their entire working lives stretching their paychecks that little bit further to support their parents. At most, they may support their parents during the retirement years. But in MC&A families, transfers of wealth usually flow from parents to children.

This is why Mitt Romney told college students to borrow money from their parents — his class status blinded him to the reality that not all intergenerational transfers of wealth go from the older generation to the younger.

In poor and working class (P&WC) families, these transfers of wealth tend to go from kids to adults. Kids start working as soon as legally possible  (sometimes earlier, with under the table or black market employment) to contribute to the family income. They help their parents out with bills and groceries, often even after they leave the family home and are supporting their own families. They help pay for car repairs, emergencies, funerals, and medical bills for their parents, siblings, and grandparents.

Now, it’s not that P&WC parents don’t want to help their kids out financially — it’s that they lack the finances to do so. Between 1975 and 1990, the wealth divide steadily grew. In the 15 year stretch between 1979 and 2004, household income grew by only $800 a year for the poorest American households, but increased by $63,100 per year for the wealthiest.

“Productivity has surged, but income and wages have stagnated for most Americans. If the median household income had kept pace with the economy since 1970, it would now be nearly $92,000, not $50,000.” — Mother Jones

The income of low income families hasn’t dropped because they’re lazy, or refuse to work. It’s because the traditionally blue-collar labor manufacturing jobs were increasingly exported to Mexico, China, Haiti, and Bangladesh during that same time frame.

“More and more, US multinationals are laying off workers at home and hiring overseas.” — Mother Jones

Check it: the highest job growth is in the industries of temporary employment, health & domestic services, restaurant, and retail. These positions are usually paid minimum wage (the Federal Minimum Wage is below the cost of living in most areas), lack benefits, and have demanding hours that don’t balance well with the needs of family life.

“The share of American employment in manufacturing has declined sharply since the 1950s, from almost 30% to less than 10%. At the same time, jobs in services soared, from less than 50% of employment to almost 70%.” — Economist

The wages of jobs that can’t be exported are depressed by the continued presence of undocumented immigrants in the work force. The problem here is not the undocumented immigrants as workers; the problem is that employers can use the undocumented status of an employee as a threat to prevent them from protesting violations of labor law. Plenty of people think undocumented immigrants don’t have labor rights, but that’s not quite right.

The real situation is a little more complicated. Undocumented immigrants are actually covered under the basic labor law protections — the catch is that if they complain that an employer is violating labor law, the employer can just deport them. If workers in these industries (of all races and citizenship status) begin trying to organize for a safer work environment, better hours, or better wages, their efforts can be cut short by the employer simply deporting the undocumented immigrants among them.

In other words, the presence of undocumented immigrants in a workforce is a way for an employer to keep wages down and prevent workers from organizing to demand better treatment. The solution to this problem is not to throw more money at the border in a futile attempt to prevent immigration, but to actually relax immigration laws. Once undocumented immigrants can no longer be threatened with deportation for trying to access basic labor rights, the equilibrium of the workplace will become more democratic.

This 2008 Pew Center graph shows where undocumented immigrants are employed. Undocumented immigrants tend to be employed in low-wage work, which bolsters the research of Chavez and others that the existence underpaid and exploitable labor class will keep all wages down for these positions.

Don’t blame the undocumented immigrants for coming to America. First off, when you tell the entire neighborhood that your house is the best and you’re having a kick-ass party where everyone gets prizes, don’t be surprised when the entire neighborhood shows up to the party. Second, as I noted above, the workers aren’t actually the problem — it’s the structural policies in place that prevent undocumented workers from complaining about mistreatment. They’re an exploitable working class, and the presence of an exploitable working class will depress wages in all industries where they’re present. Fun fact: the white small farm-owners in the South, the ones who couldn’t afford to own slaves? They tended to object to slavery on the basis that having an unpaid and exploited working class undercut the labor value of white working men.

When California became a state, their constitution outlawed slavery not on the basis that it’s inhumane and awful, but because the existence of an exploitable working class undercuts the value of American workers. This is also why after the railroads were built, Chinese immigrants were run out of towns up and down the West Coast, and immigration laws became increasingly restrictive. The presence of an exploitable low-wage working class always, always undercuts the value of that entire working class.

So next time you hear someone blame “illegal immigrants” for taking American jobs, remind them it’s not the worker’s fault. Unpatriotic American corporations prefer to import workers they can mistreat and underpay without fear of labor law complaints, rather than invest in the minimum standards of wage and work safety required by American workers.

This is the same reason, by the way, that American corporations ship all those jobs overseas. The usual story is that unions got greedy, but it’s (again) so much more complex than that. Corporations don’t want to pay minimum wages, yeah, but they also don’t want to invest in creating and maintaining a working environment that is up to basic safety standards. Look at the recent fires in Bangladesh factories contracted by American corporations. There are a lot of similarities to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that helped spark the American labor movement.

American corporations also don’t want their employees to enjoy a decent work-life balance. Look at the Chinese factory workers, who live in dorms on the factory premises. Sounds a lot like the “company towns” in our own pre-labor rights history, don’t they? American workers weren’t greedy, they just learned to stand up for the value of their labor, safety at work, and health after years of being exploited. The corporations who ship jobs overseas aren’t being “business savvy,” they’re being unpatriotic and inhumane.

Low income workers are often blamed for not getting better work. This relies on the assumption that jobs are plentiful, but poor people are lazy or stupid. First things first: Jobs are not plentiful, even for college graduates. High school graduates are even worse off in the job market.

In the first post, I talked about how class differences in child development styles influence the social behaviors and education of kids. Those differences come into play during the job search. Then there are the other factors, like unconscious bias on the part of the employee due to race, gender, or credit history. Those types of judgments are out of the control of the individual, but they still inhibit their ability to work for a living. You can acknowledge or deny the impact of this reality, but that doesn’t change its existence.

Maybe I could blame Americans who shop at stores like Walmart and Target, and so reinforce the demand for cheap goods produced by exploitable labor, but I don’t think that’s very useful. First, the CEO’s of these companies definitely know what they’re doing, but the shoppers may not be aware of their role in the system of worker exploitation.

Second, it’s a kind of a cycle. American workers aren’t paid enough, so they need to stretch their wages are far as possible. That means they need cheap goods, and the companies produce those cheap goods by exploiting cheap labor at home and overseas. The presence of exploitable low-wage labor continues to depress the wages of American workers, who continue to need cheap goods. It’s a vicious cycle, and the ones with the power to easily break it are the employers, not the employees.

What sucks is that during the same time frame that well-paying blue collar jobs were disappearing for low-income families and being replaced by low-wage work, the welfare system came under fire. Between 1970 and 1990, welfare payments actually decreased by 43% per family. American poverty rates were at their lowest in 1969 and 1970, at the height of President Johnsons’ “War on Poverty,” but Nixon, Reagan, and Bush all made cuts to welfare programs. Then Clinton just ruined everything by reforming the old welfare programs into the new TANF program, which has a 5-year cumulative limit. Welfare spending and poverty rates have grown since the TANF reform, so now we’re spending a lot and solving nothing.

So at the same time that full-time, unionized jobs are disappearing from the American employment landscape and real wages for working class families are plummeting, the government responded to a rising tide of political pressure and defunded the available welfare programs. In real terms, this means that a lot of working class and mid-to-lower middle class families have actually experienced downward mobility, as wages have stagnated or fallen and welfare benefits have increasingly been cut.

Additionally, American workers now work longer hours and take fewer vacations than any other industrialized first-world country, and for what? We don’t have more money, and we have even less time with our families than we did 30 years ago.

“For … many middle-class workers, job obligations are creeping into free time and family time. For low-income workers, hours have declined due to a shrinking job market, causing underemployment.” — Mother Jones

When you take all this together — lower pay, more working hours, fewer benefits, and reduced funding for welfare — what you get is a generational impact. P&WC families don’t have the resources in terms of time, education, or finances to set their kids on the path for success. The government and community are unwilling to invest in their P&WC populations, and so the same social structures that kept the parents in poverty limit the next generation as well. Remember, it’s not that P&WC parents don’t love their children, or don’t want to invest in them — it’s that they lack the resources to invest in the next generation in the same ways MC&A families can.

MC&A don’t necessarily recognize their class privileges, or some of the ways they rely on their parents for assistance. Legacy admissions to colleges, for example, don’t carry quite the same stigma that welfare benefits do. And MC&A kids whose parents help them financially may not realize how lucky they are to be able to receive money from their parents as they set up their future. This lack of recognition doesn’t make MC&A kids bad or selfish, anymore than the lack of resources available to P&WC families means they don’t care about their kids.

I would really like to stress that point — the simple fact of having access or not having access to certain privileges in life doesn’t inherently mean someone is good or bad. All it means is that they were born into a certain space and time where specific attitudes and social structures held sway, and they had to wield their personal agency in negotiating the paths available to them. Everyone makes mistakes, but those mistakes tend to be a lot more costly for P&WC families. Consider for a moment two imaginary women, Katy and Cathy.

Imagine that Cathy grew up in a poor working class family. Her father worked, and when he wasn’t working he was drinking. Her mother worked on and off. Cathy had three brothers, each of whom worked. Cathy was expected to clean the house, prepare the meals, and do all the laundry. She rarely had time for schoolwork, and often felt isolated and stressed. Her family often teased her for being a stupid girl. When she was 14, she dropped out of high school and ran away from home and dropped out of high school to marry a 17 year old classmate, who also dropped out of high school. When she was 17, she had her first child. In her early 20s, Cathy acquired a GED, and she has worked on and off in various low-wage industries over the past decade.

Now imagine Katy. Katy grew up in the same state as Cathy, during the same time frame. Katy also had two working parents and three older brothers. Katy was also expected to do household chores. But Katy was middle class, and her parents never assigned so many chores that they interfered with her homework. She had a wide circle of friends and a fulfilling social life. Her brothers were busy with schoolwork, sports, and internships, and although they teased her, they were generally supportive of her accomplishments. When she was 14, Katy started high school. She dated an older boy for a little while, but they broke up before it got serious. When she was 17, her parents helped her apply for her college choices and scout apartments in the cities she was looking at moving to. In her early 20s, Katy graduated with her Bachelor of Arts and decided to pursue a Doctorate of Psychology. She is currently working as a counselor in a local non-profit.

Same state. Same gender. Same time frame — the biggest difference is in the differing resources available not only to the girls, but to their families. No matter how much Americans like to deny it, socioeconomic class has a great deal to do with an individual’s upbringing and lifetime finances.

Employment & Networking Patterns | Socioeconomic Class and Child Development

This is the third in a series of posts on child development and social class, inspired by the intersecting events of my class reading and some recent interactions in my personal life — I happened to be studying the reading just when all that neighborhood stuff went down, and it really highlighted to me some interesting points about differences in parenting styles and values comes from. Also, this is what my final project for my American Families class is on, so I need to know this material inside and out!

Part three is on networking, and the differences caused by parental social class and child development when entering the workforce.

III. Networking

Basically, some families know the editors at the New York Times, and some families know the janitors. When you’re moving out into the world to look for jobs, references, start-up funding, or advertising of a new business, who you know makes a difference — and middle class and affluent (MC&A) people tend to know the movers and shakers of society, while poor and working class (P&WC) people tend to know the servers and worker bees.

A great way to examine class differences in depth is by deconstructing the book Start Something that Matters, by the TOMs founder Blake Mycoskie. It’s interesting, because he seems to assume that everyone who’s interested in starting a business has access to the same level of start-up resources and networking connections that he does. His advice includes things like:

  • Use your apartment or garage as a start up space!
  • Utilize interns for their free labor — thank them by arranging fun activities (he did weekly bocce ball tournaments) and occasional catered lunches!
  • Get free supplies by holding an office supply party!
  • Use your contacts to get freebies — free lunches, free test products, free laptops!
  • Talk to your contacts and friends in relevant industries (like news or fashion) to promote your product!

It was a really fascinating look into the mind of a well-intentioned person with apparently no awareness of the growing divide in resource allocation and opportunity that exists in our culture. Even more interestingly, Mycoskie clearly believes he started his business with few resources, and his advice is directed toward other potential entrepreneurs who also lack resources. The version of the book I had actually ended with a section of questions on each chapter that was meant to inspire the reader, and one of them was,

How can having limited resources actually work to your advantage? What products or services are must-haves when starting a business? (Chapter 4: Resourceful Without Resources)

Obviously, I find Mycoskie’s assertion that he had limited resources hilarious. I mean, for his social stature and class privilege, I guess he did — but from the perspective of 80% of Americans, he had an abundance of resources both tangible and non-tangible.

"How Inequality is Killing Us," -- Susan Rosenthal

“How Inequality is Killing Us,” — Susan Rosenthal

Mycoskie had an apartment that was large enough to start a business in, and his roommates were both legally and gainfully employed during the day, which left him ample hours of privacy. In the book, Mycoskie tells the reader that a garage, spare room, or basement can serve the same purpose — but what about the hopeful entrepreneur who is living in a homeless shelter, or who is sharing a small and overcrowded living space with friends and family who are unemployed, or only working part time, or whose minimum wage is barely enough to help make rent? Out of luck, I guess.

I guess they could always work out of an old RV in the desert.

His attitude toward interns really bothered me, too. Internship is an interesting way of reinforcing class divisions. First off, since most internships are unpaid, that means that only people who can work for free can afford to do them. Interns need to be in a situation where they don’t have to worry about paying for rent, food, or utilities. This reinforces class divisions, because if someone can’t afford to work for free, then they can’t take an internship, which makes it significantly more difficult to build the necessary experience and networking contacts that lead to success in their chosen industry.

Second, he literally justifies not paying his interns because he made work “fun” by offering bocce ball tournaments and occasional catered lunches. He actually says that interns with full stomachs are happy and creative interns. I couldn’t help thinking that the interns might also have full stomachs if you paid them a living wage instead of catering lunches. I mean, catered lunches are great, don’t get me wrong. They’re a fantastic good will gesture for employers to provide for paid employees. 

Be nice if your boss paid you enough to eat, wouldn’t it Jack?

Third, Myscoskie was incredibly dismissive of the applicants who chose not to join the company. Specifically, he says,

“Many people applied, excited at the prospect of learning so much … but when they showed up at the company headquarters — aka my apartment — for many, the excitement quickly evaporated. … I had to usher [prospective interns] past a somber-looking, barbed wire fence. Then I sat them down at the kitchen table where they might see the remains of that morning’s breakfast tacos next to a few pairs of shoes and a bunch of papers. Those who had pictured a more traditional internship — a big company filled with young professionals — didn’t pan out. But a few applicants recognized that this was the chance to get in on the ground floor …” pg. 71-72, Start Something

You hear how his language has an implicit negative value judgment toward interns who chose what they perceived as a more secure path over working for a guy who didn’t have the basic professional courtesy to clean up his apartment before holding interviews? His personal views are his, and that’s fine. The problem is that by sharing those views in a best-selling book about his “groundbreaking” message of corporate responsibility, he is now sending the message to other potential entrepreneurs and interns invested in corporate justice that a “good” intern is the one who takes a chance on the unknown. The flip side of that message is that boring, unimaginative, and greedy interns are the ones who think of their own future and security first, instead of leaping headfirst into a unprofessional and sketchy situation.

So far, Mycoskie has advised readers to work for free from home and to exploit interns for free labor. Next, he advises the reader to have an “office supply party,” which at first blush sounds frugal and reasonable … but this, too, presumes a certain class status. Depending on who your friends and family are, your party to collect office supply donations could end with a collection of computers, printers, tablets, file cabinets, and computer desks — or it could end with a handful of pens and pencils and some old three ring binders and peechee folders. In a similar vein, he also advises the reader to use their contacts to get freebies in order to “stay frugal.”

“TOMs … [coined] new terms for free stuff: a free lunch became a “frunch,” as in “I got a great frunch today.” “Frinsurance” is free insurance, “frinstallations” are free installations, “fregal” is free legal advice, and “frent” is free rent. Still more — “fromotion”: free promotion. “Frar”: a free car rental. “Framples”: free samples. And whether we got what we wanted or not, this mentality helped keep us frugal.” pg 85, Start Something.

Now, I’m all for frugality and freebies, that’s not my issue. My frustration here is with the blatant ignorance about the fact that the privileges and resources he is accessing to get free stuff are not available to everyone.

That’s why Mycoskie’s assumption that anyone can access things like free insurance (?!?) or free rent or free legal advice is really surprising to me, and very much highlights the assumptions he carries as he moves through the world. Mycoskie comes from a strata of society where he can ask for and reasonably expect free car rentals. To him, a lack of resources is having to choose between catering lunch for his interns or renting a car. To many Americans, a lack of resources is not having the requisite license and credit card to qualify for a car rental.

Eh, if they’re hungry, let the poors eat cake.

Mycoskie also tells the reader to access their friends and family in order to “grow” their business, but I can’t help thinking that the contacts he’s had access to and the contacts I have access to are two very different demographics of people.  That’s not to say the average lower middle class or P&WC American can’t be successful; I’m just saying that it’s a world of difference when someone has friends know the fashion editor at Vogue instead of a handful of obscure bloggers.

Annette Lareau’s research showed how the resources available to parents as they raise their kids reproduce class privileges and resource allocation by how well they prepared kids to move into educational and employment systems geared to the biases of middle class values. This affects adult networking and employment/ entrepreneurial success, too, obviously. When a job seeker begins looking for a job in their chosen field, it helps to know people in that field, and when an entrepreneur is starting a business, it helps to know people who can promote it effectively.

Consider this: Right now, teaching sociology and history at the college level are extremely high competition fields with lots of very qualified candidates and few positions. These are difficult fields to break into. In one of my college classes, we recently had a substitute — someone who is pursuing her graduate degree. When our regular professor returned, she encouraged us to write feedback letters that our substitute could include in her portfolio, as she will soon be completing her education and entering the job market. This soon-to be professor has a powerful and highly-respected ally in her corner who is helping her build her portfolio, notifying her of employment opportunities, and whose name is an impressive reference.

In contrast, consider a man I met last year who runs a business focused around self-defense. This man builds individualized weapons based on his unique designs, has written and self-published an e-book, and has a small local self-defense business. His business is self-sustaining, but his message and products aren’t reaching the wider market he wants them to reach. He tried to get positive reviews and attention toward his self-published book, but didn’t have the contacts in the right places to create the level of buzz he wanted. The main problem here is in networking access — this is a person who has built his limited success by networking with people in the same social class as himself, with similar self-defense and outdoorsmanship interests. When he wanted to expand his reach by publishing a book, he found himself limited by his lack of contacts in the publishing industry.

Networking does affect employment. This casually-accepted fact of life was the topic of a 2010 discussion paper, Friends’ Networks and Job Finding Rates, where the authors were nonetheless able to show a strong correlation between having employed friends and success in job searches. The generally accepted reason I have heard cited by HR experts is that employers prefer to hire someone who has been vouched for by an existing employee, rather than taking a chance on a random stranger.

Mycoskie’s advice for potential entrepreneurs doesn’t take these sorts of class differences in networking into account. Another thing he doesn’t take into account is differing environments and travel capabilities according to socioeconomic status. For example, he tells the reader to “take inspiration from their everyday environment.”

It’s an idea that sounds awesome on the surface … but then you stop and think about the fact that Steve Jobs was inspired by his travels in India, and Blake Mycoskie was inspired while traveling through Argentina, and Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook as a student at Harvard — and you realize these guys are moving through a world that most people just live vicariously through in the movies.

“8 Great Places to Visit In Argentina” — a travel blog.

Consider the findings by a recent University of Michigan Study that pollution rates differ according to racial and socioeconomic class differences, reported on at Liberty Voice News:

“The study revealed that, on average, a majority of low-income nonwhites had more pollution exposure than did higher-income whites. Low-income people inhale 10 percent more NO2 than everybody else. Poor white Americans breathe 27 percent more NO2 than wealthy Americans.”

Mycoskie can try and tell me he’s just an ordinary Joe with a good idea and a go-get-’em attitude all he likes, but the reality is that his bucket of “start-up” tools and the bucket of “start-up” tools 80% of Americans hold are about as similar as an electric screwdriver with multiple magnetic attachments of different sizes and a basic Phillips. Sure, they’ll both get the job done — but we all know that the electric screwdriver will get it done faster and more efficiently than that old rusty Phillips.

What is the best tool for the job?

What is the best tool for the job?

In personal practice

Most of the middle class networking my husband and I had access to was through the LDS church, and when we officially cut ties with the church, we pretty much burned our networking bridges. It’s interesting, because my middle class upbringing emphasized the value of relying on networking and personal contacts. It never occurred to me that accessing your network for professional advancement could be considered unfair or cheating.

When I married John, I was introduced to an entirely new perspective. For the longest time, I thought it was unique to John — then I started pursuing my Associate of Arts at a small college in a poverty-ridden county of low socioeconomic status. Many of my classmates came from poor and working class backgrounds, and I learned firsthand that John’s early attitude toward networking was very common among people from poor and working class backgrounds.

Middle class values view networking as just the way the world works, a necessary resource to succeed. Networking is how you self-promote, learn about better job opportunities, and get your name in for promotions. It’s just one more tool in the toolbox, but it’s not seen as unfair or “cheating”.

Poor and working class values tend to see networking as a popularity contest. Instead of being a necessary and sometimes annoying aspect of succeeding in the workplace, it’s seen as exclusionary behavior where who you know trumps your work ethic. The dislike is to the point where I’ve seen people intentionally eschew networking opportunities at company-sponsored events where attendance is optional, because they view it as “kissing ass.”

The thing is, both attitudes are right — networking is the way the business world works, and it’s not necessarily cheating or unfair to have access to interview for positions or promotions just because someone put in a good word for you. That’s sort of the point of references, after all. But it’s also not fair when someone is advanced beyond their skill level, or retained as an employee despite flagrant violations of company policy, because of who they know. It’s fine to get your foot in the door by having good references, but employees should be hired or promoted based on their actual capabilities, not who they know.

The self-reinforcing nature of socioeconomic class through child development, education, and networking capabilities means that something like this will happen all too often: Pat and Sam apply for the same position at Company. After graduating high school, Pat couldn’t afford to go to college, so s/he developed hir skils as an independent freelancer. S/he built hir expertise, portfolio and skillset over the years, and is more than qualified in real-world skills for the position. Sam graduated high school at the same time, but spent the past 10 years acquiring hir Masters or graduate degree and working unpaid internships. Sam has little real-world experiencing in performing the position, but was recommended by a friend in management at Company to apply for the position. What Sam does have is a highly-valued degree from a respectable college, references from contacts made while interning in the field, and a friend on the inside of the Company, speaking highly of Sam’s character and skills. Which one do you think will get the position? Pat, who has more practical experience, or Sam, who has the right type of paperwork?

This is why I’m a fan of working interviews. Instead of having the candidate come in and sell themselves to HR based on their degrees and references, I think companies could get a much better feel for how well a prospective employee fits by having them come in and work on a temporary basis for 1-3 days, for starting wage reimbursement. This would show the employer who has the actual skills necessary to succeed at the job, and who just has a really slick resume. This would also benefit the prospective employee by reimbursing them for the working interview.

Education Access | Socioeconomic Class and Child Development

This is the second in a series of posts on child development and social class, inspired by the intersecting events of my class reading and some recent interactions in my personal life. Also, this is what my final project for my American Families class is on, so I need to know this material inside and out! 

II.  Education access

Public schools are funded by property taxes. If you live in a wealthy neighborhood, your school has things like up-to-date textbooks and free computers or iPads and eReaders for the students.

Kindergartners at Westside School work on their math with iPads.

In a well-funded school district, there is money to hire highly-qualified teachers and set up smaller classrooms. Fewer students per classroom means teachers can focus more on teaching than discipline. In high schools, better funding means affordable extracurricular activities, AP courses, and college preparation assistance, but higher quality programs that are better funded and staffed.

Olympia High School students.

Olympia High School students.

If you live in a poorer area, the schools will not only lack access to the aforementioned benefits of well-funded education, but will probably also have issues with overcrowded classrooms. The teachers won’t necessarily be bad teachers, although it’s definitely true that it usually shakes out with the better-funded schools having a full staff of excellent teachers while poorly-funded schools will have a staff with a few excellent teachers and lots of apathetic or poor teachers.

Barely amusing as a movie, even worse when it's real life and your kid in the classroom.

Barely amusing as a movie, even worse when it’s real life and your kid in the classroom.

Another issue with schools in low-income areas is busing. In higher income areas, there will be more buses that are in better condition. Additionally, the strain on busing is reduced by parents who commute their kids to and from school, and by kids who get their licenses and carpool their friends.

Carpooling with friends, right?

Low income school districts, with their restricted funding, often have problems meeting the transportation needs of their students. Not only are there fewer buses, but the buses may be in disrepair. Parents who work odd shifts, or multiple jobs, are unavailable to ferry their kids to and from school on a regular basis. Neighborhoods and busy streets present danger for kids who are close enough to walk or bicycle to school. For older kids who might be able to drive to school, the prohibitive cost of driver’s education programs has made what was once considered an American right of passage into an an elite privilege.

The divisions in class and education are much more than the quality of the materials, staff, and transportation, though. For one, there’s a class difference in perception about education. Middle class and affluent (MC&A) families view college as an expected part in the progression of life. This assumption permeates every family-educational interaction:

  • Language: MC&A parents speak in a language of support and expectation regarding higher education — it’s not “if” their child goes to college, it’s “when.”
  • Behavior/ Support: MC&A parents will help their kids with homework (and monitor that the homework gets done and turned it). They’ll praise high test scores and arrange for tutoring or extra attention/ assistance when a child is having trouble in a subject. They engage with teachers, discuss their children’s progress, and agitate on their behalf to change classroom schedules or teachers that they feel are detrimental to their child’s learning. They encourage their kids to sign up for AP classes, get involved in extracurricular activities, and to retake college-entry tests if their score (even if passing) is not high enough to be competitive.
  • Teen Employment: Most parents view a teen job with approval, seeing it as an opportunity for a kid to learn responsibility and how to manage money. MC&A parents generally encourage their kids to hold jobs — in the summer, when they won’t interfere with schoolwork. MC&A parents might also encourage their kids to take internships (paid or unpaid), or other positions that look good on a college resume (if they don’t outright arrange it).
  • College Application Assistance: As mentioned in the previous entry, MC&A parents usually possess at least one higher education degree, which means they’ve been through the college application process and have an idea of the requirements. MC&A parents are able to use their own knowledge and experience with the system to guide their children through it and set them up with the best possible chance of success.

Lareau recounts these behaviors within middle class and affluent families in her text, and I have definitely seen these actions and attitudes reflected in my own family of origin.

Family celebrating graduation.

Family celebrating graduation.

The poor and working class (P&WC) individuals I know recount completely different experiences and attitudes from their parents. For example:

  • Language: College is expensive, and just getting more expensive and out of reach every day, but this is a fairly recent reality for middle class families who are beginning to question whether the debt to earnings potential ratio is even worth it. P&WC parents, however, have long viewed college as expensively out of reach. In Lareau’s observations of P&WC families, the parents rarely talked about the possibility of college, and when they did they couched the discussion in terms of “maybe” and “if everything works out“.
  • Behavior/ Support: P&WC parents are less likely to actively help their children with homework, and in some cases do not even monitor to make sure there is homework assigned, or that it is done. When low test scores occur, P&WC parents lack the time or resources to arrange for tutoring and intensive study programs. P&WC parents usually react to bad teachers, class selections, or schedules by advising their kids to suck it up and deal with it.
  • Teen Employment: High school drop out rates in low income schools are disproportionately high. There are a variety of reasons for this, but one factor is teen employment — a trend reflected in Lareau’s study. P&WC kids usually start working as soon as they can get a job. They use their income both to purchase the items their parents can’t afford to buy them, and to contribute to the household income, and they work during the school year. Often their work schedules conflict with study time or extracurricular opportunities. It’s not uncommon for P&WC kids to drop out of school in order to focus on their job.
  • College Application Assistance: P&WC usually do not have any college experience — in fact, P&WC individuals are more likely to be high school dropouts, or hold only a GED — so they lack an understanding and experience of the system that would prepare them to effectively guide their children through the process. Even when P&WC parents actively encourage their kids to attend college, they’re often unaware of the best actions to effectively facilitate that end.

Lareau gives examples in her text of each of these interactions, and the individuals I know who were raised in poor and working class households recount similar experiences and family dynamics. In some cases, additional deterrents were provided — for example, some have related stories of parents who discouraged their college aspirations by dismissing it as too expensive, warning their kids they would not help with the cost, and even mocking their kids’ attempts to discuss it.

In personal practice

John and I don’t really disagree about Kidling’s education or future at all, to be honest. We both support Kidling in whatever future he chooses. Our primary goal is to set Kidling up with the skills and resources so that whether he chooses to get certified in a skilled trade, go to college, or make his way in another manner, he is able to do so.

The biggest difference John and I have is in our valuations of higher education. John sees a college degree as essentially a really expensive piece of paper that is unfortunately necessary for entry into the white-collar workforce. Since neither the possession nor lack of a college education is an accurate indication of an individual’s intelligence level or work ethic, John thinks employers should not place so much value on a diploma unless it indicates the person has been trained in a specialized field (medicine, law, chemistry, etc.). To him, a college degree is little more than indication of someone’s financial ability to pursue a degree and/or take on massive debt.

This one costs $8.95, but it's still worthless.

This one costs $8.95, but it’s still worthless.

This used to be a source of conflict between us. My dad was a lawyer, and my mom was a political science major. Three of my four siblings acquired BA’s or higher. I place a high value on college education. My husband’s parents were both high school dropouts who discouraged him from his desire to attend college. When he echoed their opinions and devalued the worth of not only my college dreams, but (by association) the achievements of my parents and siblings, I felt silenced and angry and demeaned and unhappy.

Eventually, though, I learned to discard my knee-jerk reaction of defensiveness and actually listen to what John was saying, and I realized that while some of his devaluation of a college diploma did indeed come from his working-class upbringing, some of it was also valid. The modern higher education system is breaking down. I wish I could disagree with him, but the lifetime cost of college too often exceeds the earning potentials. Ironically, as I’ve shifted more toward the stance seeing a college diploma as an expensive but ultimately meaningless piece of paper, John has also shifted his views. Now he reluctantly acknowledges the value (to employers) of a college diploma, and he recognizes the educational and personal fulfillment gained by attending college.

Evergreen State College

Evergreen State College

Don’t get me wrong — I’m glad I went to college. It was a great opportunity, and I’ve learned a lot about American law and history. I feel like I’ve expanded my boundaries as an individual, and I’ve met some amazing people. I would love to keep going to college. I think it would be awesome to be a college professor, or a law librarian, and my professors have urged me to apply to law school or a graduate program. If it was remotely affordable, I might be willing to take on that stress. As it stands, though, I’m not willing to go through the 5-10 years of full-time work and study necessary to acquire my doctorate just so I can graduate in my 40s with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt.

And if I’m completely honest, I don’t feel any more or less prepared for my career goals than I did back in 2007, before I started on my journey through higher education. Honestly, almost everything I learned over the past few years I could have learned from a really intensive and well-put-together reading list. I took perhaps a total of four quarters that taught me new skills which may or may not be applicable in the workplace: My media studies class, my journalism classes, and the legal research courses. But now when I apply for jobs, I’ll have a Bachelor’s Degree on my resume instead of high school diploma, and that means something to employers.

You win!

You win!

College education has shifted in focus. It’s no longer primarily about educating oneself, expanding boundaries, and gaining a broader understanding of the world. Now it’s a high-debt version of a white collar trade certification. Lareau addresses issues of degree valuation, as well. She says,

“Working class parents and youth, for example, used the term ‘college’ to include both proprietary vocational training programs and research universities. Unlike middle-class parents and kids, these families had a vague understanding of the complexities of higher-education systems. Among educators, a GED is widely seen as inferior to a high school diploma … some consider it more of a certificate than a diploma. Similarly, a bachelor’s degree is accorded much higher status than a high school degree. The working-class and poor families did not have this kind of hierarchical notion of the value of a diploma. For them, all diplomas were equal.” (Lareau, 291)

She goes on to recount the disappointment of a working class father when his son dropped out of high school, and the pride and joy the father felt when the son later completed his GED. It’s a touching, although kind of sad moment. It’s touching because the dad is so proud of his son, but it’s kind of sad because it’s just a GED. I admit that I feel awful saying that, and this is an area where clearly my class privilege has colored my opinion of the value of a GED … but I do have a really hard time seeing it as something worth getting excited about, and I’m kind of ashamed I feel that way.

I think the degree valuation Lareau describes is a different perspective from what John and I have, though. John and I understand the hierarchical nature of degrees, that’s not the issue here — the issue is in terms of cost-benefit analysis. Although attending college is of value to potential employers, and it is personally and intellectually fulfilling, the expense is disproportionate to the value, especially in terms of liberal arts degrees.

Parenting Styles According to Class | Socioeconomic Class and Child Development

lareau book

Recently, I read Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau for class, which she based on information  and observations gathered during an ethnographic longitudinal study of several middle class, working class, and poor families. From this study, she came to some interesting conclusions about class-based parenting styles.

Now, the study does have some limitations, and I’m not claiming it’s the be all and end all of studies examining the effects of child development. The constraints of the study limited her somewhat. She didn’t go into depth on the effects of factors such as race, gender, adoption, LGBT parents or children, Army parents, or single parents. This study solely looks at the effect the financial situation of the families and education level of the parents has on the upbringing of the child.

Family of origin, 1982

Family of origin, 1982

I found it really interesting on a personal level. I was raised white collar middle class and I married a guy raised blue collar working class, but a much larger factor in my growing awareness of the unspoken class divisions in America came with the 2008 financial meltdown.

The median U.S. Household income was $51,371 in 2013, which continues the trend of decreasing U.S. household incomes.  In real terms, this effects class mobility. Parental income has been a fairly reliable predictor of the adult income of the child, and that still tends to hold true for extremely affluent or extremely poor families. In terms of class mobility, however, there is now a “downward” trend in terms of real income where kids who were raised middle class are not out-earning (or even earning the equivalent of) their parents.

My husband and I identify as middle class. Since middle class is a very subjective term, that doesn’t really tell you much. What I mean when I say “middle class” is that we enjoy a comfortable standard of living on a single-earner income. We can afford not only the basic necessities and bills of life, but enjoyable extras as well, such as annual family vacations and weekend trips. We are also able to fund and maintain hobbies that require equipment upkeep and maintenance, and we can sign our child up for extracurricular activities.

Silverwood, 2013

Silverwood, 2013

We do not own a home or new cars (we do own used cars), so if someone else defines middle class as expensive property ownership, then they might disagree with my defining us as middle class.

We live in a suburban neighborhood where we associate with people from both middle class and working class upbringings, and I’ve noticed that their parenting decisions seem to reflect these backgrounds regardless of their individual family income situation.

I.  Child Development

Lareau found (and supported with information from government research) that poor and working class families (P&WC) engage in what she calls “natural development,” while middle class and affluent families (MC&A) engage in what she terms “concerted cultivation.”

Natural Development


Features of natural development include:

  • An emphasis on respect and deference toward adults.
  • Adults view childrens activities and interests as existing in a separate sphere; child’s play.
  • Adults tend to engage in directive-based communication with kids (e.g. Did you do your homework? Empty the trash. Clean your room. Where are you going? Clean your plate.)
  • Corporal punishment (spanking, hitting with a belt, etc.)
  • Extensive kinship relationships relationships (daily  or weekly interactions with siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins).
  • Lack of trust for what Lareau calls “institutional authorities,” which is basically institutions that are steeped in white-collar values and assumptions (like schools and hospitals).
  • Parents make less eye contact when talking to kids.

P&WC kids tend to have high distrust for white collar institutions, because their parents do. The parents don’t advocate as strongly on behalf of their kids as MC&A parents do — not out of a lack of love, but because of different communication styles.

To be blunt, P&WC parents tend to respond to teachers and doctors as though they’re the experts and cannot be questioned — the same way they teach their children to respond to adults. And just like kids talk smack about the authority figures in their lives when no adults are around, P&WC parents tend to disagree with the conclusions of doctors and teachers in their home, rather than to the face of the “expert.” Lareau’s research showed that teachers were often frustrated with P&WC parents because they didn’t seem engaged with their kids’ education, and did not participate in parent volunteer programs or frequently attend conferences and school activities.

Another way P&WC parents undermine the respect for adults that they’re trying to instill in their kids is by explicitly telling them to disobey school rules on the playground. School rules ban fighting on the playground, and kids are advised to report to teachers or staff when they’re being harassed or bullied. P&WC parents will specifically advise their kids to ignore the rules and fight back to defend themselves, and they will even go so far as to praise a child who is expelled for fighting in self-defense.

Since corporal punishment styles don’t fit in with the middle class/ institutional white-collar ethics that permeate schools and medical establishments, P&WC parents are afraid their children will be reported for abuse if they show up with bruises or mention that their parent spanked them with a belt. The combined effect is that P&WC kids are taught by both parental example and explicit lessons to defer to authority figures and not question or negotiate on their own behalf, and they learn not to trust institutions permeated with middle class values.

The directive language and lack of eye contact when communicating means that P&WC kids are at a disadvantage when they go on interviews and whatnot as adults. Also, P&WC parents don’t explicitly teach their kids certain social skills, like the correct handshake pressure or how to balance a full schedule. All these means that P&WC kids lack some important tools for navigating situations and institutions permeated in white collar middle class values.

Roseanne, 1988 — working class family.

On the plus side, P&WC kids navigate peer interactions and free time really well. They having stronger sibling and kinship relationships, and often consider siblings to be not only family, but friends. P&WC kids are also better at mediating peer disagreements.

Concerted Cultivation

Parent-teacher conferences, 6th grade

Parent-teacher conferences, 6th grade

Features of the concerted cultivation style typical to MC&A families include:

  • Scheduling extracurricular activities with the express intention of enriching your child (sometimes so many activities that the schedules conflict, and the child must choose which activity to prioritize).
  • Encouraging kids to question adults, negotiate on their own behalf, and to project an air of confidence.
  • Kinship relationships that tend to be more distant and focused mainly around special occasions like birthdays or holidays.
  • Punishment tends to be verbal punishment or time outs/ loss of privileges.
  • Parents make eye contact when talking to their kids.

MC&A parents went through the gamut of middle class institutions. They usually have at least a Bachelor of Arts degree, and they view teachers and doctors as peers rather than experts to be deferred to. They will question conclusions, look for second opinions, and argue or apply pressure to get the best results for their kids. Lareau’s research showed that while teacher’s appreciated that the parents were involved and engaged, they were also irritated at the lack of value the parents seem to assign to their education and skills.

MC&A kids are taught that they are entitled to adult attention. Their parents specifically teach them to question their teachers and medical professionals. They are encouraged to debate, defend their views, negotiate on their behalf, and question the “why” of adult directives. Curiosity is encouraged.

The net effect is that kids are better prepared for navigating white collar institutions. The familiarity with institutional processes helps them when it comes to college preparation and application. The confidence and eye contact help them in interviews and job searches, and the negotiation skills help in both academic and employment settings.

The Cosby Show ran from 1984 and depicted a middle class family.

The Cosby Show, 1984 — middle class family.

The downside is that depending on the personality of the child and how far the parents take it, the kids might not be prepared for the realities of adult life. Their parents have cushioned them from financial concerns and made them think that everyone is interested or invested in their perspective — also known as “helicopter parenting.” Another problem with concerted cultivation is when there’s a financial downtown — middle class kids are raised with a specific set of skills and values intended to help them succeed in a white-collar workforce, and when they are handed a socio-economic situation where they need to succeed in and value blue-collar labor and service work, they have difficulty adjusting.

The trend of concerted cultivation is fairly recent, actually — according to Lareau, it came to prominence through the 1980s and 1990s. Middle class kids of the post war generation were still taught to stay out of sight, out of mind. This is interesting, because it means the rise of concerted cultivation parallels the transition to a white-collar workforce.

In personal practice/ experience

Goofing off with family, 1999

Goofing off with family, 1999

These class-based styles of relating to institutional authorities can definitely create parenting conflicts. The clearest example I can think of actually comes from my own childhood. I was about 17, and my curfew was 10:30. One night, I was out with my friends and I wanted to stay out later, so I called my dad and negotiated my curfew. I argued that because I’d done my homework and completed all my chores, I should get to stay out until 11:30. After some debating back and forth, my dad agreed. When I hung up, triumphant in my success, I turned to see my friends staring at me open-mouthed with shock. In response to my confusion, I was told, “That was so disrespectful. If I tried to talk to my dad like that, he’d whup my ass. I would never argue with my dad.”

Now, these boys were the children of a single parent who had a criminal record and a patchy employment history. The three of them lived in an RV on the back lot of the workshop their dad was currently helping out at — but at 17, it didn’t occur to me that our financial differences mattered, or affected how we interacted with our parents. I thought I was showing respect by talking to my dad honestly and forthrightly. They thought I was being disrespectful by expecting to be treated as an equal.

As an adult, I’ve noticed this trend repeating in my son’s friends. Some of the kids are extremely deferential and so completely respectful around adults — “Yes, ma’am, no ma’am,” type behavior, that it comes across as fear-induced bowing and scraping (to me).

Eye contact is a learned behavior.

On the flip side, some of the kids have a sort of … expectation, I guess, that all adults will be fascinated by and interested in every aspect of their lives. Sometimes this expectation is so pronounced that these kids will frequently interrupt adult conversations without any negative feedback, or they will expect everyone in the room to drop everything and pay attention when they are showing off an interest.



Because of the cross-class difference in my own marriage, my husband and I have really tried to reach a middle ground with Kidling.  I don’t know if we have, but that’s what we’re trying to cultivate. I encourage him to always ask why, to share his interests with us, and to go to authority figures when he’s dealing with a peer situation he can’t resolve on his own — but we also teach him not to interrupt adult conversations, not to dominate the conversation, and to try every possible peaceful solution to peer conflicts before approaching adults for help.