A "Tough" Proposal – An Approach to Alleviating Poverty, 2 (Liberal and Conservative Approaches)

This is the second of 3 posts that I plan to do regarding alleviating poverty.  This will not be comprehensive in any way shape or form, but aims at doing some critical reflection on the situation we now find ourselves in as American citizens.  Everything I write is an interaction with a book titled: Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America; by Paul Tough (thus the title).  Specifically this will be based on chapter two of this book titled: “Unequal Childhoods.”  The first post was concerned with the overarching biblical summons to act on behalf of the poor.  This post will now engage in dialogue with Tough’s ideas…

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Post II: Based on Tough’s essay, what are the similarities / differences in liberal and conservative answers to why people are poor?  How are both lacking and what does he propose instead?


According to Tough, the liberal version of why people are poor is mostly a systemic issue.  In other words, the conditions in which the people live in the ghettos and poor neighborhoods of America is what keeps people in poverty.  He states: “This belief holds that it is the very structure of the American economy that denies poor people sufficient income, and so the appropriate and just solution is to counter those economic forces by providing the poor with what they lack: food, housing, and money” (24).  On the opposite pole is the conservative perspective that basically puts accountability on the free individual. He states: “…American poverty is…caused by the bad decisions of poor people themselves and often perpetuated by the very programs designed to help relieve its effects…  what the poor need is not handouts, but moral guidance and strict rules” (ibid).  From Tough’s perspective both of these polarities are lacking.  On the liberal side of the spectrum, Tough would point out that after years of government funding based on perceived and felt needs, the statistics of poverty have not improved as much as the optimism of liberalist ideals would have hoped.  On the conservative side of the spectrum, Tough would be quick to demonstrate that it is not simply a morality boost that people in poverty need, you can make moral choices and still remain poor, what is needed is to determine what is causing the cycles to repeat generation after generation.

Tough, who is following the lead of Canada, believes that the solution to poverty and the generational cycle of the inner cities must be addressed by focusing on the children who are growing up in impoverished households.  What became evident through many of the studies that he evaluated was that middle class children were often more advanced in the areas needed to be “successful” by American standards than were lower-class children.  Heckman’s assessment of The Bell Curve demonstrated the following: “They are poor, this evidence suggested, not because they are genetically flawed, and not because the system denies them opportunities, but because they lack certain skills” (36).  In other words, Tough believed that based on this evidence the approach taken must be one that focuses on the children and giving them equal opportunity to acquire the skills needed to end the cycles of their upbringing.  For him, and others who take this approach, it does not mean simply ending all government programs that help keep families out of excessive poverty (such as welfare, medi-cal, etc.), but directing such energies to give the children opportunities to acquire the skills they will need in life.  This is called the “human-capital” perspective.  Tough gives a great summary of this transition:

One advantage of this new perspective was that it took the poverty debate out of the realm of morality… and into the realm of science.  Political opinions on poverty had always seemed to be based mostly on gut feelings…  The human-capital perspective, by contrast, said, Forget for a moment how different policies make you feel.  Instead let’s examine what different policies and interventions actually accomplish (39).

Geoffery Canada's "Harlem Children's Zone"

Although the “human-capital” view is one that is full of potential, Tough’s article ends with a great challenge.  The way that children develop cognitively within the household demonstrates that lower-class children have a disadvantage.  The kids in this situation hear less words that are uttered to them directly as they attempt to build their vocabulary.  Not only so, but Farah’s study indicates that such children typically lag in four areas: language, long-term memory, “working memory,” and “cognitive control” (see 46 for more details).  The challenge is to now discern how to change the way poorer households operate.

What thoughts does this raise for you regarding how to break cycles of poverty?

  • Janie

    Hi Kurt, I’m not sure this can be viewed as other than a moral issue. The breakdown of the family puts children at risk. And I’m not sure that all the good intentions can make of for the lack of a father in the home.

  • http://findingmeaningin.blogspot.com/ Tucker

    I think Tough’s insight is helpful, but doesn’t really delve deeply enough (or perhaps he does in later chapters). It is one thing to point out that poverty is perpetuated by a lack of skills. But why do children of lower income families lack these skills? That question, unfortunately, invites the same polarized political answers.

    Liberals will likely blame the injustice of public school systems being funded primarily by local property tax, so that schools in poor urban areas are severely underfunded while schools in affluent suburban areas are overfunded, as well as systemic family issues. Single parent homes, or homes where both parents need to work 60 hours per week to make ends meet simply don’t have the time to and resources to help kids with homework, read to them, etc.

    Conservatives meanwhile will cite the bad choices within the family structures- lazy parenting/using the television as a bay-sitter, having too many children, and the high rates of substance abuse in lower income people (for example).

    Having been raised in a low income, single parent family with generational substance abuse issues, I think both of these positions have an element of truth. The systemic and personal causes of poverty tend to form a kind of feedback loop that perpetuates the problems. Low income people see societal systems that devalue them and offer no opportunity, and in response they give up hope and make poor choices, like turning to alcohol to cope. Meanwhile, the voting public and the officiants of those systems see the bad choices and dismiss the low income people as lost-causes, such as when teachers and school administrators simply give up trying to teach the ADD black child with anger issues how to read.

    This feedback loop is, I think, a manifestation of a problem whose root encompasses and yet transcends personal and systemic issues. I believe this is a spiritual problem. Both the systems and the individuals caught up in them are subject to the tyranny of Sin and Death. The death of hope, death of imagination, death of relationships. And as believers our hope and victory in the face of Death is the resurrection of Christ.

    Living out the resurrection faithfully will mean, in part, calling both systems and individuals to act more justly. It will mean calling both parents and school administrators, and the voting public, to revive their sense of hope for the future of those low-income children and of those children’s dignity (and their own). But it will mean more than that too. It will mean taking up the task to open our churches to those children, sit down with them ourselves to read a book together, to invite them to a meal, to offer them grace and compassion even as we know that will mean reshaping the culture of our churches.

  • Jeff Zimm

    I really enjoyed your comments Tucker and I think i tend to agree with you in the area of restoring hope and life (which is all rooted in Christ) in all things to kids that grow up in poverty.

    I am really out of touch with the world of poverty (sad to say). I have friends that serve faithfully in communities of great need and hear about what its’ like from them but i have little hands on experience. So forgive me if this question is naive but I’m curious, why is it that the children growing up in impoverished households have so few words spoken to them? Why is it that they grow up without certain skills? Is it all rooted in the parents and/or household’s lack of interest in their children?

  • http://findingmeaningin.blogspot.com/ Tucker

    Hey Jeff- I am no sociologist, so I can’t cite statistics or anything of that nature. But I can speak from experience, both my own as a child and the experiences of the children my church community serves (Wesley UMC has a great ministry to the children of the El Dorado Parks neighborhood).

    I think there are a number of factors. First, low income families are disproportionately single-parent. Which means there is simply less adult attention to go around. That problem is compounded if the remaining parent works a job with a low hourly wage (which they probably do), because they have to work longer hours to make ends meet. It only stands to reason that a single parent working 60 hours per week can’t give as much attention to their child as a family with one parent working 40 hours and the other staying home (those examples are the extremes, there is a continuum in between).

    Second, as I mentioned above there can be kind of resignation among poor and otherwise disenfranchised persons, a death of hope. When most parents are playing peek-a-boo with their infants, reading to their toddler, helping their younger child with homework, etc. they are doing so because they believe the child has a future. Whether consciously or not, when a parent reads to their child or spends time with them, they are acting on the dream of that child growing up to be successful and happy.
    In contrast, when you have been told your entire life that there is no hope, that poverty and despair are your station, that you are worthless and stupid, you lose that sense of hope, that ability to dream of a good life for your child. The assumption develops that your child, who has come from you, is basically like you. And that all the things which have kept you poor will keep them poor too. When that’s the case, it’s hard to see the point in reading to your child. In fact, if that has been your life, you may not even be able to read well enough to teach a child how to.

    But third, like I said there is a feedback loop. All that despair and hopelessness which comes from systems goes back into them. The child mentioned above shows up to kindergarten way behind her peers developmentally and emotionally, and usually ends up either withdrawing and avoiding attention or acting out. And teachers and school administrators are human; it is much easier and more gratifying to focus on the child who “gets it”, makes quick progress, and says please and thank you than to devote energy to the poor kid. Children who withdraw and isolate themselves go overlooked, children who act out are punished by being removed from peers and teachers (time-outs all the way up to In School Suspension).

    Finally, think of all the other places middle or upper class children normally interact with adults. Church, scouts, little league, camp, etc. Many of those have registration fees (which a poor single parent couldnt afford) and require transportation (which the parent can’t provide because they are at work at the time) and all of them require hope.

  • http://findingmeaningin.blogspot.com/ Tucker

    For a powerful and gut-wrenchingly truthful look at the cycle of poverty and despair, I recommend the move Precious. It says things that I don’t have words for.

    • Jeff Zimm

      Thanks for your insight on this Tuck, that all makes a lot of sense. What i’m hearing is that a lot of the poverty cycle has to do with mindset, such as hope for the future etc… And it seems like the role of the christian community first and foremost is to restore hope. I heard a youth pastor say one time that a friend of his (another youth pastor) told him “i tell it like it is” and then he responded “that’s fine, as long as you then tell them how it could be”. I think that phrase may be a great way to sum up our involvement in these types of communities.

      My only question to come out of your comments is this: When a single parent has to work 60 hours a week they obviously get less time with their child. And during this time, I’m sure the child is being lumped into a large daycare where they don’t’ get a lot of one on one attention. But what about the parents that may be on welfare and home all the time with their child? How do we hold them accountable to give attention to their children and help them develop? They would have an advantage that the working parent would not.

  • http://findingmeaningin.blogspot.com/ Tucker

    Hey jeff- thanks for the ongoing conversation here. I am enjoying this exchange.

    I do want to clarify a point- I did not mean to say that the mindset of hopelessness is the only problem. There are also very practical, systemic forces that perpetuate poverty. The main problem, as I see it, is how those two things interact and feed each other.

    Your question about parents who receive welfare brings up a whole range of issues. First, I think that middle and upper class people tend to overestimate how many people live exclusively on welfare. It is much more common to receive some aid from social programs to supplement your income. For example, a parent will receive food stamps and maybe a rent subsidy, but still have to work to pay the remaining rent, the PG and E bill, buy their kid clothes, and all of the “grocery” items not covered by food stamps (toiletries, laundry detergent, toilet paper, etc). Too often we see this image of the “welfare queens” living in relative luxury while doing no work at all, and that is very seldom a reality. All of which is to say that even a parent receiving welfare will likely still be working long hours.

    But in the cases where a single parent is unemployed, I think we need to ask under what circumstances is it our prerogative to hold them accountable for their parenting? If we are speaking about a person who is a part of our church community, then we are already moving in the right direction. Toward a renewal of the kind of hope that a parent needs in order to see the value of investing in quality time with their child (of course, this will require us to practice radical hospitality!). And out of that relationship we can speak to these parents about the importance of quality time with children. I would be really nervous about any kind systemic mandate about how often parents must speak with or read to their children, because of the implications of how to enforce such a thing.

    Finally, the question “how do we hold them accountable…” begs the question of how we are distinguishing between “us” and “them”. This kind of distinction is something we need to be extremely careful with, as it so easily risks playing into the spiritual problems that perpetuate cycles of poverty and marginalization.

  • http://findingmeaningin.blogspot.com/ Tucker

    Here is another point for reflection.

    So far we have been limiting the scope of our conversation pretty much to North American, urban poverty. Which is of course fine to do, that is the context in which we find ourselves. But still I think it is important to remember that our context is not an absolute, not the same for everyone.

    So I would be interested in hearing people talk about how these issues relate to global poverty?


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