Tag Archives: middle class

Is a Hard Life Inherited?

Is a Hard Life Inherited?

AUG. 9, 2014

 

Nicholas Kristof

“YAMHILL, Ore. — ONE delusion common among America’s successful people is that they triumphed just because of hard work and intelligence.

In fact, their big break came when they were conceived in middle-class American families who loved them, read them stories, and nurtured them with Little League sports, library cards and music lessons. They were programmed for success by the time they were zygotes.

Yet many are oblivious of their own advantages, and of other people’s disadvantages. The result is a meanspiritedness in the political world or, at best, a lack of empathy toward those struggling — partly explaining the hostility to state expansion of Medicaid, to long-term unemployment benefits, or to raising the minimum wage to keep up with inflation.

This has been on my mind because I’ve been visiting my hometown of Yamhill, Ore., a farming community that’s a window into the national crisis facing working-class men.

I love this little town, but the news is somber — and so different from the world I now inhabit in a middle-class suburb. A neighbor here just died of a heroin overdose; a friend was beaten up last night by her boyfriend; another friend got into a fistfight with his dad; a few more young men have disappeared into the maw of prison.

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Rick Goff, 64, of Yamhill, Ore., makes ends meet these days with odd jobs and his disability benefits. CreditSusan Seubert for The New York Times

One of my friends here, Rick Goff, 64, lean with a lined and weathered face and a short pigtail (maybe looking a bit like Willie Nelson), is representative of the travails of working-class America. Rick is immensely bright, and I suspect he could have been a lawyer, artist or university professor if his life had gotten off to a different start. But he grew up in a ramshackle home in a mire of disadvantage, and when he was 5 years old, his mom choked on a piece of bacon, staggered out to the yard and dropped dead.

“My dad just started walking down the driveway and kept walking,” Rick remembers.

His three siblings and he were raised by a grandmother, but money was tight. The children held jobs, churned the family cow’s milk into butter, and survived on what they could hunt and fish, without much regard for laws against poaching.

Despite having a first-class mind, Rick was fidgety and bored in school. “They said I was an overactive child,” he recalls. “Now they have name for it, A.D.H.D.”

A teacher or mentor could have made a positive difference with the right effort. Instead, when Rick was in the eighth grade, the principal decided to teach him that truancy was unacceptable — by suspending him from school for six months.

“I was thinking I get to go fishing, hang out in the woods,” he says. “That’s when I kind of figured out the system didn’t work.”

In the 10th grade, Rick dropped out of school and began working in lumber mills and auto shops to make ends meet. He said his girlfriend skipped town and left him with a 2-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son to raise on his own.

Rick acknowledges his vices and accepts responsibility for plenty of mistakes: He smoked, drank too much for a time and abused drugs. He sometimes hung out with shady people, and he says he has been arrested about 30 times but never convicted of a felony. Some of his arrests were for trying to help other people, especially to protect women, by using his fists against bullies.

In that respect, Rick can actually be quite endearing. For instance, he vows that if anyone messes with my mother, he’ll kill that person.

A generation or two ago, Rick might have ended up with a stable family and in a well-paid union job, creating incentives for prudent behavior. Those jobs have evaporated, sometimes creating a vortex of hopelessness that leads to poor choices and becomes self-fulfilling.

There has been considerable progress in material standards over the decades. When I was a kid, there were still occasional neighbors living in shacks without electricity or plumbing, and that’s no longer the case. But the drug, incarceration, job and family instability problems seem worse.

Rick survives on disability (his hand was mashed in an accident) and odd jobs (some for my family). His health is frail, for he has had heart problems and kidney cancer that almost killed him two years ago.

Millions of poorly educated working-class men like him are today facing educational failure, difficulty finding good jobs, self-medication with meth or heroinprison records that make employment more difficult, hurdles forming stable families and, finally, early death.

Obviously, some people born into poverty manage to escape, and bravo to them. That tends to be easier when the constraint is just a low income, as opposed to other pathologies such as alcoholic, drug-addicted or indifferent parents or a neighborhood dominated by gangs (I would argue that the better index of disadvantage for a child is not family income, but how often the child is read to).

Too often wealthy people born on third base blithely criticize the poor for failing to hit home runs. The advantaged sometimes perceive empathy as a sign of muddle-headed weakness, rather than as a marker of civilization.

In effect, we have a class divide on top of a racial divide, creating a vastly uneven playing field, and one of its metrics is educational failure. High school dropouts are five times as likely as college graduates to earn the minimum wage or less, and 16.5 million workers would benefit directly from a raise in the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

Yes, these men sometimes make bad choices. But just as wealthy Americans inherit opportunity, working-class men inherit adversity. As a result, they often miss out on three pillars of middle-class life: a job, marriage and a stable family, and seeing their children succeed.

ONE of Rick’s biggest regrets is that his son is in prison on drug-related offenses, while a daughter is in a halfway house recovering from heroin addiction.

The son just had a daughter who was born to a woman who has three other children, fathered by three other men. The odds are already stacked against that baby girl, just as they were against Rick himself.

This crisis in working-class America doesn’t get the attention it deserves, perhaps because most of us in the chattering class aren’t a part of it.

There are steps that could help, including a higher minimum wage, early childhood programs, and a focus on education as an escalator to opportunity. But the essential starting point is empathy.”

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No, President Obama Did Not Break the Middle East

It’s so important to put into perspective what Obama has done during his presidency. Many people criticize him for not doing what he promised during his campaigns, but it’s important to note the context within which he’s working.

Congress is at an all time historical low for passing bills, they block everything the president wants to do (even shutting down the government in the process). Obama first came into office right at the beginning of the Great Recession and during a war between Israel and the Gaza-based Hamas in the Middle East.

Gun restrictions had been slowly loosened over the course of the past couple decades thanks to NRA-like lobbying. Inflation since the 70s and productivity since the 80s have been increasing without match, thereby plummeting their correlation to minimum wage. Meanwhile, corporations are finding more and more loopholes so that they can continue to increase their profit margins while simultaneously not allowing the profits to “trickle down” (instead all the excess profit is going into off-shore, non-taxed accts).

Manufacturing jobs have been gradually outsourced to other countries over the past couple decades, effectively slashing the averagely-skilled, middle-class workforce in the US. And the oil and rubber lobbyists have pretty much monopolized the entire energy economy in the US, making it near impossible to move beyond our out-dated, limited-resource-based energy systems.

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June 23, 2014 · 4:38 pm

Need a Job? Invent It

By 

Published: March 30, 2013

“WHEN Tony Wagner, the Harvard education specialist, describes his job today, he says he’s “a translator between two hostile tribes” — the education world and the business world, the people who teach our kids and the people who give them jobs. Wagner’s argument in his book “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World” is that our K-12 and college tracks are not consistently “adding the value and teaching the skills that matter most in the marketplace.”

This is dangerous at a time when there is increasingly no such thing as a high-wage, middle-skilled job — the thing that sustained the middle class in the last generation. Now there is only a high-wage, high-skilled job. Every middle-class job today is being pulled up, out or down faster than ever. That is, it either requires more skill or can be done by more people around the world or is being buried — made obsolete — faster than ever. Which is why the goal of education today, argues Wagner, should not be to make every child “college ready” but “innovation ready” — ready to add value to whatever they do.

That is a tall task. I tracked Wagner down and asked him to elaborate. “Today,” he said via e-mail, “because knowledge is available on every Internet-connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know. The capacity to innovate — the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life — and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge. As one executive told me, ‘We can teach new hires the content, and we will have to because it continues to change, but we can’t teach them how to think — to ask the right questions — and to take initiative.’ ”

 My generation had it easy. We got to “find” a job. But, more than ever, our kids will have to “invent” a job. (Fortunately, in today’s world, that’s easier and cheaper than ever before.) Sure, the lucky ones will find their first job, but, given the pace of change today, even they will have to reinvent, re-engineer and reimagine that job much more often than their parents if they want to advance in it. If that’s true, I asked Wagner, what do young people need to know today?

“Every young person will continue to need basic knowledge, of course,” he said. “But they will need skills and motivation even more. Of these three education goals, motivation is the most critical. Young people who are intrinsically motivated — curious, persistent, and willing to take risks — will learn new knowledge and skills continuously. They will be able to find new opportunities or create their own — a disposition that will be increasingly important as many traditional careers disappear.”

So what should be the focus of education reform today?

“We teach and test things most students have no interest in and will never need, and facts that they can Google and will forget as soon as the test is over,” said Wagner. “Because of this, the longer kids are in school, the less motivated they become. Gallup’s recent survey showed student engagement going from 80 percent in fifth grade to 40 percent in high school. More than a century ago, we ‘reinvented’ the one-room schoolhouse and created factory schools for the industrial economy. Reimagining schools for the 21st-century must be our highest priority. We need to focus more on teaching the skill and will to learn and to make a difference and bring the three most powerful ingredients of intrinsic motivation into the classroom: play, passion and purpose.”

What does that mean for teachers and principals?

“Teachers,” he said, “need to coach students to performance excellence, and principals must be instructional leaders who create the culture of collaboration required to innovate. But what gets tested is what gets taught, and so we need ‘Accountability 2.0.’ All students should have digital portfolios to show evidence of mastery of skills like critical thinking and communication, which they build up right through K-12 and postsecondary. Selective use of high-quality tests, like the College and Work Readiness Assessment, is important. Finally, teachers should be judged on evidence of improvement in students’ work through the year — instead of a score on a bubble test in May. We need lab schools where students earn a high school diploma by completing a series of skill-based ‘merit badges’ in things like entrepreneurship. And schools of education where all new teachers have ‘residencies’ with master teachers and performance standards — not content standards — must become the new normal throughout the system.”

Who is doing it right?

“Finland is one of the most innovative economies in the world,” he said, “and it is the only country where students leave high school ‘innovation-ready.’  They learn concepts and creativity more than facts, and have a choice of many electives — all with a shorter school day, little homework, and almost no testing. In the U.S., 500 K-12 schools affiliated with Hewlett Foundation’s Deeper Learning Initiative and a consortium of 100 school districts called EdLeader21 are developing new approaches to teaching 21st-century skills. There are also a growing number of ‘reinvented’ colleges like the Olin College of Engineering, the M.I.T. Media Lab and the ‘D-school’ at Stanford where students learn to innovate.”

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on March 31, 2013, on page SR11 of the New York edition with the headline: Need a Job? Invent It.”

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April 1, 2013 · 4:56 pm