Sunday, December 18, 2011

How the "Just Work Hard" Mentality Sells Poverty Short

If I Were A Poor Black Kid
This article, by Gene Marks, describes what he would do if he, a self-described middle class, middle-aged white guy, were a "poor black kid." Basically, he say would take advantage of a myriad of technology to educate himself, get good grades, and get into college. Problem solved! Marks doesn't leave room for the idea that maybe poverty is a little more complicated than that. Reading this left me upset by his na├»ve solution, racist overtones, and clearly limited understanding of poverty.
Obviously, the racist overtones of the articles are unsettling enough in itself - why did he feel the need to add "black?" Poverty is not limited to any one race. This is one of the first indications that Marks relies on stereotypes and sensationalized media for his knowledge of what poverty is like. But his reasoning, even without the racism, is incomplete, ignorant, and patronizing. 
For the argument's sake, let's say, that, yes, technology is the answer to pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. However, most kids in the inner city do not have access to the technology he talks about, or someone to teach them about the internet resources he mentions - I mean, I've never even heard of half the websites he talks about. Additionally, the chances of inner city kids have regular access to Wi-Fi is slim. Not only is getting the necessary equipment expensive and complicated, keeping internet service is not their parent's first priority for families who move frequently, which is very common.
But I think it is short-sighted to believe a knowledge of technology or even an education is the fix-all. In my class about developmental disabilities and music therapy this semester, my professor stated that most people's problems, when it comes to succeeding in life, are social, not academic. And a "just work harder" mentality about poverty shows that Marks knows very very little about the implications of poverty outside of an education. Working with kids in the inner city, I have seen many who from the young age of 7, 8, or 9 act as a protector and provider for their younger siblings. Extrapolate this out to when they're 18 - it's easy to understand that college may not be their first priority. And if they're suffering abuse or neglect (certainly not all do, but it does happen) survival takes precedence over grades. Another interesting tidbit: children who have lived in poverty before the age of 5 show biological scarring on their brain akin to that of a PTSD patient. This can affect their ability to learn and development of their frontal lobe (the center for decision-making and judgement) as an adult. All in all, there is so much more to being successful in life than good grades and technological knowledge. 
Marks himself says "Is this easy? No, it's not. It's hard. It takes a special kind of kid to succeed." But that's part of the problem. It's not fair that kids born into poverty have to be special to succeed when those born into a higher socioeconomic class, at the very least, have the road to prosperity paved more smoothly. Success should not be a birthright. And I don't have the answer to this dilemma; in fact, I doubt there is a complete solution is for this particular type of injustice. I do think there's things we can do to improve the situation, like more and better resources for schools, hiring qualified, caring teachers, free parenting and life skills classes, quality after-school programs, or a re haul of our foster care system. But the truth is that every kid living in urban poverty has different circumstances, with different challenges, and there is no one-size-fits-all cure. Marks reflects the attitude of the entitled and the self-absorbed; he simply sits on his suburban throne and decrees that the problem is the "poor black kids" just don't work hard enough. However, he doesn't work to change the system, and he isn't out in the trenches, so to speak, mentoring or tutoring or volunteering. I truly believe the only way to affect change for any cause is by getting out there and doing something, to practice what you preach. But until Marks does that, he doesn't have the right to offer solutions for problems he can't understand.