Friday, February 5, 2010


“If someone is lazy and dumb enough to drop out of school, why should the government help them?” asks TM, an ambitious, outspoken girl in my class.

“Well…why do you think that people drop out of school?” I respond

“They just think that school is overrated – that they’re too good for it.”

“Ok….anyone else have any ideas about why people drop out of school? Think of people you know.”

Hands shoot up around the room.

“Maybe they are involved with the wrong kind of people”

“Maybe they have to take care or help out with their family.”

“They get pregnant!”

“Yes!” I reply, glad to see SOME depth in the discussion, “people don’t always have control over their circumstances. Sometimes there are things that happen with their family, or in their lives that they couldn’t help.”

“Well – if you get pregnant than that’s no reason to drop out of school. Lots of girls have babies and still don’t drop out.” TM points out

“Well how to they manage to go to school?” I ask

“They have supportive families!” TM declares, as though this is a simple thing.

“And what if they don’t? What happens if they get pregnant and they don’t have supportive families?”

“Then they shouldn’t be having sex!” she exclaims. I try not to question her logic, and point out that most of the time in our society, the people who get into this type of trouble do so because they don’t have the supervision and good examples provided by supportive families.

“No,” another girl speaks up, “they can go to school and just put their kid in the free daycare at the high school.”

“So how are they paying to support their child – paying rent and paying for food without a supportive family and if they are in school all day?”

“WIC!” seven kids scream out.

“Yea,” I say, “that’s a government program. That’s the government helping people who are poor and without options.”

We are learning about the Progressive Era. I teach them about the problems of the early 1900s, and the muckrakers who fought for reform. I tell them about Progress. We talk about what types of progress we saw in the progressive era - progress with regards to environmental regulations, Unions, child labor, political reform, and so on and so forth. But the Progress than effects their lives most is the one that they have the most trouble seeing. The most interesting points of discussion have revolved around Capitalism, and the slow steps that the United States has taken through history to provide assistance to those who are the neediest in society. The most interesting thing is how many of them are against public assistance.

My students live in the projects. MANY of their parents collect unemployment, use food stamps or WIC, and 100% of them qualify to get free, federally funded breakfast, lunch, and dinner from the school. And yet, they don’t see the logic in providing help for the poverty-striken in society. Talk about disenfranchised. These kids are told that they are middle-class!

I explain to them that it’s in the best interest for the government to help the lower-classes rise.

“In really poor communities, what are some things that are common that the government would want to prevent?”

“Crime – lots of people commit crimes. And there’s gangs and drugs more. And lots of wife beating and alcohol.”

“Okay,” I say, “And it costs a lot of money for the government to have extra police in these communities, and to build more prisons, and to have more trials and parole officers and to have to pay for unemployment. The government doesn’t want people to be really desperately poor because it hurts everyone in society.”

They seem to accept this line of reasoning.

In truth, I have always believed in government funding for social welfare programs. I have always supported the idea that not all people are brought into this world in a position of equal advantage, and because we have a society which tends to perpetuate the cycles of poverty and wealth, it is in the best interest of everyone for the government to provide assistance to those who need it.

Recently, I have found myself reconsidering my position. I have railed against the misconceptions of ‘welfare queens’ and people abusing the system. I have argued endlessly that if that does happen it is to be viewed as the exception rather than the rule. But my kids wear Jordans, and for Christmas, many of them got the new Nintendo DSi game system. They walk home with the sound of nearby gunshots ringing in their ears, and aren’t allowed to play sports or join clubs after school because it is too dangerous to be out after dark. Their parents can’t always feed them, and they talk about the lights and water going out in their building, and yet they have these material possessions that make you wonder what their priorities are.

I have dwelled on this, thinking about how my taxes pay for their things, and how I want my taxes to buy them food and to give them healthcare, but I’m not so sure I want to buy them $250 sneakers. Why is it like this? Are they taking advantage of the system?

What I’ve come to realize is two things. The first was said to me by my mom, who spoke like a mother who knows what it is to love her kids, and to want them to be happy. Roughly paraphrased, it was:

“If you make so little, that nothing is guaranteed, and the future is so uncertain that it doesn’t seem worth saving for, you don’t save. If you know that you could save your money for twenty years and still not have $100,000, and that a million things could happen to you to upset your plans, saving doesn’t feel important. And when you look at your kids, and their life is so hard, and they feel shitty because they don’t’ have the right shoes or the right clothes, you buy them what they want that will make right now better, because who the help knows what you are going to face tomorrow.”

In a more logical, less emotional interpretation, I look at the fact that the people in this community don’t know about saving. They don’t know about bank accounts, or about how much it costs to go to college. They are uneducated about the right way to save money – it is a cycle of poverty. My students have grown up in this community and they genuinely believe that they are middle class. They have seen their parents get tax returns and survive on Unemployment and welfare, and they and everyone they know has grown up feeling tough and rough and unsafe. They live day to day and don’t think of buying a house or investing in the future. No one around them does it, why would they. As a country, we give them money but don’t educate them about how to get beyond the point that they start at. With family members in jail or dying, and gangs and teen pregnancy and prostitution and desperation a very real part of the community and often, their own families, making it through the week may be as far ahead of them that they see.

I want them to learn about the way that the government deals with poverty in this country. I want them to know where they fall in society, and to grow up and be able to fight for themselves. But when they all argue against the assistance that enables their daily existence, I feel a little demoralized. I want to empower them. I want to make progress, and help them to become the type of people who can advocate for their own rights. I want them to fight for progress. But first they have to figure out what 'progress' means.

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