Friday, February 20, 2015

Guiding Children from Ghetto Poverty to Stable Adulthood

It does not, or certainly should not, need to be said that it is very difficult for any individual to lift themselves out of poverty, let alone lift themselves out of the often-degrading lifestyle of poverty in the ghetto.  Republicans are constantly saying that if you’re poor and unsuccessful it’s your fault.  As though we lived in a land of great and equal opportunity.  But that is not the case.

Nevertheless, examples do exist.  Life stories I have read show that it is possible and suggest what the conditions are for it to happen.  I will be referring to people’s lives documented in two books:  Rosa Lee and The Tragic Life of Robert Peace.

Rosa Lee was a woman of the ghetto with many of the dysfunctions often associated with the ghetto lifestyle … drugs, shoplifting, prostitution, etc.  She had eight children, most of whom followed in her footsteps.  However, two of the boys did not.  Indeed they never participated in drugs or other dysfunctional activity and became upstanding adults with steady jobs.

Why the difference in the two outcomes?  There were two major factors.  Even as young children, Eric and Alvin, the two boys who “made it,” were for different reasons extremely embarrassed and even repulsed by their mother’s lifestyle and swore that they would make a different life for themselves.  Alvin was struck by shame and humiliation about living on welfare.  Eric felt anger and disgust about his mother’s shoplifting.  Both reactions heightened by taunts, actual and feared, from other children.

The second factor was that because there was something different about them, both attracted the attention of an adult who became an important mentor, a teacher in one case, a social worker in the other.  These mentors showed the boys that they believed in them, and that a different life was open to them if they applied themselves.  Although both became teenage fathers and dropped out of school, they entered the military and afterwards held down solid, primarily government, jobs.

The other example is the life of Robert Peace.  Peace was also a child of the ghetto.  While his mother was a strong and positive influence in his life, which resulted in him achieving academic and career success, his father was a negative influence, teaching Robert the ways and lures of the ghetto drug culture, which Robert soaked up like a receptive sponge.

Robert’s hard work in school earned him a full scholarship to Yale, where he continued to excel.  After graduating he went home to teach at the high school he’d attended.  However, at the same time as he attained this success, he remained deeply enmeshed in the ghetto’s drug culture and became a dealer  He was murdered at age 30 in a drug-related shooting.

While these are only two examples, I think that they offer some important lessons for those trying to improve the lot of ghetto children.  First, if children, either because of the influence a parent or some other mentor or due to some experience of their own, apply themselves to their studies, their natural intelligence will be watered and they will succeed in their studies  and gain self-confidence.  

Having written the previous sentence, it sounds like a real “duh!” statement.  And yet it isn’t.  The vast majority of children living in poverty, not just the ghetto, don’t have either a positive parent influence, a positive teacher/mentor influence, or some life experience that makes them determined to get out of the ghetto though an education.

How sad!  But you can’t blame parents living in poverty because they are who they are.  They are a creation of the social circumstances in which they were born and grew up.  Without strong programs to bring parents into the education process … and there have been successes … this just isn’t going to happen.  

The successful programs prove though that with sufficient public/government will and the resulting funding, it is possible.  But such government programs almost always lack funding.  The money is there; it’s just a matter of priorities.  Personally, I think the nation would be better served if the cost of several new fighter jet for the military …$412M for a single F-22 or $100M for a single F-35 … were diverted instead to such programs.

We all know what a sad state most urban ghetto schools are in, not just physically but more importantly in the utter lack of motivation provided.  The vast majority either don’t know how, or just don’t try, to transform the raw material that comes through their doors from children who have no interest in education, to children who seek it out and thrive on it.  

Again, though, there are schools that have been successful in achieving this transformation.  So we know it is not the child’s intelligence or background that is the insurmountable barrier … although the ghetto background is certainly something to be overcome.  It is first and foremost the attitude of educators and teachers, and secondly their abilities, that are the real obstacles and that need to be transformed.  This has to be a priority of federal, state, and local government.  The nation’s future is its children.

But if we look at the contrasting examples of Rosa Lee’s two children, Eric and Alvin, and Robert Peace, we see that providing a child with a good education is not enough,  There is a saying that you can take the child out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of the child.  In the case of Robert Peace, that certainly proved to be the case.  But not with Eric and Alvin.

Robert Peace was addicted (not in the literal sense) to the ghetto drug culture.  Rosa Lee’s other children were literally addicted.  Eric and Alvin, on the other hand, were repulsed and embarrassed by all the various social dysfunctions they encountered growing up with Rosa Lee.  What does one do, what does a society do, with this lesson.?

I guess the first question is how atypical is the Robert Peace experience?  If one looks at others who have come out of the ghetto background and established successful careers, how many continue to be caught in the harmful elements of ghetto culture as Peace was?  I don’t know the answer.  But my guess is that for most it is not a problem.  It is probably the rare person who is both caught up in something like the drug trade and also has a parent influence who pushes the value of education.

But even assuming that his story is atypical and that most do not get pulled under by those forces, it would still make sense for the children and society if schools placed appropriate emphasis on taking the ghetto out of the child.  Show the child not just that education is exciting and that the child is capable, but that a change in lifestyle is also necessary to free themselves from the dysfunctional aspects of the ghetto, all the while remembering that it’s not all negative.  The point should be that they need to show themselves self-respect by removing the degrading elements of the lifestyle from their lives.  Operation Push tried to do this, I think.  I’m sure there have been other programs.  But it needs to be part of the school program.

The United Negro College Fund has as their motto, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”  How true.  Yet even in the 21st century, the vast majority of urban ghetto children’s minds are wasted, both to their detriment and the detriment of our nation.  Which is not to say that many other children’s minds aren’t wasted!  A top priority of government and our society has to be to end this waste.

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