Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Working Poor Have Bigger Problems Than Single Parenthood

I was tempted to dissent David Brooks' recent piece on how boys are faring in school, his comparison of an unruly boy, chained down by "culturally homogenous schools", to Henry V as depicted by Shakespeare - first as a wild child in Henry IV, later as an accomplished leader in Henry V. According to Brooks, it seems schools would prefer to be teaching "a reflective Hamlet".
By about the third week of nursery school, Henry’s teacher would be sending notes home saying that Henry “had another hard day today.” He was disruptive during circle time. By midyear, there’d be sly little hints dropped that maybe Henry’s parents should think about medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Many of the other boys are on it, and they find school much easier.
What say you, Charles Pierce?
At which point, Henry IV, in all of his parts, and being pissed off with that whole Percy family squabble, would have the nursery school teacher drawn and quartered, her head hung on Traitor's Gate for a month, and I probably shouldn't give our country's school "reformers" any ideas.
But as tempting as it was to respond to Brooks' editorial with full-bore sarcasm, what I found problematic was less his dubious resort to Shakespeare and more the fact that he has difficulty maintaining a consistent thesis. Instead, by the end he becomes somewhat incoherent:
Schools have to engage people as they are. That requires leaders who insist on more cultural diversity in school: not just teachers who celebrate cooperation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honor environmental virtues, but teachers who honor military virtues; not just curriculums that teach how to share, but curriculums that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp.
Seriously - the way we're going to engage a young Henry V in school, keep him out of trouble, keep him from rebelling, is by sending him to a school that embraces "military virtues" and resembles a "boot camp"? Is this a half-hearted defense of KIPP-type schools with their extensive behavior codes? Brooks seriously believes his young Henry V's will go unmedicated and be educationally successful in such schools?

But the incoherence runs deeper. This is the same David Brooks who has lectured us that a small child's ability to resist marshmallows is a harbinger of his future. In the past he proposed that schools focus on teaching children "to master the sort of self-control that leads to success". That's consistent with the military model he appears to be half-endorsing, but again that's not going to work with a Henry V.

The rich, privileged, self-indulgent Henry V can grab as many marshmallows as he wants, as his future is assured - he doesn't have to care about the rules. The less intellectually gifted, less economically fortunate Henry V is not going to take well to "marshmallow resistance training." Either way, while doing an admirable job of criticizing the current educational system for not catering to a Henry V (while nonetheless doing very well by way of boys like David Brooks and Hamlet), Brooks doesn't actually explain how we could create schools that can simultaneously inspire Henry V to resist marshmallows while also inspiring a young David Brooks to strive for the day he can take an AP literature class focused on the works of Shakespeare.

Brooks has also told us what he, himself, thinks of kids like Henry V:
Similarly, in every high school there are jocks, cheerleaders and regular kids who vaguely sense that their natural enemies are the brooding poets who go off to become English majors. These prom kings and queens may leave their adolescent godhood and go off to work as underpaid sales reps despite their coldly gracious spouses and effortlessly slender kids, but they will still remember their adolescent opposites and become conservatives. They will experience surges of orgiastic triumphalism when Sean Hannity eviscerates the scuffed-shoed intellectuals who have as much personal courage as a French chipmunk in retreat.
French chipmunks in retreat... Funny, right?

Brooks' subsequent column inspired me to revisit the subject. You won't believe this but, according to Brooks, over the past thirty years rich people have come to have a lot of discretionary income, and poor people have not. Seriously!
Affluent parents also invest more money in their children. Over the last 40 years upper-income parents have increased the amount they spend on their kids’ enrichment activities, like tutoring and extra curriculars, by $5,300 a year. The financially stressed lower classes have only been able to increase their investment by $480, adjusted for inflation.
The explanation for this is, once again, Brooks' theory that poor people have bad morals.
A long series of cultural, economic and social trends have merged to create this sad state of affairs. Traditional social norms were abandoned, meaning more children are born out of wedlock.
Wait a minute - aren't we supposed to support Henry V's sowing of his wild oats? Or is the "traditional value" at issue the notion that Henry will do so at the whorehouse while "good girls" remain chaste? "Guard your marshmallows, girls, Henry V is on the prowl."
Their single parents simply have less time and resources to prepare them for a more competitive world.
So the only children struggling are those from single parent homes? There are no "poorer kids" from two family homes? Fascinating stuff.
Working-class jobs were decimated, meaning that many parents are too stressed to have the energy, time or money to devote to their children.
What Brooks apparently means is that working class jobs that support a middle class lifestyle have been decimated, even if that's not quite what he says. How did that happen? Who knows? Perhaps it has something to do with single parenthood?
Affluent, intelligent people are now more likely to marry other energetic, intelligent people.
Unlike past eras during which intelligent, affluent people sought out unintelligent, indigent spouses?
They raise energetic, intelligent kids in self-segregated, cultural ghettoes where they know little about and have less influence upon people who do not share their blessings.
The rich now live in ghettoes? Oh, life is so cruel. Remember, back in the day, when the rich and poor lived near each other, sharing land and crops, or on different floors of the same opulent building? Ah... memories.
The political system directs more money to health care for the elderly while spending on child welfare slides.
So... the solution here is to spend less money on sick old people? To increase spending on programs for poor children - and if so, what programs?

Brooks insists that to change the unfortunate status quo, people will "have to make some pretty uncomfortable decisions":
Liberals are going to have to be willing to champion norms that say marriage should come before childrearing and be morally tough about it.
Yes, because once liberals get serious about teen pregnancy, like red state conservatives, we'll see... huge increases in teen pregnancy? But wait, David, I thought that was a big part of the problem. (I know, I know - when you get you facts wrong it's a joke. You're kidding the liberals.)
Conservatives are going to have to be willing to accept tax increases or benefit cuts so that more can be spent on the earned-income tax credit and other programs that benefit the working class.
If we're talking Republicans, let's see... what will they choose. Oh yeah, benefit cuts.1 That bit about "spending more on the poor" is apt to get lost in the wash.
Political candidates will have to spend less time trying to exploit class divisions and more time trying to remedy them — less time calling their opponents out of touch elitists, and more time coming up with agendas that comprehensively address the problem.
You mean, by identifying a social problem and deciding it can be cured by throwing money at it? Yeah, there's no chance that Brooks' proposal for spending more "on the earned-income tax credit and other programs that benefit the working class" will be demagogued....
Political candidates will have to spend less time trying to exploit class divisions and more time trying to remedy them....
So at the end of a dissertation on the poor morals of the poor, and how we nonetheless need to spend more money trying to help poor children, Brooks believes that we can propose taxing wealthier people or cutting their benefits to pay for those new programs without anybody raising the specter of class warfare? No concerns about giving money to undeserving bleah people?

...less time calling their opponents out of touch elitists, and more time coming up with agendas that comprehensively address the problem.
Why not both? Seriously, Brooks wants to clean up some of the over-the-top rhetoric in modern politics. Fair enough. But it's not like that's either new or the real problem. The problem is that one party is doing a middling job at creating the policies necessary to help our nation avoid significant future problems, and the other party is actively obstructing the little that might otherwise be accomplished.

There is absolutely no reason why Brooks cannot call on politicians from both parties to start addressing the issues, and take them to task if they offer rhetoric or demagoguery instead of actual policy proposals. It wouldn't hurt if Brooks offered some policy proposals of his own as a starting point but, I guess, that would be above his pay grade?
1. I'm reminded of the old Far Side cartoon... "Conservatives are going to have to be willing to accept blah blah blah benefit cuts blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah."

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