Culture And Perpetual Poverty
A reader writes:
Southerner here. Did you see the piece on the Atlantic’s site about how the South is the worst part of the U.S. in terms of upward mobility? The writer refers to research showing that the higher the percentage of black people in a region, the lower the social mobility is. This part of the story caught my attention:
2. Segregation. Something like the poor being isolated—isolated from good jobs and good schools. See, the more black people a place has, the more divided it tends to be along racial and economic lines. The more divided it is, the more sprawl there is. And the more sprawl there is, the less higher-income people are willing to invest in things like public transit.
That leaves the poor in the ghetto, with no way out for their American Dreams. They’re stuck with bad schools, bad jobs, and bad commutes if they do manage to find better work. So it should be no surprise that the researchers found that racial segregation, income segregation, and sprawl are all strongly negatively correlated with upward mobility. But what might surprise is that it doesn’t matter whether the rich cut themselves off from everybody else. What matters is whether the middle class cut themselves off from the poor.
The reader continues:
Where I live, I see this happening, but it’s more complicated than what the article says. Full disclosure: I’m white, but my job brings me into contact with the African-American poor. From what I see, you could give kids from these communities a great education, a good job in another part of town, and a chauffeured ride to work every day, and they wouldn’t last a week on the job. They do not have the culture it takes to make it into the middle class. Middle class people take a lot for granted about home training. They think everybody was raised in the same environment. These black kids I deal with grow up without the kind of discipline and self-discipline that is a basic part of middle class culture. Every day I see how these black kids, especially the boys, carry themselves, and how they talk (especially with the profanity and the hostility). They don’t have respect for education, and act like any attempt to socialize them is an offense against their self-respect. I know that they will never be capable of living outside the ghetto.
It’s not that they don’t have the intelligence. Despite what racists might say, I don’t think these kids are any smarter or less smart than any other kids I’ve seen. They don’t have the home training that gives them the mindset and the skills to lift themselves out of poverty. I think of these kids I work with as being like immigrants who do not know the language and customs of their new country, so they are stuck in the ghetto because they can’t function outside of it. If you think of the situation this way, ask yourself how many immigrants to the U.S. would make it to the middle class if they spoke no English, and did not know or want to know how middle class people think and act? You can’t be in America speaking only Spanish and conducting yourself like a Guatemalan peasant and expect to make it to the middle class. Life doesn’t work that way. I don’t know what to do about it. Education is the only hope of these young people, but teachers cannot compete with the culture that shapes their minds.
This makes sense. The isolation of these ghetto populations — and I would include the rural white ghetto of Appalachia — is geographical, but it’s also cultural, and self-imposed. The ghetto is not only a place, but a state of mind that many of its residents carry with them. A friend of mine who lives in the UK was telling me recently that Britain has a huge problem with a white underclass that has become unassimilable to middle-class norms, and entirely dependent on the state because they cannot manage to hold a steady job.
In my view, we should work harder to create equality of opportunity for all Americans, but I don’t see how we can force people to take advantage of opportunities, or impose a culture that forms its children’s understanding and character with the fundamental values that give structure to their lives and prepares them for the kind of work that could lead them out of the underclass. I say that I don’t see how we can do that, but that’s a statement both about the difficulty of the problem and the limits of my vision. It will take someone of great vision to solve this one.