Dec 11, 2013
Ground Zero in the Land of Opportunity
Posted on Dec 12, 2012
By Mike Rose
Yet, right at the point when they are most needed, our second-chance institutions are being severely threatened. Across the country, community colleges, adult schools and literacy programs are reporting record enrollments at the same time they have to trim staff, classes and services. A number of colleges can offer only a smattering of courses in the summer. On the flip side of this coin are rural and semirural institutions that have lost enrollment over the years because of changing demographic patterns. They are facing closure, even though for those still in the community, they are the only resource of their kind available. And the public library—an iconic American institution—is reducing hours and staff and closing local branches. This is at a time when two-thirds of the nation’s libraries provide the only free Internet access in their communities—and when government and employment information and forms are increasingly going online.
The immediate cause of these cuts is the terrible recession that began in 2008. Policymakers face “unprecedented challenges” and “have no other choice” but to make reductions in education. Doing more with less has become, in the words of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, “the new normal.” The word austerity has entered our national conversation with a vengeance. As I write this, the Los Angeles Unified School District is slashing its adult education budget to one-quarter of the previous year’s allocation, affecting 24 community schools, serving more than 250,000 people.
I don’t dispute the immense difficulty of budgeting in a recession, nor the fact that education spending includes waste that should be eliminated. But when our situation is represented as inevitable and normal, the recession becomes a catastrophe without culpability. The civic and moral dimension of both the causes of the recession and the way policymakers respond to it is neutralized.
What is especially worthy of scrutiny is the role right-wing economic ideology is playing in these policy deliberations. Anti-government, anti-welfare state, anti-tax, this ideology forcefully undercuts broad-scale public responses to hardship. Such efforts are tarred as a “redistribution of wealth,” moving money, as Rep. Paul Ryan puts it, from the “makers” to the “takers.” Decisions are made on a ledger sheet profoundly bounded by simplistic assumptions about economics and opportunity as well as naive, often bigoted, beliefs about people who need help.
Every conservative affirms equal opportunity. Yet, in no realistic sense of the word is there anything like equal opportunity toward the bottom of the income ladder—and some argue that opportunity is eroding toward the middle as well. Recent studies show that parental income has a greater effect on children’s success in America than in other developed countries. As that writer in National Review noted, low-income kids live in a different economic world. Many of the students I’ve taught at UCLA who come from well-to-do families grew up in a world of museums, music lessons, tutoring, sports programs, travel, up-to-date educational technologies, and after-school and summer programs geared toward the arts or sciences. All this is a supplement to attending good to exceptional public or private schools. Because their parents are educated, they can provide all kinds of assistance with homework, with navigating school, with advocacy. These parents are doing everything possible to create maximum opportunity for their kids, often with considerable anxiety and expense. There’s no faulting them; poor parents would do the same if they could. But it would require quite a distortion to see young people from affluent and poor backgrounds as having an equal opportunity at academic and career success. To legitimize their view of the economy and society, then, conservatives have to justify advantage.
One way to account for unequal opportunity is to claim that intelligence is a factor, and that the families at the lower end of things are there because they’re not that bright—so various compensatory programs, in fact, won’t help that much. You’ll certainly hear this kind of talk in private, and a few bold pundits like Charles Murray, of “The Bell Curve” fame, say it in public. But scientifically it doesn’t hold water, and it is so politically unpalatable that few elected officials would risk uttering it.
Another way to explain away inequality—one that has a long history in the United States and is still very much with us—is the moral argument. People are at the lower end of the economy because of a failure of character, they engage in counterproductive behavior, lack a work ethic, they don’t complete things, and so on. They are a drain on the system, gaming it, on the dole. Since Ronald Reagan’s infamous “welfare queen” invocation, conservative political discourse has been brimming with such imagery, as the 2012 GOP primary demonstrated. There is both a theory of the social order and good, old-fashioned prejudice at play here—and both are enhanced by the social isolation of the rich from the poor.
I don’t want to minimize the deep philosophical differences between a conservative and liberal perspective on social issues, but I do think that some conservatives would be surprised to see firsthand the work ethic, the lack of excuses for previous bad behavior and blunders, the self-reliance, and multiple responsibilities and schedules of the students I’ve met.
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