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Ground Zero in the Land of Opportunity

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Posted on Dec 12, 2012
Flickr/Earlham College

By Mike Rose

(Page 3)

I’ve been working with one group that begin classes at 7 in the morning, then work, participate in student government, go to the library to study and leave in the evening—usually by public transportation—for homes that are anything but stable (thus the refuge of the library). One young man is currently homeless, sleeping in his inoperable car parked at a friend’s family’s house. He’s at school every day by 6 a.m. to clean up and get his day in order.

Of course there are people at their school who are drifting, drawing what resources they can, sometimes deluding themselves, sometimes consciously gaming the system. The students I’m mentoring can point them out in a heartbeat because they are not the norm. Furthermore, and it’s a sign of the times that I even have to write this, such behaviors appear across the socioeconomic landscape. The deplorable thing is the degree to which moral and character flaws are disproportionately attributed to poor people. But if you are able to penetrate the ideological fog and actually enter other people’s lives, you’ll witness a quite different and much more complex human reality.

Finally, the right justifies advantage by defining opportunity as an individual phenomenon and represents obstacles to mobility as clear and local and within one’s personal power to overcome. This definition yields a particular version of the rags to riches story, which takes us back to the young Horatio Alger character sitting on that park bench. Conservatives use rise-from-hardship narratives to great effect, for they confirm their claims about the ever-presence of opportunity, regardless of background. But one of the most striking things about conservative celebrations of mobility is that they are accounts of hardship with almost no feel of hardship to them. They reflect a kind of opportunity that exists only in fiction. Obstacles receive brief mention—if they’re mentioned at all—and anger, doubt and despair are virtually absent. You won’t see the home health care worker whose back is a wreck or the guys at bitter loose ends when the factory closes. You won’t see people exhausted, shuttling between two or more jobs to make a living or the anxious scramble for minimal health care for their kids.

The right’s stories present a world stripped of the physical and moral insult of poverty. Characters move upward, driven by self-reliance, optimism, faith and responsibility. Though there might be an occasional reference to teachers or employers who were impressed with the candidate’s qualities, the explanations for the person’s achievements rest pretty much within his or her individual spirit. The one exception is parents: They are usually mentioned as the source of virtue. Family values as the core of economic mobility.


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In the Alger originals, the lucky break, the fortuitous encounter, is key to the enterprising hero’s ascent. Alger’s narrator writes: “Not many boys can expect an uninterrupted course of prosperity when thrown upon their own exertions.” It’s worth dwelling on this sentence, for there’s little play of chance and good fortune in the contemporary conservative version. Luck’s got nothing to do with it. And you surely will not hear a whisper about legislation or social movements that may have enhanced opportunity, opened a door or removed an obstacle. It would be hard to find a more radically individual portrait of achievement.

The stories of mobility I know differ greatly from the conservative script. To be sure, there is hard work and perseverance and faith—sometimes deeply religious faith. But many people with these same characteristics don’t make it out of poverty. Discrimination is intractable, or the local economy is devastated to the core, or the consequences of poor education cannot be overcome, or one’s health gives out or family ties (and, often, tragedy) overwhelm.

The people who do succeed—and their gains are typically modest—often tell stories of success mixed with setbacks, of two steps forward and one back. Such stories reveal anger and nagging worry, or compromise and ambivalence, or a bruising confrontation with one’s real or imagined inadequacies—“falling down within me,” as one woman in an adult literacy program put it. This is the lived experience of social class. No wonder that these truer stories typically give great significance to help of some kind, both private and public. A relative, a friend, or a minister lends a hand. Family and community social networks open up an opportunity. A local occupational center provides training. The government’s safety net—food stamps and welfare, Medicaid, public housing—protects one from devastation.

It is, then, a tight bundle of reductive economic and social theory, a fanciful definition of opportunity and negative beliefs about the poor that have become such a force in truly difficult budget negotiations, and there does not seem to be an equally powerful economic and moral counter-voice in those deliberations to check it.

One of the programs I visited at the college enrolls low-skilled adults in a mix of math and English courses with training in the construction trades. During the orientation, the director would ask the students to talk and write about what brought them back to school. The economic motive was a big one. “I want to get some money to take care of myself,” said a woman who was also eager to earn her high school diploma. A young man said flat out, “I don’t want to work a crappy job all my life.” But there were a lot of other reasons these people had come back to school. They wanted to “learn more,” “be a role model for my kids,” “get a career to support my daughter,” “develop better social skills and better speech,” “have a better life,” “turn my life around,” “be somebody in this world.” This is what the students at ground zero in the land of opportunity have to say. Who, in turn, will speak for them?

To read an excerpt from Mike Rose’s latest book, “Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education,” click here.

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