Thursday, April 15, 2010

Head v. Heart: The Economy Edition, Pt. 3

Part 1 here
Part 2 here

There are people with obvious advantages. Dad owns a business; son is hired as a manager. Family is wealthy; daughter’s college years are paid for.

People like me had less tangible and less obvious advantages; however, ultimately these are the most important ones.

I didn’t have a lot in terms of material items or wealth. My advantages came in the expectations placed upon me, both internal and external.

My mom nurtured my intellectual curiosity, starting when I was a toddler. My dad provided for our family.

They both expected me to behave. For the most part, I did.

They both expected me to succeed. For the most part, I have.

I had high-quality teachers for most of my classes, from kindergarten through high school.

I chose friends, consciously or not, who wouldn’t steer me down a dangerous path. When I found a friend who tried, I quietly distanced myself from him.

Most of all, I expected myself to succeed.

So why the soft spot for those whose lives get derailed?

Because most kids who grew up where I grew up didn’t have these advantages.


When my brother graduated from Schlagle (KCK) in 2000, the friends and family of many of the graduates made huge spectacles of themselves as the names were called. It annoyed the hell out of me at the time…but not long after, I realized: a lot of these kids would be the first in the families to graduate high school. Not college. HIGH SCHOOL. Getting through the 12th grade was a monumental achievement for a lot of those kids.

Also of note? The valedictorian had a 3.5 GPA. Seriously. Out of 250 graduates, in the age of AP courses with extra grade points attached, the top graduate had a 3.5.

Another example--when I was a substitute teacher my last semester of college, I distinctly remember my first day teaching high school. I was at Wyandotte High, and we had those Scantron attendance forms to track attendance.

There were 27 kids enrolled in my first hour Spanish class. As I called attendance, only 13 were present. The other 14 had been “bubbled out” on the Scantron form for two weeks.

Point being, over half the class had dropped out of school.

That was in 1998. Things have only gotten worse.

Sumner Academy is a double-edged sword for the KCK school district, in my opinion. Yes, it provides a great educational opportunity for the top 20% of the district, but it robs the other four high schools of talent that is sorely needed to push other students and set examples.

KCK’s graduation rate is 49%, and that INCLUDES Sumner’s 90%+ rate.

Blue Valley is at 99%. Expectations, people.

Result: If you aren’t expected to graduate, you probably won’t.

The inner city culture, by and large, does not promote education. In fact, school is often ridiculed as a waste of time (and money, if you’re talking about college). If you thought studious kids got picked on in suburban schools….

And never mind that money for college is available in abundance to low-income kids--if a kid is told he’s too dumb for college even once, that kid probably never has the confidence to bother.

Besides, what wins out when you’re 16: the teacher you think is a punk, telling you about Pell Grants? Or your friends who have already dropped out of school and drive cars financed by bags of weed and “pre-owned” Alpine car stereos?

Forget about having a long-term perspective. No one has more than a year of foresight at age 16.

Do you see how early and easily a life can start to derail?

At least 6 kids around my age (that I know of) who grew up within a couple blocks of me were felons before they turned 20, and these are just the ones who got caught. One of them shot and killed someone. Another was shot and killed by someone else.

I can’t begin to count how many have given their lives to drugs.

Result: When education is not valued, something else is valued in its place. That alternative is not likely to be very good.


Based on family income, some children qualify to have their school lunch costs reduced or waived completely.

The percentage of kids in the Shawnee Mission School District receiving free or reduced lunch is 21%.

Olathe? 13%

Blue Valley? 4.3%

Before I start, no one is claiming life is rosy for every kid in the suburbs. Far from it.

However, in terms of having a path to becoming the proverbial “productive member of society”, even the least wealthy of these kids have some or all of the advantages I did.

They have an educational system with high expectations and graduation rates. That’s institutional support.

They are much more likely to have parents who expect them to succeed; their mere presence in the superior suburban schools is at least in part due to their parents consciously moving there. That’s familial support.

The vast majority of these kids are not surrounded by drug dealers and gangs, digging their claws into them and pulling them out of the classroom. That’s societal support.

The poor in Johnson County are surrounded by people who have made good lives for themselves. Over half of the adult population has at least a bachelor’s degree. Those are examples to which they can aspire.

90% of the KCK district is on free or reduced lunch. Yep. NINE out of TEN kids.

A family of 4 must gross less than $40k to get reduced lunch (and $28k to get free lunch).

Think about that for a second.

Socioeconomic cues, while not all-important, are still significant. When the family is scraping, it’s because the parents have not found gainful employment. They have not found gainful employment because…well, because of the reasons above. They weren’t expected to succeed or get educated (less than 12% of KCK adults have bachelor’s degrees). They didn’t have the role models—the good examples…which means they tend not to be good examples themselves. The people next door, across the street, and down the street are all in the same boat.

Thus perpetuating the cycle. Where are those kids’ examples?

That’s the reason I can’t be angry about subsidizing things—health insurance, college, housing—for those who didn’t get the best breaks.

It’s not all their fault. Most of the people who will read this are unaware of what some people have to deal with to even make it to adulthood unscathed.

If you didn’t grow up in the sort of environment I've described, you’re fortunate.

It’s a 99% positive thing for you. Just know the 1% downside is comprised exclusively of YOU DON’T F*&@ING GET TO ACT AS IF YOU KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE TO GROW UP UNDER THOSE CIRCUMSTANCES.

I’ve seen it. Hell, I was surrounded by it. And it really affected my perspective.

I can’t lavish a world of blame on people for poor decisions made that early in life based on such faulty cues and information.

Do I agree with all government programs? Absolutely not. Do people abuse the “system”? Sure.

But when it comes down to it, I prefer to judge my society based on how it treats its least fortunate citizens—not its wealthiest.

And as tax day cometh in America, I’m happy to pay my share.


smh said...

Absolutely. I am more than pleased to pay my taxes, even if I have a little twinge as to what I could have bought with that money. Nevertheless, the point remains: I have enough while others continue to go without and that simply shouldn't be.

Steaming bowl o' Calderone said...

With that thought, No One Has To Cry.

XXX said...

JJS, excellent commentary on the public education system. I spent 5 years teaching in the urban schools you describe. I have to admit that I would not have known the lack of preparation/expectation that exists in these environments, had I not worked in there. My friend, who lives in the Blue Valley district and attended a suburban school himself, can't get through his head the depth of problems faced by these kids. My first hard lesson came when I failed a senior, who had skipped my class all semester, but yet needed the credit to graduate. In my ignorance of the environment, I dismissed the prestige of a high school graduation, pointing out that there were bigger events in the future(i.e. college graduation, marriage, etc.) I doubt she ever went to college. My principal had to explain the value of a family member graduating high school after the momma threw a fit over me failing her daughter. Keep in mind she had skipped the class everyday, but yet that was ignored...? Cleaning up this endless cycle of poverty is going to require some pain and suffering. Unfortunately, the social programs that we support with tax money breed the complacency that makes the cycle tick. I wish I had a kind solution, but sometimes you gotta slap the hand that's in the cookie jar, no matter how much they cry.

JJSKCK said...

XXX - Thank you for commenting and touching on the downside of government assistance: the sense of entitlement that is created in many. I believe that peeves more people than simply giving money to the poor, because it begs the question, "How is this actually HELPING anyone?" It's the "teach a man to fish" argument, and it's perfectly valid.
You've seen firsthand that the situations these people face are incredibly complex.
And note that there will be no Pt. 4 to this series, as I don't pretend to know where to start in solving this problem.

m.v. said...

Read all parts and meant to comment but got tied up driving around :-).I am split on all of this. Some things are overrated, i.e. financial education that Americans are supposedly lacking. Before I got here I've never even seen a checkbook or a credit card. There is nothing special about balancing a checkbook or paying a bill. Without financial training you may not become Warren Buffet but you shouldn't have a problem doing everyday things. As far as surroundings and expectations,it's all relative. I know many people who came here with literally nothing, no drivers license, no language and now work/own businesses etc. The only people who don't are the ones who figured that living on a small subsidy beats working. It's a valid choice and some days I feel it's a better choice than schlepping to work in the morning. In other words, the odds can be beat, it's actually not that hard, when you got nothing behind you, so the only way is forward. As far as paying taxes, I don't have a problem with the fact or the amount but seeing the way they spend it,I can see people being unhappy. Not the tea-party unhappy, but just appalled with the wars,bailouts, bank bonuses,side-projects, no-bid contracts,cash for clunkers etc. etc. The whole economy is geared towards spending government money - ethanol, global warming, mortgage assistance etc. I don't feel good about contributing to any of that.