American Hustle: Ignoring Poverty In the US

It is 2014, and publications such as Education Week are offering 50th-year anniversary looks at the War on Poverty.

It is 2014, and race and racism remain words that shall not be spoken, lingering scars on the American character [1] that are routinely concealed beneath a heavy foundation (something in a Caucasian, please) and a bold but not too flashy shade of red lipstick.

It is 2014, and almost everyone will say poverty, but the great irony is that this American Hustle is achieved through constantly mentioning poverty in order to ignore it.

The trick is to keep the public gaze in the U.S. transfixed on people trapped in poverty, to reinforce the myth that poverty is the result of individual weaknesses (a lack of “grit,” for example), and to perpetuate the idea that the wealthy and privileged have earned that wealth and privilege.

This American Hustle allows politicians, the media, and the public to wash their collective hands of actually doing anything except demanding that the lazy poor step up to the American Dream home plate and take their swings like everyone else.

And our literature, for example, has ample evidence that being poor in the U.S. is above all other things embarrassing—see works from The Great Gatsby to eleanor & park.

Finger pointing, ignoring systemic inequity, and embarrassment—these are the crucibles in which inequity and privilege thrive, and these are the crucibles that must be confronted in ways that rise above 50th anniversaries.

Since education, privilege, poverty, and race are inextricably interrelated, we must confront some real lessons gained during the 50 years we now associate with a War on Poverty [2]:

  • Poverty/affluence and race remain nearly indistinguishable factors at a system level driving the opportunity gaps for people in the U.S. However, poverty and race can and must be addressed both as related markers for inequity/privilege as well as separately. Gender adds another axis of complexity, and thus must be viewed in conjunction with socioeconomic status and race as well as separately.
  • Affluence is the U.S. is gained primarily through privilege and slack—not through the superior personal characteristics of those experiencing wealth. Poverty is the result primarily of scarcity [3].
  • The two evidence-based failures of K-12 public schools in the U.S. include (1) that schools often reflect the inequities found in the communities those schools serve and (2) that schools often perpetuate the inequities found in the communities those schools serve [4].
  • Calls for in-school-only education reform as the sole mechanism for overcoming social inequity have never worked and cannot work. The evidence is clear that the accountability paradigm built on standards and high-stakes testing hasn’t address inequity (closing the so-called and misleading “achievement gap”) and cannot address inequity [5].

As each of us considers this American Hustle, let me recommend a series of readings that I think help reframe how we view poverty and how we view the role education plays against poverty:

But there is another step beyond dialogue, reading, thinking, and writing about the War on Poverty as the American Hustle.

We must act, we must do something directly about inequity while naming poverty, racism, and sexism as very real and not merely as token political discourse in order to mask those realities.

As Haberman implores: “Before we can make workers, we must first make people. But people are not made—they are conserved and grown” (p. 294).

[1] Please see Denying Racism Has an Evidence Problem and The Mistrial of Jordan Davis: More Evidence Problems for Denying Racism.

[2] Please see Ending Poverty Requires Community, Not War.

[3] Please see Learning and Teaching in Scarcity: How High-Stakes ‘Accountability’ Cultivates Failure.

[4] Please see Studies Suggest Economic Inequity Is Built Into, and Worsened by, School Systems, Schools Can’t Do It Alone: Why ‘Doubly Disadvantaged’ Kids Continue to Struggle Academically, and Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era.

[5] Please see What We Know (and Ignore) about Standards, Achievement, and Equity.