Wednesday, December 23, 2015

More than a Touch of Class

We’ve watched as the actual buying/earning power of 70% of Americans has steadily eroded over the past couple of decades, as the middle class has contracted to the point where it no longer represents a majority of us, and as the highest reaches of the economic ladder are farther removed from the average and the bottom than at any time in modern history. The notion of upward mobility, mostly through the playing field-leveler of ‘quality’ public education, has all but vaporized in a cacophony of slashed public school budgets, exploding college tuition rises without offsetting financial aid, and fights that prioritize teaching “creationism” over academic excellence. Automation and rising artificial intelligence are sucking up once lucrative manufacturing and administrative tasks as the United States face more direct global competition than ever before.
The fact is that socio-economic change has written the pages of history since man first began recording his experience on this planet. And here it comes again, creating a polarization within our nation we’ve never seen before, fighting values battles that were supposed to have been resolved by the Civil War as if that lethal conflict had never happened. We are dealing with challenges from within and without by forces that severely threaten our way of life. So you may be wondering how parents at differing parts of the economic spectrum are raising their children in the face of these seminal changes.
Pew Research Center addressed that question in a recent survey, and the December 17th New York Times summarizes those findings: “The lives of children from rich and poor American families look more different than they have in decades.
“Well-off families are ruled by calendars, with children enrolled in ballet, soccer and after-school programs, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. There are usually two parents, who spend a lot of time reading to children and worrying about their anxiety levels and hectic schedules.
“In poor families, however, children tend to spend their time at home or with extended family, the survey found. They are more likely to grow up in neighborhoods that their parents say aren’t great for raising children, and their parents worry about them getting shot, beaten up or in trouble with the law.”
All Americans want what’s best for their kids, and most understand the benefits of having the money to spend on their growing up. But there is an underlying philosophical difference between the well-off and those struggling with money, just as there are vast differences between those with higher educations and those with less desirable level of schooling.
“Middle-class and higher-income parents see their children as projects in need of careful cultivation, says Annette Lareau, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist whose groundbreaking research on the topic was published in her book ‘Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life.’ They try to develop their skills through close supervision and organized activities, and teach children to question authority figures and navigate elite institutions.
“Working-class parents, meanwhile, believe their children will naturally thrive, and give them far greater independence and time for free play. They are taught to be compliant and deferential to adults.
“There are benefits to both approaches. Working-class children are happier, more independent, whine less and are closer with family members, Ms. Lareau found. Higher-income children are more likely to declare boredom and expect their parents to solve their problems…
“Yet later on, the more affluent children end up in college and en route to the middle class, while working-class children tend to struggle. Children from higher-income families are likely to have the skills to navigate bureaucracies and succeed in schools and workplaces, Ms. Lareau said.” NY Times.
We do live in a complex society, where knowing how to deal with a legal system that invades every corner of life, finances and banking, knowing how to use various tools and connections to discover solutions that are not obvious or intuitive, networking, and understanding how to acquire skills and find economic opportunities often define success, failure and marginalization. And those abilities are not evenly spread across society. Even our vocabulary differentials can impede movement up that socio-economic ladder.
Rich folks have moved increasingly away from the urban and rural decay that surrounds the lower classes; often the well-heeled thrive in gated communities or lavish apartments with doormen at the guard. It wasn’t always so, and perhaps the future of urban planning can undo some of the damage caused by this separation.
“In the Pew survey, middle-class families earning between $30,000 and $75,000 a year fell right between working-class and high-earning parents on issues like the quality of their neighborhood for raising children, participation in extracurricular activities and involvement in their children’s education.
“Children were not always raised so differently. The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is 30 percent to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than those born 25 years earlier, according to Mr. Reardon’s research.
“People used to live near people of different income levels; neighborhoods are now more segregated by income. More than a quarter of children live in single-parent households — a historic high, according to Pew – and these children are three times as likely to live in poverty as those who live with married parents. Meanwhile, growing income inequality has coincided with the increasing importance of a college degree for earning a middle-class wage.” NY Times.
It’s going to take a major societal focus to manage the transition to this new economy. We need to apply every ounce of charity we have, every bit of understanding and empathy we can muster and a major commitment of time, money and effort to fix this. If we really care about our fellow Americans.
I’m Peter Dekom, and it is high time we all prioritized helping each other to rebuild what we had before.

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