Some­times the poor do make it big. Usu­ally they stay poor

Ripon Bulletin - - Local/state/opinion -

We all want to live in a coun­try where all it takes is hard work and some tal­ent for any­one to suc­ceed. We tell our­selves that we do. We even see ex­am­ples of peo­ple who “came from noth­ing” and ended up rich and fa­mous.

And it’s true that it some­times hap­pens. Some­times a child born into poverty grows up to be­come the pres­i­dent of the United States, a multi­bil­lion­aire, or an Olympic gold medal­ist.

Most of the time, how­ever, they don’t. And it’s not be­cause they’re bad, lazy, stupid, or im­moral. Of­ten it’s be­cause of our sys­tem it­self.

Take our school sys­tem for a start. By fund­ing schools with prop­erty taxes, we guar­an­tee that the chil­dren from the rich­est neigh­bor­hoods go to the wealth­i­est schools.

If we lived in neigh­bor­hoods that were eco­nom­i­cally mixed with fam­i­lies of all in­comes, this wouldn’t be a big deal. But we don’t. In­stead we have ar­eas of very wealthy peo­ple whose chil­dren at­tend won­der­ful schools, and ar­eas of con­cen­trated poverty where chil­dren at­tend fail­ing schools.

And the kids in the good schools? Their par­ents can af­ford tu­tor­ing, ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties, sum­mer camp, and SAT prep classes. It’s the kids whose par­ents can’t pro­vide those ex­tra learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties who go to the worst schools.

Mean­while, ca­reers are sorted into those that re­quire a col­lege de­gree and those that don’t. Once upon a time, one could sup­port a fam­ily on the wage of a man­u­fac­tur­ing job. But America lost those jobs, and re­placed them with poorly paid ser­vice jobs that of­ten have no ben­e­fits.

For those with­out col­lege de­grees, get­ting ahead is dif­fi­cult. But col­lege is ex­pen­sive. Even with­out the tu­ition costs, one has to keep a roof over their head and eat while at­tend­ing school. Com­mu­nity col­leges and on­line pro­grams add flex­i­bil­ity for stu­dents who work full time while at­tend­ing school, but it can still be dif­fi­cult.

I don’t ad­vo­cate a re­turn to the days when men worked and women stayed home. But at least back then, fam­i­lies had an adult whose full time du­ties were to take care of the home and the chil­dren.

When women went to work, the ex­pec­ta­tions of the work­place didn’t change. Men with stay-ath­ome wives never needed ma­ter­nity leave or flex time or places to pump breast­milk or time off to pick up a sick kid from day care.

But in fam­i­lies where both part­ners work, or in sin­gle par­ent fam­i­lies, how on earth are par­ents sup­posed to hold down a full time job and si­mul­ta­ne­ously be full-time homemak­ers?

So­ci­ol­o­gist Ar­lie Hochschild ex­am­ined this in her clas­sic book The Sec­ond Shift, find­ing that the house­work of­ten still falls dis­pro­por­tion­ately to work­ing women, of­ten leav­ing them fraz­zled and ex­hausted. Some­times the kids lose out, when nei­ther par­ent has time to spend with them.

Wealth­ier fam­i­lies now pay for the work that women used to do for free: child­care, laun­dry, cook­ing, clean­ing, and so on.

But whom do they pay? Less wealthy women, usu­ally. And those women, after spend­ing a day car­ing for some­one else’s kids or do­ing some­one else’s laun­dry, still have to fig­ure out how to get their own house­work done once they go home.

The end re­sult is that most peo­ple who start out poor stay poor. And those who start out rich usu­ally stay rich. (Re­cent stud­ies show that Canada now has three times bet­ter so­cial mo­bil­ity than the U.S., sug­gest­ing the Amer­i­can dream moved north.)

Ours is a great sys­tem, if you’re rich. But we’d be a bet­ter coun­try if we didn’t rig the game against those whose only mis­take was to be born to poor par­ents.

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