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Thursday, October 12, 2006

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Ben

This is borderline offensive, too, but I'll throw student relocation into the mix.

My wife is a high school teacher, and she's worked exclusively at urban schools - in San Antonio, Cincinnati, and Atlanta. She does this because she is a good teacher (teacher of the year last year!) and believes her work is her contribution to social justice.

But so many of her students are too far gone. They skip massive amounts of class, never study, never do homework and don't really care if they fail. And neither do their friends.

The parental support is also abysmal. Out of more than 100 students in her classes, guess how many had parents show up to open house?

Four.

These kids get no support or encouragement at home, then they come to a school where studying is a terribly counter cultural activity. Also, there's a critical mass of trouble makers that makes the school very hard to control.

The administration is not great either, but that's a different post.

It doesn't take a genius to see that no law - and probably no amount of money - is going to really improve the situation. The culture is just too poisonous.

So I think you need to send the students elsewhere. Of course, it would have to be done with parental consent, which makes it tricky. But there are other schools - military-style and otherwise - that have tried this with some success, I think.

But xarker's right, there needs to be a change.

Dewey Sasser

These are all interesting suggestions. I see a few more problems, however.

I see a primary barrier to poverty solution as how to solve the problems while still allowing individual choice. Some of the solutions proposed are fairly straight-forward and obvious but unless we *impose* the choice I don't think you'll get many takers. How many kids would chose to leave their "friends" and family and travel into the unknown for the possibility of a better education? How many parents would send their kids into that against their will? Some, surely, but for many it's "better the Devil we know..." Surely trust -- whether it's trusting the government or a specific organization -- does not come easily to people in this position.

The other problem with choice is that even if we offer some of the options and people take them, I have a problem with compelling support (i.e. taxes) from those who don't agree with the method of support. Military academies are mentioned -- and many on the left would not want to support them. Communes were mentioned -- and many on the right would not want to support *them*.

Frankly, I think we need a better solution to funding and choice before we start attacking the poverty problem.

A problem that I've seen at least once (college roommate's Mom) was the wellfare recipient was gaming the system -- she had effectively chosen life within the wellfare system over life outside of it. Perhaps she just enjoyed soap operas and didn't mind "Section 8" housing (Massachusetts term but I'm sure everywhere in the US has an equivalent.) So, is it a problem or a choice? Or both? As this *will* happen, we must either set up a system where this is not a viable choice (hence wellfare limit attempts) or be willing to live with those who make that choice -- thus effectively choosing to support others.

Should we force those with mental illnesses to get treatment? That's a rather slippery slope that could end up in a diagnosis of "social maladjustment -- treatment mandated".

How about drug habits?

Should we define a minimum income level and say that if you can't meet that level you have to enter this anti-poverty system? (Yes, I've intentionally phrased that in an unappealing way -- effectively a super poll-tax on steroids.)

I think one critical question that everyone needs to ask themselves is "what are we willing to allow?" Should people have the freedom to starve? Is it OK if someone decides to commit suicide by continual high? We need to eliminate our own inconsistency in our thinking in order to attack this problem -- and ultimately we'll need to accept the consequences.

I agree with Dan that the thing which gets me the most is the generational aspect -- the kids don't have the freedom to choose themselves. On the other hand, this is just the back edge of the same sword which allows us to give our kids the benefits we want them to have. How to you allow the one without the other?

Vera

I agree that just throwing money at the problem will not solve it nor will cutting off funds and hoping it will go away will work either.

The poverty many face is more than just a lack of funds, although that is a real problem, but it's also crime, drugs, and a lack of education, skills, and hope.

Breaking the cycle of poverty and fostering a stable environment is the key. Somehow, we need to bring back the sense that marriage and family and education is good and have our policies reward and assist those who want to have those things with things like, jobs, health insurance, and afforable housing.

I know that may sound a bit conservative and old fashioned to some, but I have my liberal and conservative sides, and they get along just fine.

While I feel that all people should live in a safe environment, I have some concerns about segregating the poor even further away from the mainstream even for a good cause. I feel that we need to make places as safe as possible where people live now.

Maybe some types of boarding schools would be helpful as well as kibbutz-style communities, but there would need to be lots and lots of support--good training, job placement, education, law enforcement, and a sense that these places are part of the community or they'll quickly turn into just more havens of despair.

I grew up poor, but I was lucky to have a stable environment and a parent who really cared about education and the value of hard work. We learned that learning is a lifelong process, and doesn't start and end with formal schooling. We watched educational televison, went to the library, and she took the small funds she had to subscribe to magazines like Time, Newsweek, and Reader's Digest.

She also had a great love for history--especially the Civil War era, and as a child, she had me read Gone With the Wind and North and South just so she have someone to talk about the books to. It was sad that becuase I was a kid, I had no idea of the stress that she was under and the massive amount of inner courage that she had to take care of us all alone.

I'm rambling, but it's personal. I often saw how ugly my mother was treated by agencies and how she had to accept it, and today I see how much distain society has for the poor.

Perhaps one day, society will figure out that it doesn't benefit us to have such a cycle of poverty, crime, and hopelessness in our country, but until it really affects society at large--I mean really--nothing will get done.


VinylVenus

I can speak on welfare from a caseworker's position. Before I was a truck driver, I was a caseload manager for the state of Wyoming until 1993.

I became one because I wanted to help. I believed that our programs were designed to provide that "safety net" that caught families when highwire "mis-steps" happened. And, in theory, that was true. The programs were designed to be temporary measures.

However, once on welfare, within about three months of relief from the terror of "how will I feed and house my family", a seduction set in. Most especially, if they were living in low-income housing. It appeared that the "veteran" welfare mothers were educating the "newbies" in how to get more. And for longer periods. Once the mothers overcame their shame about going on welfare, they became part of the culture that had sprung up in these concentrated centers of welfare.

(Fact: the "Welfare Queen" is mostly a myth. It's an anomaly, an aberration. The stats on family size in Wyoming's welfare system was 1.2 children per family! The overwhelming majority of single mothers on my caseload had only one child.)

Besides Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), they received Food Stamps and Medicaid. They were eligible for Low-Income Housing (some were paying just $16/month, and some were even receiving quarterly rebates based on utilities!). If they said they wanted education, we weren't allowed to consider their Pell Grants and school loans as income; rightly so, in most cases, but the aggregate income was sometimes more than I was making! One young mother, three terms in a row, attended classes for less than a month and dropped out.

We offered Day Care for working and/or student mothers. However, we had a fixed term for receiving Day Care for the working mothers. I always felt it should be indexed to income, as most mothers were working minimum wage jobs; at that point, having to pay for child care became a question of "can I really afford to work?".

I left just as welfare was being reconfigured by the state, well in advance of President Clinton's ballyhooed Welfare Reform. I haven't stayed up on the changes.

I agree with Dan on most points. But I must add that we need to carefully study all of our failures, in order to prevent repeating them. One failed project--the Bedford/Stuyvesant--leaps to mind...

Poverty is everything Dan said it is and more. It is complex and misunderstood by many, and demonized by the Right. That said, I know we can do better in this area.

Naomi

Daniel

Well, Vera and Naomi bring up what I think is an important distinction: There's a difference between what we think of as classic poverty and being broke.

Because of the way my parents chose to live when I was growing up (much of that time spent on a rural commune), there were times when we really didn't have any money, and probably could have qualified for some level of assistance. But that isn't the same thing as poverty: Both of my parents have advanced degrees. During much of that "no-cash" time, we lived in the country and were very close to self-sufficiency. I didn't grow up crippled by ignorance or addiction or generational dysfunction. We just lived frugally, wore hand-me-downs, watched black-and-white TV and went without cable.

So the condition I want to address isn't really lack of money (we grew up reading Mother Earth News: You don't have to have much money to live a nice, simple life).

What I propose here is that ONE of the options we could include in a new social services policy would be VOLUNTARY, self-sufficient, communal living situations for single mothers and their children. Each family would be promised transportation back to wherever they came from, and anyone could choose to leave at any moment, for any reason. The flipside would be that participants who do not abide by the rules of the community would be required to leave it.

My thinking goes like this: If every mother were to put in a full day of cooperative labor (working in some communal enterprise, or in the garden, or in the kitchen, or in the garage, or in the nursery, etc.), you'd still have plenty of meaningful time for job adult education, job training, parenting classes, recreation and time with their children. And by making this a place where the women are involved in the direction and operation of the institution, you'd be helping them to learn important skills while building confidence.

The reason I like this idea so much is that the majority of the poor single mothers I've known are simply stressed out or checked out. Most are in bad situations where they live, with the people around them, and even when they try to get away they wind up coming back because they don't have any support structure.

I imagine a simple but clean housing in a rural setting, a place with good security and great schools for the children. Mothers would apply for slots, go through an application process, and the lucky ones would be granted a place for themselves and their children. Those who abide by the rules would be allowed to stay as long as they wished, but the emphasis would be on moving women out of the commune once they were ready to try independence. We'd help them find jobs and housing in safe, affordable neighborhoods.

I propose this because here's the thing nobody wants to say: When you're the third generation of single women in your family to drop out of high school and have a baby, you don't need help parenting your child: You need parenting yourself, because you're not grown yet at 16 or 19 or even 25. And the ghetto is a terrible place to parent ANYONE.

The reason I think this ideas is actually feasible is because American voters will like the idea that these women are volunteers who are self-sufficient via their labor. We're more willing to help people who are willing to help themselves. Plus, if we don't have to provide money for subsistence, we can focus all the available money on SERVICES.

Vera

Dan, I think your idea may work for some. It would need to be totally voluntary and have the support of the nearby community as well as a strong exit plan.

Also, keep in mind that though the inner city does have it's terrors, it is home, and it will be hard to uproot humans from a bad place that they know for an uncertain one.

The last thing I would like to see it turn into is a segregated work camp for poor women and their children far away from home and in the midst of a community that shuns them.

On the other hand, with the proper guidance, support, and careful consideration for the humanity of the residents, it could be the answer for some, and one solution of the many that we would need.

Daniel

Vera wrote:
"The last thing I would like to see it turn into is a segregated work camp for poor women and their children far away from home and in the midst of a community that shuns them."

Bingo. The operative term being "work camp." Because if you made something like this mandatory, or if you even got squishy on the exit strategy, that's what it would become.

And the community shunning would be a big deal, too. You'd have to find places that would welcome the idea... although, I can say from experience that communal living arrangements that start off shunned usually don't stay that way, at least not the serious ones where the people are there to put down roots.

On the other hand, you really wouldn't want a lot of interaction with the surrounding towns -- at least not at first. You're trying to make the place self-sufficient and self-governing. You'd be trying to get the women and their children to form some kind of functioning community, with traditions and a sense of identity. You want to impose some of that direction with the staff, but there's only so much that can be imposed.

And what I would really hope to see is that the people who go through the program would form their own formal and informal networks AFTER they leave. You'd want your former residents to be the people who sit on the board of directors, etc.

And while I can imagine many of these things, I'd hope that each one would be individual in its focus and management. Not a bunch of franchises -- a bunch of independent non-profits with a common funding source but each with their own way of doing things.

You mentioned women from urban neighborhoods, but don't stop there. Some of the worst poverty is rural. The reason for making one of these things rural isn't to remove women from urban environments, but because rural land is relatively cheap and it would be easier to have some meaningful security in a place that's built on cheap rural land versus cheap urban land.

An interesting question: How big is too big? How small is two small? I'm thinking a community of several hundred, with families living as units in private apartments but sharing some facilities. I imagine it looking like the village/farm setup in Bavaria, where the farmers live side-by-side with the shopkeepers and tradespeople all live in a tight little urban knot, surrounded by their fields. I lived in a German village like that -- it was great.

Village/communal life removes all sorts of stresses, but it can become too dull for words. It's another reason the model speaks to me: It's a great place to learn and grow, but people will outgrow it and want to leave.

And I completely agree that it would have to be one solution in a menu of solutions. I'm not suggesting otherwise, or even that a majority of the women who could benefit from such a program would even choose it. I just have this sneaking suspicion that if you did it right, you would have some spectacular successes.

VinylVenus

You make me think! Dangerous, in this day and age...

On communes and minimal interaction with locals--the world becomes suspicious and nosey. Rumors start, and the children would probably be the focus. Somehow, we have to walk that fine line between merely separate and secretive.

On communes and labors--why not choose specialties, like fine knit garments (machine produced, of course)? Or propagation and growth of crops in high demand for short periods of time? (I'm thinking of the moron tobacco growers who say they don't know how to grow anything else--and arugula [or whatever designer lettuce is in vogue] is needed NOW!)

On communes and teaching discipline--many of these women have grown up in homes that barely modeled existence, let alone time management and balancing multiple roles. Until they can learn that domestic chaos is hurting them (and how to change), they can't teach it to their child(ren).

The level of self-esteem among the poor is appalling. It's usually generational. Some way, usually through peer groups helping each member, needs to be established to remove the barriers and stumbling blocks and self-defeating behaviors. Until she knows why she keeps getting beaten up, she'll continue to be beaten up. She has had a part in it, by accepting it and by staying.

Yes, education is empowerment. But it has to include the mental/psychological help that is needed.

(Full disclosure: I was 42 when I finally got the help I needed. Thankfully, my problem wasn't drugs or alchohol or gambling. But a lifetime of dysfunctional relationships (many!) had to end. Two years of weekly group sessions, guided by a talented therapist, was my salvation. I was finally able to get past being incested by my father and begin to live a more normal life.)

Dan, as to size--I have no idea. But probably some intangible factor will determine the optimal size at each location.

Women are resilient, when given the right help. (Sorry, Dan, you'll find that I have a poor opinion of testosterone.) Given a nurturing environment, emotional therapy and a vision of what their life might look like, most of them should be better for the experience.

I know from personal experience that removing the addiction to adrenaline, that I got from my domestic chaos, led me to a more mature life. When it creeps back in, I make whatever change needed to push it back out.

I'll think on this some more. Thanks for the post!

Naomi

Daniel

The commune I lived on was small and open -- just some old houses on a dirt road. But the two classic (and larger) communes that I'm familiar with were more self-contained. What's interesting to me is that they handled this in two steps: first they got their shit together, and then they started reaching out to their larger communities. Twin Oaks in Virginia does volunteer construction projects and other such things. Steven Gaskin's Farm in Tennessee runs a free public health clinic for the county. So at some point, yes, you'd want the group to be contributing to the life of the surrounding area. But at first? Maybe not so much. Also, the reason to limit the interaction is really to bring a sense of order and security to these women's lives. Naomi isn't kidding when she talks about the chaos. Many have never, not one single day, felt truly secure or relaxed.

Oh, and in terms of the kids: You want these children going to their own school, not mixed into the existing crappy rural school system. And you want these kids to get great teachers, great resources. They've got some catching up to do. Remember: a lot of ghetto-kid toughness is the result of the result of growing up in situations where adults can't be trusted and you're scared shitless all the time.

I had a job one summer teaching kids how to rock climb, etc., at a camp for gifted children. Many of them came from poor neighborhoods in Charlotte. They'd show up all edgy and morose and remote, and it would take them the first week just to learn that they were safe and accepted. In the second and final week they would bloom, and on the final night they would often sob uncontrollably and walk around with their arms around their friends.

I don't know that it's possible to reach more children, but it seems to me that it's a good idea to start with the lowest level in Maslow's heirarchy of needs: security.

VinylVenus

Dan, great point about rock-climbing as a teaching tool. Or any wilderness adventure. Witness how many corporations contract with these commercial ventures to build teamwork and fearlessness.

Yes, I talked all around the issue of security without recognizing that important point. Perhaps by folding in some of those above exercises, we can move these mothers terrorized by life from terror to having security provided to them--to understanding how security is an insurance policy against terror and a healthy life-style--to making sure they have the tools for establishing their own security.

It would be a carrot-and-stick program with the model and the vision-thing in the beginning, and success at the end. Hopefully.

Most of these women, figuratively, live their lives with their eyes on the ground in front of them, never looking beyond the next step. And for most of them, the second step beyond what they can see is either total darkness, or a swamp, or a cliff-edge. They rarely believe that the next steps are on solid ground.

Thanks, Dan, for reminding me what I learned from the mothers I worked with...

Naomi

Colleen

you can get your crack right at the office where they administer the welfare cheques at 329 Powell because the dealers hangout and they do and it does some our sent there for asking for money to feed their kids because its part of a workers job unless they can say NO! to a hungry baby well then they are just not misery material perks are given to workers for ensuring their clients remain in need for their basic food and shelter and in constant crisis and that is just the way it is! the job pay is $20 an hour the price of a hit of crack is $20 the price of a food crisis for the month is $20.

Colleen

I am an activist and am presently putting together a petition asking the minister to resign for his inhuman treatment of his clients and the squandering of over 70 million dollars on bogious employment agencies in boom times and am asking him to be accountable for his mismanagement of disablity clients money. I have evidence to support my allegations and am asking for his resignation ASAP!

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