Following Mother’s Day, Stop Blaming Mothers

In a tradition just as American as Mother’s Day and apple pie, we are often blaming mothers for our nation’s social ills. Historically, low-income, immigrant, and nonwhite mothers have served as easy scapegoats for tough problems like poverty, delinquency, unrest, and “lawlessness.” The recent viral media fixation on Toya Graham, the Baltimore “#MomoftheYear” demonstrates that this trend is in full force. Ms. Graham was caught on video trying desperately to pull her 16-year-old son away from the Baltimore protests. Later, Ms. Graham admitted to reporters that she had “lost it” and was in shock when she was slapping him saying, “That’s my only son, and at the end of the day, I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray.” In other words, she did not want another young black man to lose his life to racial profiling.

And, who could fault her? Unfortunately many Americans can, relying on stereotypes that expect too much from individual mothers. For example USA Today repeated a tweet that read, “If she raised her son better, she wouldn’t have needed to do that.” And even when the New York Post retorted to support her actions, they similarly relied on these exaggerated notions of personal responsibility, “What Baltimore Mom and Baltimore Son illustrate is the forgotten truth that societal problems begin in the home. More often than we tend to admit anymore, problems can be solved there, too.”

In my own research on mothers raising kids with the burgeoning numbers of invisible disabilities – from ADHD to emotional, behavioral, and higher functioning autism spectrum disorders – I heard many such stories of blaming individual mothers. We have thankfully progressed past the 1950s and 60s when autism was believed directly caused by cold and withholding “refrigerator mothers.” But I discovered that mothers now are criticized if they are not relentlessly tracking down the best treatments, schools, medications, and services to maximize their vulnerable child’s development. We find it easier to shame mothers raising kids with invisible disorders — to send the problems back home to be solved — rather than face the impact of our nation’s disordered economy and lack of opportunities.

We find it easier to shame mothers rather than face the impact of our nation’s disordered economy and lack of opportunities.

Unsurprisingly, I found that single mothers report receiving the most blame from school personnel, healthcare providers, and sometimes from child protective service workers. I spoke with three white single mothers who had received complaints against them of possible child abuse or neglect when their kids were disruptive or aggressive in school. Yet each of these mothers was quickly cleared of any wrongdoing, and two were even happy about the support they received from social workers investigating their “broken” homes. It was only the one black single mother who had her struggling daughter removed from their home. They were only reunited after two years of family court supervision. She told me, “I think that’s what really shocked them, too . . . that I have not missed one social service meeting, one school meeting, one group home meeting. I was at every court-order thing. I guess it took them two years to realize I was a dedicated parent.”

Mothers raising children of color also knew that their children’s disruptive or unruly behavior would be framed through racial lenses. Like Toya Graham, mothers I met raising black sons feared the pernicious stereotype of “dangerousness” that leads to disparate rates of suspensions, expulsions, school failure, and, consequently, the frustration boiling over on the streets of Baltimore. One African American mother, an accomplished professional, feared this was happening to her son even at the age of 6. He was, she explained, very tall for his age, as well as active and impulsive. She hoped the ADHD diagnosis would protect him, but maintained constant vigilance at his private school, where in previous years, “two young black boys . . . I don’t think they were even in the first-grade yet . . . were asked to leave the school.”

It is hard to see how the struggles faced by mothers of young black sons in Baltimore — or the constrained options confronting mothers I met raising children with invisible, brain-based disabilities –have either been created or can be solved at home. Following this Mothers’ Day, let’s stop the mother-blame.




Language Barriers and Poverty in the AAPI Community

Whether it’s the debate over immigration reform or reports on the future of a “majority minority” nation, conversations around our changing demographics often center on the growth of the Latino population. While this is understandable given that much of the demographic shifts are attributed to Latinos, the number of Asian immigrants is increasing rapidly. In fact, the Asian population grew by 46 percent between 2000 and 2010, and recently surpassed Latinos as the nation’s fastest-growing group of new immigrants. This is why it is significant that the White House is holding a summit today on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as part of AAPI Heritage Month.

While we often discuss Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as one demographic group, it is important to acknowledge that experiences vary greatly within this community, particularly when it comes to economic wellbeing. For example, while Japanese Americans have a poverty rate of 8.4 percent—nearly half the national average—Cambodian Americans and Hmong Americans have much higher poverty rates at 18.8 percent and 24 percent, respectively. This is why Asian American and Pacific Islanders can be viewed as having relatively high household income, while also being one of the fastest-growing populations in poverty since the Great Recession.

One contributing factor to the differences between AAPI groups is English proficiency, as adults with limited English skills tend to have higher rates of unemployment and lower wages. This is critical as Asian Americans are among the most likely to have limited English proficiency, and one in five Asian households in the U.S. is considered “linguistically isolated,” where no one in the household over the age of 14 speaks English “very well.” And the language barrier impacts Asian Americans regardless of birth place. In fact, nearly 1 out of 10 U.S.-born Asian Americans has limited English proficiency.

English proficiency among parents is also critical when it comes to accessing the knowledge and resources necessary to help children navigate classrooms, health facilities, and even the juvenile justice system. Further, higher proficiency in English among parents is associated with better academic and economic outcomes for their children. On top of this, English language learner students—students whose native language is not English or who come from environments where English is not the dominant language—are more likely to attend high-poverty schools where resources are limited. Moreover, they must acquire language skills while studying the same content areas as their English-speaking peers, essentially doing double the work.

You need to look longitudinally. We are empowering a family and a community, not just a child.

Given the fact that English proficiency impacts employment outcomes, family responsibilities, and a child’s academic success, the language barrier can create a poverty trap for families and a loss of human capital for communities.

As the number of immigrants continues to increase, one of the most significant ways communities can respond to this influx is by ensuring greater access to English language instruction to ensure that all families can fully participate in society. In a recent report titled “The Case for a Two-Generation Approach for Educating English Language Learners,” I outline how communities should support strategies that engage parents and children and improve the academic and economic well-being of both generations. These strategies include adopting a community school model—meaning schools provide critical wraparound services for students and families.

In my hometown of Oakland, California, half the students speak a language other than English, with Spanish and Cantonese being the most common. Recently, the school district chose to move towards the community school model and provide a wide spectrum of wraparound services for all students, including: physical and mental health services, nutrition, housing, employment, parenting, and language acquisition courses. In addition, the district’s Family Literacy program provides parents with English as a second language and computer literacy courses. These classes are integrated into the child’s school, giving parents the opportunity to use the same resources as their children and gain a greater understanding of what their children are learning.

“You need to look longitudinally,” Sue Pon, director of adult education for Oakland, told Fusion. “We are empowering a family and a community, not just a child.”

Given the fact that the majority of labor-force growth in the United States over the next four decades is projected to come from immigrants and their children, investing in these two populations is critical to the success of not only these families but also the U.S. economy.




Stigma, a Weak Safety Net, and the Deaths of Jodi and Randy Speidel

This article originally appeared at The Nation.

Jodi and Randy Speidel, a couple in their mid-40s, taped a note to the front door of their one-bedroom rental home warning visitors of carbon monoxide. They let their three cats outdoors and wrote a note attesting that their next decision was a mutual one. Then, in their locked bedroom, they lit two charcoal grills and committed suicide.

The couple’s 20-year-old daughter had recently turned to to seek assistance for her parents, The Columbus Dispatch reported. Describing them as “the hardest-working people I know,” she wrote, “now that they literally cannot work anymore, they have nowhere to turn to.”

Chronic illnesses had forced both to stop working. They had lived without heat all winter and without water for a week. Jodi had applied for assistance and was waiting for a response. She had turned to food banks but was struggling to cook without water. They were down to $33 in savings.

Jodi herself sought help from and She in fact signaled a little hope—writing that she had “found a job that is willing to work with my illnesses.” But she also described driving more than 30 miles “on gas fumes” and not knowing if she “would make it back home or even there.”

“I have turned in every direction possible and don’t know what else to do,” Jodi wrote. “If you can help we will be forever grateful and will even pay you back once we get back on our feet.”

Stigma makes people hide in the shadows. Your next-door neighbor could be struggling with poverty and you don’t even know it.

One thing the Speidels apparently didn’t do was turn to their neighbors—some of whom said they would have offered help had they known of the couple’s struggles.

“We have become such a disassociated and anti-social society that we don’t even know our own neighbors,” a pastor lamented to the Dispatch, suggesting that a tighter community could have made a difference.

We don’t really know if their neighbors were in a position to provide the kind of resources the couple needed. But it’s notable that Jodi opted for the relative anonymity of reaching out online rather than turning to her neighbors. Over the years, I have heard from many people with low incomes about the shame and stigma of poverty, and how it keeps them from telling others about what they are going through.

In March, a couple of colleagues and I met with five members of Witnesses to Hunger, an advocacy organization whose members use photographs and their testimonials to document their experiences in poverty and advocate at the state, local, and federal levels for policy reform. We wanted to explore a campaign that would push back against the shaming of low-income people by the media, politicians, and other high-profile individuals, and support individuals who want to share their stories in order to educate the public and policymakers about poverty in America.

“Telling my story was like coming out of the closet,” said Betty Burton of Martha’s Vineyard. “Stigma makes people hide in the shadows. Your next-door neighbor could be struggling with poverty and you don’t even know it.”

Anisa Davis of Camden said she felt ashamed to tell her story until she became a member of Witnesses to Hunger. “People need to tell their stories in order to rid themselves of the baggage that comes with that shame.”

But finding the courage to tell one’s story is easier said than done, especially when much of the media and our politics not only blame people who are struggling for their poverty, they also bash them for it. Philadelphia Witness to Hunger member Angela Sutton spoke of the stereotypes propagated about people with low-incomes, such as their being “dumb, lazy, or just making babies.”

“Stories rarely show the positive changes that Witnesses and others are trying to create in our communities,” said Sutton. She said these kinds of stories would “break barriers” and help “people who are struggling to speak up.”

In addition to Jodi’s posting online, the Dispatch reports that she also had applied for assistance. We don’t know what she applied for—or whether her application would have been approved—but it’s worth looking at how hard we make it for people to get help in our country. Despite all of the rhetoric that suggests “welfare dependence” is rampant, the numbers tell a far different story.

Jack Frech, the former director of the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services in Appalachian Ohio, recently retired after more than thirty years of service in the welfare department. He said times have changed and we have made it much more difficult to get assistance.

“I’ve watched the stigma about welfare grow at the hands of both political parties at all levels of government,” said Frech. “It is deeply ingrained in our administration of assistance programs. We have codified the belief that we are not our neighbors’ keeper. Shame on us.”

I hope a reporter does a follow up to this story: What assistance did Jodi Speidel try to obtain? Did she receive a response? What is the process for applying? Is there any expedited process for emergency assistance? How could we reform the system to prevent the next unnecessary deaths from occurring?

The unavoidable truth is this: These deaths did not need to happen, and the Speidels should not die in vain.


First Person

Life Amidst Poverty

I have lived in poverty both as a child and as an adult, and I can say with full confidence that it is a life-crushing force. I hated it. “Poverty” is also one of the most misunderstood labels that gets slapped onto individuals without their approval—cast upon them simultaneously by both unseen and more visible forces of society.

Poverty is a word loaded with preconceived notions, common misperceptions, and seemingly innocuous assumptions. What the word does not do is delve below its surface meaning, into the reality of poverty—a world that no one wants to live in.

Poverty is exhausting. Poverty is despair and desperation-inducing. Poverty is soul, dream and hope crushing. Poverty is like being enclosed in a prison cell with no doors or windows. It feels claustrophobic, as if there is no way out. Only the most resilient do not give up. Still, there is no guarantee that life will get better—and those in poverty know this all too well. They either become hardened or submit to fate. You don’t live life, you don’t thrive—you survive. You wonder if you are predestined, like a caste in another country, to live out a life destitute of fulfillment—whether financial, professional or just having a better life.

These are the very thoughts that consumed me in times of poverty. And yet, I never stopped believing that there must be a way out. The “how” and the “why” of my situation—resounding questions that were never sated—eventually fell by the wayside as I pushed towards hope. The very thing that brought despair and darkness motivated me to dig out of that prison, to fight with everything within me, to find that light that must exist outside of the walls.

Resources and access to them are the most influential factors in the “making it or breaking it”

In America, there is this prevalent belief that if someone just pulls herself up by her bootstraps, she can succeed. And yet, as I have learned, it is entirely possible to work your ass off and still struggle. Whether I had boots or not, whether I was barefoot, in heels, what I really learned is that resources and access to them—a network of support, and awareness of available choices—are the most influential factors in the “making it or breaking it” of life in the US. So much of this became clear to me only later—when I had the opportunity to see outside of the tiny, claustrophobic room that I had been in for years.

Living in poverty need not be a death sentence. I decided when I was 5 years old that I wanted to secure a bachelor’s degree before I was married (which I did). Throughout my childhood, I had a voracious appetite for knowledge: I was constantly hungry to learn more. In high school, I decided that upon graduation I would leave the state and my family to start a new life for myself, even though it was extremely hard and I worked three jobs at one point. In college, I knew that I wanted to live and work overseas, to expand my perspective and learn more about the world. And when life challenges blindsided me as an adult (now with two degrees under my belt), I continued to learn what my options were, what resources were available to me, and to fight hard to provide the best opportunities that I can for my own children, so that they may never see themselves as “living in poverty” or not having a shot at a better life.

Enduring poverty is not the end of hope or life. The key things needed to break down the walls that imprison those within poverty are: outside influences, support networks such as friends or family, awareness of other opportunities, and access to resources.

With this combination, a new life is possible.



Restoring Hope to Baltimore Requires Making College Affordable

“I’ve always wanted to go to college. I’ve wanted to be an orthodontist since I was seven,” said 16-year-old Kayla, not realizing that because she grew up in West Baltimore the odds of her dreams coming true were very slim.

There’s a long shadow cast over Baltimore’s children. Like young people across America, they know that the ability to get a good-paying job depends on college. As teens, many of them finish high school, fill out college applications, and complete financial aid forms.  But then they find out the truth: college is unaffordable.

There is a lot of talk about elite universities offering “no loans” promises and sending letters to low-income families across the country urging their children to apply.  But that effort is relevant to a tiny few. Most people who attend college go to institutions that are far from free.

Despite massive public investment in financial aid, students from families like Kayla’s who earn less than $20,000 a year are now required to pay at least $8,000 for a year of community college and more than $12,000 a year at a public university. That “net price” is what researchers like me have found to be the real bill that students and their families face after all grants (including the federal Pell and state and institutional grants) are subtracted from the sticker price of attending college. This price has gone up substantially over time, particularly since the Great Recession.  It’s climbed as real family income for most has fallen. Worse, it may well be under-stated.

College education is central to the American Dream. But the ladder people must climb to get there has eroded, and a critical rung fell off.  After a semester or two, even the most talented students from the bottom half of the income distribution find that the price of college is more than they can afford.  They have enough money to register for classes, but they cannot pay the bills long enough to graduate.  

The young people of Baltimore know this.  Researchers tracked a set of the city’s children beginning in 1982, when the kids were in 1st grade.  A decade and a half later, almost two-thirds enrolled in college. But by age 28, just 17 percent had earned an associates or bachelor’s degree, with another 13 percent earning a certificate.  Nearly half who grew up poor, ended up poor, especially if they were black.

The ladder people must climb to get to the American Dream has eroded, and a critical rung fell off.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. Researchers like Stefanie DeLuca, who met Kayla while doing research on young people from Baltimore’s highest poverty neighborhoods, confirm that a strong work ethic is omnipresent there. But enrolling in college exacerbates their poverty: working two or three jobs while also taking on federal and private loans takes a heavy toll. Growing numbers of undergraduates find themselves living without sufficient food or adequate housing even as they try and focus on school.

When college is unaffordable, hope is lost.  Without degrees, young people are returning to the streets with debt, disillusioned and fearful for their futures.

Today colleges and state governments set most college prices. They are failing at this job. The opportunity to get a college education is distributed in highly inequitable ways.  Rather than promoting mobility, the broken college financing system is ensuring that economic and racial inequality gets passed down – and worsened – from one generation to the next.  Americans deserve better.

Last year, Republican Governor Bill Haslam began to restore hope in Tennessee by offering tuition-free community college.  The predecessor to the Tennessee Promise, Knox Achieves, is proving effective at helping young people who would have otherwise never experienced even a 13th year of education earn college credits.  Helping those students complete a 14th year, and attain a credential, may require more investment, along the lines of America’s College Promise proposed by President Barack Obama.

The initiatives of Haslam and Obama were preceded by wisdom and a smart initiative in New York. In 1969, large numbers of African Americans and Puerto Ricans demanded that the City University of New York become a place that they could enter to pursue better lives.  University administrators responded by instituting an open admissions policy to complement a very low price.  An evaluation conducted over the next 30 years revealed that while the new policy did not wipe out disadvantages due to race or class (or high school academic record), it more than doubled the proportion of black women who would attain degrees. That finding is consistent with more recent studies that raise sharp questions about the contention that “college isn’t for everyone.”

National leaders need to provide hope to young adults in Baltimore and cities like it.  Federal policy must change. Simply providing financial aid isn’t getting the job done, as it requires too little from those who establish college costs.  Instead, we need a national conversation about what it means to provide a high-quality 13th and 14th year of public education to everyone, and then we need to pay for it. New taxes are an option – but we can also simply stop spending where investments aren’t pay off. Ending subsidies to for-profit universities is a good place to start.

There is much to do to provide hope, dignity, and a chance at a better life to America’s poor urban youth. Part of the solution must include making college affordable.