Culture

Private Schools Promised Me Opportunity. Instead, I Got Classism.

From Grades 4 to 6, I went to a small, independent school in West Los Angeles. I was the first black child at the school, and for the first two years, I was the only one. I was also likely the only student who wasn’t upper-middle class. Before I even set foot on campus, my mother sat me down and told me that my future classmates would have more than me—much more—but it didn’t mean they were better than me. It didn’t mean I wasn’t good enough. “You are just as good as any other child there,” she said.

But even with those words of encouragement, there were still times when I felt I was lacking, and that I stuck out like a sore thumb—beyond the difference in my race and skin color. I had my fair share of racist encounters: classmates asking if we were going to get shot by gang bangers on a school trip to see Watts Towers, and being bullied by boys who were universally kind to the white girls in my class. I also had my first experiences with classism, even at the age of 9.

Classism—especially in a country where most people believe they are middle class—is subtle and implicit. It was there when my Spanish teacher didn’t realize some students might not be able to afford a camcorder to complete an assignment, until my mother called and asked for an alternative way for me to complete the project. It was there when the same teacher became inexplicably obsessed with my statement, during a class discussion, that I owned an armoire. She was concerned enough about my furniture to talk to my mother about it at a parent-teacher conference: “Loryn claims she has an armoire, but I really think she was trying to fit in with the wealthier kids,” she said.

The class gap started to steer entire curriculums

Those moments were embarrassing, and that embarrassment kept me in my place (which is to say, quiet). Then the class gap started to steer entire curriculums. Like a lot of students, I struggled with math. But while other students had access to expensive tutors, I had to rely on the lessons in school or my parents helping me whenever they could. I often got answers wrong when I was called on, which led to the other kids teasing me. It got to a point where I didn’t even bother raising my hand to speak—I didn’t want to feel that embarrassment again.

In the classroom, we acted according to our status: The rich kids asked for attention, while I tried to be obedient. Research shows that’s typical: An Indiana University study concluded that social class leads to differences in how parents tell their kids to navigate school. More affluent parents tell their kids to ask questions and actively seek attention, while working class parents tell their kids that asking for extra help is disrespectful. And so, the divide between the haves and have-nots is multiplied.

This divide makes the current administration’s emphasis on “school choice” a hard sell. President Trump’s budget called for a $250 million increase in voucher programs, which would pay for more students to attend private schools. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has not provided many additional details, but she is an outspoken advocate for school choice programs, arguing that it focuses on the needs of the individual child. But more often than not, sending students to schools with more resources simply means they’re attending schools that are whiter and wealthier. And that comes with a culture shock.

A study by the Department of Education showed that test scores fell when students moved from public to private schools. Though there are a number of potential causes for the drop in performance, researchers suspect that the different behavioral expectations—just like the ones that plagued me—play the biggest role. And it doesn’t help that teachers have lower expectations for students of color and students from disadvantaged backgrounds—those expectations actually play a bigger role in student outcomes than a student’s own motivation or effort.

If you are convinced that private school vouchers are the answer to the country’s education woes, you will also need to be ready to prepare students who do not come from wealthy families for the classism and class differences they will face. This means training teachers and other faculty to be sensitive to how these differences affect the way kids learn—and yes, how to unlearn the assumptions they may make about poor students.

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Labor

The Administration’s New Tipping Rule Could Make Sexual Harassment Worse

Months into our national reckoning with sexual harassment, media coverage shifted this week from the abuses taking place in elite circles—like Hollywood and Capitol Hill—to the restaurant industry, where prominent restaurateurs like Mario Batali, John Besh, and Ken Friedman face allegations of misconduct toward their staff.

These allegations inch the media coverage closer to the reality many women face, in part because many of the people reporting are ordinary restaurant employees rather than high-profile actresses or news anchors. There’s also the matter of the industry they work in: Low-paid working women are often at the greatest risk for abuse, particularly if they are in service professions.

At the same moment, the Trump administration is pushing a rule that could make tipped workers even more vulnerable to harassment. In early December, the Labor Department—urged on by the restaurant lobby—announced a plan that could allow employers to steal tips from their workers. Under the new rule, employers could pool all tips and distribute this money to other workers, including non-tipped workers—or keep it for themselves. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that the rule could allow employers to pocket $5.8 billion in workers’ tips each year, in an industry where 66 percent of workers are women and 25 percent of workers are women of color.

The rule could allow employers to pocket $5.8 billion in workers’ tips each year

This could result not only in the theft of tipped workers’ wages—even though they are already nearly twice as likely to live in poverty as other workers—but it could also increase their likelihood of being sexually harassed. Tipped workers are often at the mercy of customers to make ends meet financially, and the new rule would add additional pressure from employers and managers who would control the distribution of tips. That could drive conditions from bad—accommodations and food service workers already account for 1 out of 7 sexual harassment charges filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—to worse.

And the proposal’s effects don’t stop with tipped workers. If employers choose to redistribute the tips to other non-tipped employees, they could classify them as tipped workers and knock their base wage down to $2.13 per hour. This could raise their risk for sexual harassment as well as wage theft because, while employers are legally required to ensure tipped workers are paid the minimum wage, evidence shows employers often don’t.

There is, of course, another option: Instead of rushing through a rule that will lower wages and increase vulnerability to harassment for tipped workers—all with a very limited period for public feedback—the Trump administration could focus on paying tipped workers fair wages. That means eliminating their separate minimum wage, which is something the minimum wage bill before Congress would do. Evidence shows this would work: In the seven states that have abolished the separate tipped minimum wage—where employers are now required to pay their workers at least minimum wage—tipped workers take home higher pay and are less likely to experience harassment. Pair that with solutions to reduce sexual harassment in the workplace, and you’re poised to make progress not only on economic security but also on reducing the number of workers who have to say #MeToo.

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Safety Net

What Doug Jones’ Win Means for People in Poverty

Doug Jones’ victory in the Alabama Senate race is just over a day old, but the hot takes are still pouring in. For some, the outcome is a signal that Democrats can win both houses of Congress in 2018. For others, it is an outlier—a race that a Republican not accused of sexually assaulting children would have easily won. And for the kind folks at Fox & Friends, it wasn’t much of a win at all—“a referendum on Harvey Weinstein, not on President Trump.”

The only thing not up for debate is why Jones won: It’s because people of color—particularly African Americans from Alabama’s impoverished “Black Belt”—turned out to vote for him. But lost in the political discussion of the election is one key question: What does the election mean for the lives of Alabamans—especially the millions who voted for Doug Jones?

The state Doug Jones now represents is one of the poorest in the country. According to the latest county health rankings report, nearly 2,900 Alabamians died prematurely—in large part due to the toxic conditions within the state. The state’s school quality report card shows that it lags behind the national average, with a solid D for K-12 achievement, and more than a quarter of residents are struggling to pay their water bill, which is an average of just $32.09 a month.

The state’s poor rural residents—disproportionately people of color—face conditions that recently stunned investigators from the United Nations. In a damning report on the living conditions in Alabama’s Lowndes and Butler counties, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights found communities suffering from hookworm outbreaks—a parasitic illness that was thought to have been eradicated in the United States more than 30 years ago. Known as a disease born of extreme poverty, researchers have linked the resurgence of hookworm in Alabama’s Lowndes and Butler counties to the broken and inadequate septic infrastructure that creates open cesspools of raw sewage in residents’ backyards.

More than a quarter of residents are struggling to pay their water bill

Lowndes county, much like the rest of Alabama, has a long and brutal history of racism and inequality. Nicknamed “Bloody Lowndes,” the county is most known for its violent opposition to the civil rights movement and extreme racial oppression. It remains a hot spot of poor health, premature death, callous neglect, and severe disenfranchisement that harkens back 150 years to the time when it was part of the bedrock of the South’s slave economy. The historical and ongoing plight of counties like Lowndes highlight the dogged mistreatment of vulnerable communities who can least afford it.

The tax bill currently making its way through Congress would exacerbate inequality in one of the most unequal states in the country. By 2027, it would raise taxes on 87 million Americans—including more than 640,000 Alabamans. It would repeal the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act—jeopardizing health care coverage for 183,000 Alabama residents, a disproportionately high number—and strip the state of $419 million in Medicare funding next year alone.

The tax bill would also pave the way for deep cuts to benefit programs that keep people out of poverty. As House Speaker Paul Ryan signaled in a radio interview last week, House Republicans are planning on moving forward with deep cuts to so-called “entitlement programs” (permanent programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security) next year and have been quietly convincing President Trump to support the effort. “I think the president is understanding that choice and competition works everywhere in health care, especially in Medicare,” Ryan said. With an aging population and a disproportionate number of people in poverty, Alabama is particularly vulnerable to these cuts.

It’s rare for a political victory to immediately benefit its voters. Major national legislation can take decades to cobble together and is often passed with votes to spare after months of debate. But in Doug Jones’ case, his Senate win could help stop one of the biggest shots of inequality adrenaline the country has ever seen—one that will hit Alabama particularly hard. And, while far from guaranteed, the election could jeopardize Senate Republicans’ chances of passing the bill this year.

The people of Alabama turned out in record numbers on Tuesday. Now it’s up to Jones to make sure his supporters aren’t openly attacked in the coming legislative onslaught.

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Media and Politics

For the Cost of the Tax Bill, the U.S. Could Eliminate Child Poverty. Twice.

Congressional Republicans are rushing to finalize their tax legislation before the holidays. They haven’t held a single hearing, in part because their plan is one of the least popular pieces of legislation ever. It’s easy to see why: The Senate version of the bill would raise taxes on most families making $75,000 or less per year by 2027, while tying a big bow on permanent tax cuts for millionaires and large corporations. And after years of panicking over the size of the deficit, Republican leaders are now planning to balloon it by a whopping $1.5 trillion over the coming decade.

That tells you a lot about Congress’ priorities—especially since, for less than the cost of the Republican tax plan, Congress could eliminate child poverty in the United States. Twice.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 5.7 million poor families with children would need an average of $11,400 more to live above the poverty line in 2016. In total, the income needed to boost these families—along with the additional 105,000 children who were not living with their families—above the federal poverty level is about $69.4 billion per year in today’s dollars. Over ten years, that adds up to about 46 percent of what Congress plans to spend on its tax plan. There would be so much money left over after we boosted these kids out of poverty that the United States could also pay tuition and fees for all of them to get an in-state education at a four-year public university, and it still wouldn’t costs as much as the tax plan.

If Congress wanted to really let loose, and spend just 12 percent more than the tax bill does—for a total of $1.74 trillion—we could completely eliminate all poverty in America.

But instead of reducing poverty in the United States, Congressional Republicans are chipping away at the existing programs that support low-income people. Congress was so fixated on repealing the Affordable Care Act this summer that it ran out of time to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which insures 9 million kids. It has been 73 days since CHIP’s funding expired, and more than half of states could run out of money in the first months of 2018. Some are already paring back services in preparation.

Child poverty costs the United States an estimated $672 billion per year

And now, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and his fellow Congressional Republicans have announced that their next priority is cutting critical programs such as Medicaid, which provides health care to 2 in 5 U.S. children, and Social Security, which is the nation’s largest children’s anti-poverty program. To pave the way for these cuts, Ryan and friends are already rolling out poisonous rhetoric that paints low-income families as lazy and idle—even though Census data show that most families with children living in poverty do work, and are just being paid so little they can’t make ends meet.

These policies are obviously cruel. But, for a group of lawmakers who fancy themselves business-minded, they’re also stunningly financially irresponsible. Child poverty costs the United States a lot of money: an estimated $672 billion per year in lost productivity, worse health outcomes, and increased criminal activity.

Instead, congressional Republicans are choosing to saddle the nation’s kids with debt—the very thing they’ve repeatedly accused past administrations of doing—to finance a massive giveaway to the wealthy.

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Culture

The Happiest City in the U.S. Has a Secret

How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?… I do not know the rules and laws of their society, but I suspect that they were singularly few.

One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt.

– Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”

Earlier this year, National Geographic published an article claiming to have discovered the 25 happiest cities in the United States. The measurements were based on a scale developed by Gallup, with input from Dan Buettner, who has spent decades traveling the globe in pursuit of the roots of happiness. Even with all that experience, Buettner’s findings (reported in the article by George Stone) seem to overlook one glaring problem: American happiness appears to be rich and white.

The city that tops Nat Geo’s list this year is Boulder, Colorado. Boulder is a small town nestled in the Rocky Mountains, known for its biking paths, clean air, and youthful population; the latter of which can be attributed to the fact that it is home to the University of Colorado Boulder (CU) and Naropa University, in addition to several specialty and trade schools. Naropa University includes the writing school that was founded by beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. It’s also where I attended grad school.

Before I moved to the city, I had farewell drinks with a friend and a schoolmate he brought along, an Asian woman who spent one short academic year at CU before bolting.

“It’s the most racist place I’ve ever been,” she told me upon learning where I would soon be moving. “Everyone there is white, and if you’re not,” she swiped her hand through the air as though swatting away a bug. “It was like being Asian made me an alien,” she added.

‘It’s the most racist place I’ve ever been’

There was a moment of silence as I thought about my Cuban heritage, and whether I’d fit into the city that Nat Geo this year described as “bolstered by a sense of community, access to nature, sustainable urban development and preservation policies.”

Then my friend (a white gay man, if you’re wondering), said, “Oh, don’t worry, you pass.” Ultimately, he’s right. I do “pass.” My skin is olive-toned but not brown, my eyes are hazel, and my hair is a shade that in Latino communities is considered rubio, which roughly translates in English to blonde. I did not personally experience the racial alienation my drinking partner described that evening, but I saw and experienced other events that made the generous smiles, the lavish, clear-aired sunsets, and the folded yogis in the parks all seem like part of a deeply exclusionary facade.

     *                            *                            *

In the short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” author Ursula Le Guin describes a city of immense but ambiguous happiness, where “the air of morning was so clear that the snow still crowning the Eighteen Peaks burned with white-gold fire across the miles of sunlit air, under the dark blue of the sky.” There, in Omelas, the people “were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched.” But buried somewhere out of sight, in a small windowless room, an emaciated child sits alone. Le Guin describes its fear and decrepitude; the terrible squalor of its existence, and the feeble, hopeless waste of its mind and body. The child is always referred to as “it,” because to imagine an actual human being treated this way is beyond comprehension.

But, Le Guin explains, the people of Omelas have had to make a choice. “If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done … that would be to let guilt within the walls.”

And so the Omelans reason that it is simply a matter of math. Every life in the city stays joyful and beautiful—and the one that is not is hidden.

     *                            *                            *

National Geographic writes that in the happiest places, “locals smile and laugh more often, socialize several hours a day, have access to green spaces, and feel that they are making purposeful progress toward achieving life goals.”

This type of happiness, the article admits, relies upon wealth. What it doesn’t mention outright, however, is that for an entire city to be dubbed “the happiest,” poverty cannot play a significant factor. In Boulder’s case, this is not because the social problems that cause poverty have been fixed, but because the poor have been pushed out.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 88 percent of Boulder is single-racial white. The median single-household income is just under $60,000, and the mean a whopping $90,000. Median monthly housing costs are reported at $1,320, with the number of renters and homeowners roughly the same (in 2015, there were only about 2,000 more renters than homeowners). This should be surprising, considering the fact that Boulder houses two universities, and the average student does not own the home she lives in. While I was there, I watched a slow, quiet change take place; one that I doubt many of my mostly white and affluent grad school cohorts noticed. It was something I saw not from my vantage point as a grad student at the Jack Kerouac School, but as someone addicted to heroin, who would, while in Boulder, eventually become homeless, pregnant, and on methadone.

First, the natural food markets—which were more available than average grocery stores—began stocking security guards alongside their expensive, organic products. Then the city discretely installed security cameras near the Boulder Public Library, which were able to spy on Central Park—once a favorite hangout spot for the city’s small homeless population. Wayne, a local methadone patient who asked me to change his name for privacy purposes, tells me there is no longer a homeless presence at that location—or, he says, much of anywhere in Boulder. That’s not surprising, since the city passed several ordinances that essentially prohibit homelessness: They outlaw sleeping in vehicles,aggressive begging,” and public camping.

My methadone clinic used to be located just off Pearl Street, the beflowered street pictured in Nat Geo’s article.  A short while after I left the clinic in late 2012, it moved from Boulder to Longmont—Boulder’s poorer, browner neighbor to the north. It remains there, in a large, unattached building that stands near several bus lines but away from any downtown area. Wayne has been a client there since August of this year, previously attending the sister location in Denver. He was never a patient at the Boulder location, but works as an Uber driver and tells me over Facebook that the attitude toward addiction and poverty has shifted dramatically in Boulder over the past several years.

“The influx of new wealthy people from all over the country … has made people more judgmental and ignorant,” he says.

Perhaps we have known, all along, that money does in fact buy happiness.

And what of the other cities that top National Geographic’s list? Number two is Watsonville, California. Although Santa Cruz County, where Watsonville is located, hosts a heavily Hispanic and Latino population, Watsonville itself is, again, mostly white—a shift that has climbed steadily since 2010. Rent averages around the same as in Boulder. Charlottesville, Virginia, earned third-place on the measure of happiness, even after making national headlines for hosting a violent white nationalist rally. It is around 70 percent white, with a mean household income just under $90,000.

Perhaps these facts are not surprising. Perhaps we have known, all along, that money does in fact buy happiness.

When I look at the photos and blog posts from my classmates who are still in Boulder, it appears relatively unchanged. Ravishing sunsets frame wine glasses adorned by a backdrop of lush mountains. Pearl Street’s clean red bricks look as pretty as I remember against the quaint boutiques that line the street. In these photos, everyone is smiling. It’s envy-inducing, for sure.

But then I remember how, when I was in Boulder just a few years back, the photo of Pearl Street that heads the Nat Geo article could not have been taken without a street performer or beggar in sight. How the methadone clinic was pushed north, and along with it, I’m sure, all of those clients seeking refuge from addiction. The measure of Boulder’s happiness is not only healthy eating and learning new skills, but also a practiced ignorance of those who are suffering or in need.

One thing I know there is none of in Boulder is guilt.

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