Sunday, February 24, 2013

Education and the Poor

I'm curious to see if Obama's pre-school proposal has any legs.

Those of us of a certain age remember contentious policy discussions of the 70's and 80's. There was just as much difference of opinion then, but it seemed that for better or worse, things were decided, legislation passed, and we moved on. I think politics worked then in a way it doesn't now. Politics has become more of a pejorative term than it used to be, connoting a sense of sleaziness and a lack of principle, but I think that is a shortsighted view. Politics is really the art of doing what is possible. Successful politicians seem to me to be people who understand human nature for what it is and use their knowledge to get consensus on issues people would otherwise disagree about.

I'm halfway through House of Cards on Netflix, and, though he seems meant to be a villainous character so far, in a way I admire the character played by Kevin Spacey, Francis Underwood. It may not last until the end of the series, but so far he has shown an ability to quickly grasp what people need and deliver it to them, in the process binding them to his orbit and using them to accomplish his own ends. Ultimately, since he is a congressman, that means getting legislation passed.

Admittedly Underwood has no heartfelt allegiance to the complex education bill which so far has been much of the focus of the show. But maybe that is the reality of getting legislation passed. If we consider where strict allegiance to ideological principles has gotten us lately, the answer is nowhere. When compromise becomes a dirty word, adherence to principle becomes a recipe for inaction. In past years, when a president announced a visionary plan–going to the moon or establishing a Great Society–there was at least a fair chance he could get it passed. It certainly looks more grim now days.

Despite this pessimism, I would make the case that it is in all of our self interests to try to eliminate poverty as much as possible.

The Gordon Gekko school of thought would suggest that greed is good, and that if everyone merely looks out for their own self interest, we will all do better. The adoption of this point of view has caused American culture to become depressingly vicious in its lack of concern for those not in the top economic strata. Believers of this principle are convinced that poor people are responsible for their fate because of poor choices they have made. That's why Romney labeled them "takers." Labeled, they become objects, representing an otherness that allows people to be comfortable with not caring about what happens to them.

But while it is true that poor choices can reduce anyone's chances of success, that is not the same as saying that people deliberately choose poorly with full recognition of all the potential negative outcomes. Nor does it mean that in every case there were clear "good" and "bad" alternatives. It is part of the human experience that we don't always have clearly marked choices. Moreover, disadvantaged people are in circumstances where the negative alternatives outnumber, perhaps vastly outnumber, the positive ones.

Plus, relegating wide swaths of a population to the trash bin of history often has a way of backfiring. As the economically disadvantaged become either more numerous or more distanced from the advantaged, they clearly lose any incentive they may have had to play by society's rules. The potential for employing violence as a means of overcoming economic differences has been repeated throughout history, and certainly has not been unknown in fairly recent American experience. While the rich have the option to retreat behind gated communities, having to exercise that option restricts our freedoms, not broadens them.

Therefore, I would make the case that it is in all of our self interests to try to eliminate poverty as much as possible. The America that some fear is being destroyed was one where the opportunity to rise into the middle class was extended to more people than ever. Now, that opportunity is fading, and we are at risk of becoming more like second and third world countries as income inequality widens. Keeping the doors of opportunity open for as many as possible makes us all more prosperous. Paradoxically, many who fear the demise of what America used to be, often favor policies that add to the inequality, excluding the disadvantaged rather than bringing them in.

Education is critical in that effort, and if we care about leveling the playing field with education (and that is a debatable issue), then preschool can be a critical tool in that effort.

Hopefully, the better angels of our natures will rise and reassert themselves.

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