Sunday, September 18, 2005

Bill O'Reilly and the poor

A recent column by Bill O'Reilly says that to cure poverty, "American middle and high school students should be required to watch videotape of the poor people stranded by Hurricane Katrina." The teachers should tell the students that the government failed to protect the poor, and ask two questions "Do you want to be poor? And do you believe the U.S. government can protect you if you are poor?" Supposedly, this will result in children deciding to become good learners. But poor children don't have to see a video of the results of poverty; they live it. They know what it's like to be hungry and cold because of lack of money. They know what it's like to have to move frequently because they are evicted for lack of rent payment.

We are creatures with few instincts who inhabit many different environments; we need to learn almost everything we need to know to survive. People learn how to live by observing the culture we live in. Those who don't are likely not to survive. It is automatic - it has to be. Segregating people in low-income neighborhoods teaches them the habits of poverty. It teaches them hopelessness. Tv, movies, and pop music don't provide good alternative role models on how to achieve a better life.

What children, and grownups, need is to see and experience what does work. Something that has worked is subsidizing housing for poor families in middle-class neighborhoods. Welfare mothers in such environments tend to eventually get jobs, because that is what the people around them are doing. Their children have access to decent schools and see role models who know how to achieve success. They are around people who use good grammar (well, at least relatively), and speak with a middle-class accent. They learn to fit in with the middle class.

Of course, with the current economic situation, with the middle-class shrinking, and increasing rates of poverty, and the increasing gap between the ultra-rich and everybody else, there is no guarantee that children raised in a middle-class neighborhood will end up middle-class, but they will have a much better chance.

A way that individuals can help is by becoming a mentor to one or more poor children, or to tutor poor children. However, if you choose to become a mentor, you must be committed. A study of a mentoring program, where the mentors were middle-class men, found that the children who had mentors actually did worse. on average, than those who didn't. The reason turned out to be that the men would mentor for awhile, then get busy with other things, and drop out of the program. The boys had become attached to the mentors, and losing them was another loss in their lives, and damaged them even more.

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