The Working Poor

To Be Read Challenge & Deal Me In Challenge


If you stick around in education for long enough a few students will stay with you.  Some of them will stay with you because of the amazing things they did, or the journey they went on, or just because you got on with them really well.  Unfortunately, some of them stay with you because of what went wrong, because you watched their lives unraveling in front of you even at the age of 13 or 14.  Seeing that is something you never forget, and a reminder that society and indeed existence has very little to do with fairness.

I have just read The Working Poor (2004) by David Shipler, and an article from the New York Times called You Just Got Out of Prison. Now What? by Jon Mooallem.  The NYT article could really be an extension of a chapter in Shipler’s book.  One thing that the working poor often have in common is a family or personal history heavily impacted by incarceration.

Shipler’s book is depressing; well-written and powerful but incredibly depressing.  It makes its central point about why the poor remain poor a few times.  Here is one version:

Poverty is a peculiar, insidious thing: a cause whose effects then cause the original cause, or an effect whose causes are caused by the effect.  It depends on where in the cycles the analysis begins. Like most of the forgotten America, Caroline was a bundle of causes and effects.

Each story Shipler follows and develops shows how each person is effectively trapped not by one thing, but a series of compounding factors all linked and all contributing to make escape virtually impossible.

Virtually impossible.  Ways to make a difference are known; they are holistic, long-term and expensive, and for those reasons rarely able to be sustained in democratic environments where topics like welfare, crime, and drug abuse are political footballs subject to the winds of change election cycle by election cycle.

Shipler’s book often talks about things that I have seen in action around students I have worked with as a Dean.  One thing I have learned over a few years as a Dean is that school alone is rarely enough to “save” students.  If you wanted to actually make a huge and lasting difference for those students you would need to step back out and look at that student’s whole family and consider: housing, healthcare, training, employment, and parenting (to name only some of the things).  Then you can look at school and what the student might need in terms of additional support.  Such a programme requires a huge amount of coordination between services usually working in silos, it requires well-trained case-managers and it requires money.

It also requires thinking that way.  Thinking that all this is worth doing for people who have broken the rules of a good person in a society in one way or another.  Perhaps it is easy to agree to help in the abstract, but when confronted by a rule breaker face to face it is much harder to be philosophical, and a much better use of your time to be arbitrary and harsh.

This can easily be seen in a classroom.  A student who doesn’t play by the rules is a problem in a classroom of 30.  There may be all kinds of complex reasons why that student has ended up like they are, but for the classroom teacher there’s no time for all of this – it’s about making the class as a whole function right now.  That’s fair enough, but then it is up to the school to have a way to begin exploring why the student is like they are, and finding a way to support them.  Schools who don’t do this fail society.  Students coming out of an education system without an employment pathway are almost always heading towards disaster, towards a perpetuation of poverty, dysfunction and unhappiness.

Yet some people would have it this way.  Some teachers never want to see that student in their class again.  Some  teachers (quite rare, but then again in every school) would rather push the student to misbehave and exit than exert maturity and patience with another person’s life.

I cannot understand vengeance.  Of course I can understand anger and the desire for revenge at a personal level, but as an attitude of law I don’t understand it.  As a matter of national policy.  The infrequent and limited success I have had in working with challenging cases is to stay patient.  It’s fucking hard, because challenging cases screw up all the time, and sometimes even dare you to blow up.  If there’s one thing they know (out of all the things they don’t) it’s that people will give up on them, and they want you to prove them right again.  If it’s easier in the short-term for a teacher to kick a student out of class, it’s easier for that student to be kicked out.  It’s worse for both people overall, but in the moment it works well.  The teacher has gotten rid of a problem, and the student doesn’t have to face one.

Some people think that this is a fine way to run a justice system – we’ll give you two chances and then we’re all done on the third strike – but I think this is an appalling way to run any system that involves people.  Not only that, but – as the NYT article makes clear – it’s not enough to imprison people for 15, 20, 25 years you must also remove any possible support when they come out of prison even though it must be one of the hardest things to do.

The overwhelming impression from the NYT article is of former inmates as bewildered and frightened by a world that doesn’t need or want them.  That some people can be bothered to help is a credit to them, and an indictment on society.  But society has become a bit like that.  Convinced by messages of individualism, and “it’s the economy, stupid”, to see life as a fiercely competitive race with economic rewards.  Winners and losers.  Does the winner shake the hand of the one who comes in last?

When I reflect on the three students that have slipped from my grasp in my current school what has really done them in has been their family.  The indifference or the ineffectiveness of the parenting has been fatal.  It is almost always this way.  It is easy to blame these parents but they are generally in a very bad way themselves.  Misery is inter-generational.

My first rule of trying to “save” a student in crisis is:

If you can find someone who gives a shit then you’re in with a chance.

“Gives a shit” in this case doesn’t just mean love – in most cases the parents of these students loved them, though not always – it means an economically secure, stable person who is devoted to that student.  If they have that then they have a much greater chance.

Without getting into specifics two of the three students I am thinking of had possible progress sabotaged by a parent.  The third parent was too overwhelmed to cope with much and her child sort of just drifted away out of everyone’s orbit.

There are about five high risk students I need to work with for the next two years.  If there is one thing reading this book and this article has done it has reinforced the need for me to be more proactive, and push harder.  Each student who slips away is facing the possibility of greater unhappiness than needs to be their share.  There is more than enough unhappiness in the world already without shrugging and letting it build.

Stop shrugging.

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