Luck and Poverty

I read the paper every morning. My wife and son roll their eyes at me because I have arguments with it, read parts of it to them.  My son, Max, has to do current events at school and he’s informed me that he’s the only one who gets his events from the newspaper—most of his classmates and their parents have migrated to the interwebs for their news.  I guess I’m old-fashioned. Yes, I see the irony as I get ready to post this in my new blog.

A couple of mornings ago my conversation with the newspaper came from Kathleen Parker’s Washington Post column “Don’t ignore luck, marriage as factors”.  In her column on the war on poverty she writes that “we recognize the role luck plays” that “there are the unlucky, who, whatever their relative talents, are born into broken families, often to single mothers, in neighborhoods where systemic poverty, inferior educational opportunities and perhaps even crime constitute the culture in which they marinate.”  Well, you can see why I was talking to the newspaper, can’t you?  We can begin with the logical fallacies in what Parker has written.  If poverty is systemic, that is it is a created quantifiable system, then that isn’t luck.  If the educational opportunities are inferior, and we know what it takes to make good schools, then that isn’t luck, it’s a lack of national will among other things.  We’ll stop with just those two.

But I want to look at those two more deeply as well.  This summer the New York Times published an article “In climbing income ladder, location matters” written by David Leonhardt.  The article goes through a longitudinal study that looks at economic opportunity.  The authors of the study looked at millions of records over time to figure out the chance of economic mobility, that is moving from one income bracket to the next, based on where a person lives.  The news isn’t good.  If a person is born in a poor zipcode, she or he has very little chance of moving up in the world.  According to the article, if you’re born in the bottom fifth of the income spectrum in my city, Omaha, then you have an 8.6% chance of moving up to the top fifth of the spectrum.  It’s not luck then, is it?  Or perhaps we colloquially say that if one of every 11 people can “move on up to the apartment in the sky” that is “lucky.”  But I don’t think so, rather it looks like systemic poverty and poor educational opportunities reify poverty and that very few can trudge their way out of that world.

All of this made me think of Paolo Freire’s work with the poor.  In the Introduction to the Paolo Freire Reader Ana Maria Araujo Freire and Donaldo Macedo write that Paolo’s work challenged the poor “to understand that they are themselves the makers of culture” and that their “status of ‘being less’ is worked on so as not to be understood as divine determination or fate, but rather as determined by the economic-political-ideological context of the society they live in” (7).  This predication that a woman or man’s poverty isn’t divine determination or fate or luck seems to be supported by the longitudinal study, by data.  However, we love the predication of reality that Ms. Parker puts forward:  Some of us are just lucky, dammit! Certainly it’s easier to appeal to luck than it is to look as systems of oppression.

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