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Issue No. 116-a (May 2008) -- Mark Satin, Editor
What the poor
It is not my practice to devote monthly articles to other people’s emails and letters. (We have an "Emails to the Editor" page HERE.)
But some of the emails and letters that arrived in response to my article about living in a poor people’s apartment building in Oakland CA are so extraordinary -- and among them, they say so much -- that I am making an exception here.
I have arranged over 20 missives below in logical sequence: first the ones that are embarrassingly complimentary, then ones exploring and deepening my policy proposal (for a national-service program that would deploy “barefoot coaches" to enhance poor people's capabilities), then ones critical of my proposal, and finally two from people talking about the need for, um, love in political journalism and political struggle.
If you ever doubted the value of a Web-based “reading community” for helping to articulate a new politics, then this article may open your eyes.
And if you ever doubted that Radical Middle newsletter is blessed with one of the broadest such communities, then please note that our epistles begin with one from an unemployed man and end with one from a chaired law professor, and in between are ones from business people, activists, policy analysts, therapists, engineers, teachers, museum docents . . . beautiful dreamers and doers. . . .
Without Being Gushy
I have just finished your article chronicling your life in a poor area of Oakland (“What the Poor Need Now,” March / April 2008).
Without being gushy, I wish to confess that you are one of my heroes. It is downright amazing to be confronted by someone who avoids mendacity both in print and life.
Right now I am unemployed and don’t have any predictable income. When I get some I will share it with you.
Enjoyed the article!
This article is a wonderful qualitative study. You inspire me with your courage, conviction, and intellect.
Rich Feller, Ph.D.
Thanks for this, Mark. You are one of the good guys.
Bravo! Bravo! for your article on poverty.
Your ability to bring Others into vision in just a few lines is a pleasure to read. At the same time that you reveal the awful situation that grasps them, you communicate a kind of appreciation and forgiveness that makes your opinions believable, and your solutions plausible.
Rings So True
I like the commentary a lot, Mark. Having lived in similar situations, it rings very true.
Mary Herak Sand
Just read “What the Poor Need Now.” It really fits with my experience over many years.
Emily W. Herbert
I really enjoyed your very personal story of living with the poor. I felt you were taking up a story of mine -- “Approaching Homelessness: An Integral Re-Frame” (World Futures, March 2007) -- from where I’d left off!
Marilyn Hamilton, Ph.D.
I like your “barefoot healers” concept. Once did something vaguely similar -- two years of GED tutoring as part of my AmeriCorps service in 2001-02.
Carroll County, New Hampshire, may have more retired Fortune 500 CEOs than any other part of the country, but I quickly learned that growing up poor there is a world apart.
Lincoln L. Annas
Read your article. It has original stuff -- fascinating first-hand information on the living conditions of the poor in America, “the land of dreams.” There is a saying that if lack of education is the mother of poverty, lack of sense is its father. Well done, Sir.
Here in India, the neo-liberal policies of successive governments after 1990 have exacerbated the rich-poor divide. The political parties are mesmerized by the rich, and the poor are only remembered during elections -- for their votes.
Unfortunately, your Oakland apartment building would fit right in here. Deviant behaviour like drugs, drinking, wife beating, illicit sex, rioting, arson, and other crimes are rampant in the poor areas of every Indian town.
National Service, Yes!
I am currently working on a freelance project for an educational publisher -- an encyclopedia called Poverty and Government in America -- and I would like to include your idea for a national service program to enhance the capabilities of the poor.
Your poor neighbors clearly lack self-esteem. But there is nothing in their environment to foster it!
I favor a voluntary, domestic peace corps where volunteers AND “clients” would learn to respect themselves, their environment, and their society.
I think one of the best aspects of your preferred national service program -- the mandatory one -- is that the poor, themselves, would be asked to participate.
If their year of service could include their own health improvements, the whole society would benefit.
“Barefoot Coaches,” Yes!
Your national-service idea (Part Two of your article), arguing for a corps of “barefoot healers,” is eminently feasible, I believe -- not only in the U.S., but in most societies.
We see similar social problems in Europe and certainly here in Sweden, in spite of our welfare society, or partly because of it.
The “coaching” approach that you want your healers to adopt is right on, I believe. It could substitute for the natural coaching that takes place in healthy families (and in schools and neighbourhoods), which disadvantaged young ones do not get.
The coach training could be done by graduates from coach training institutes and similar organisations. One of the best in the world is Coaches Training Institute. I trained with them in London, but their headquarters is in San Rafael, Calif.
They should be able to devise a simple but well-founded training program for “barefoot coaches.” Thousands of coaches have been trained by them. This could be a way for them to do pro bono work and involve others.
I believe you are onto something big. Now you need to (a) articulate the assumptions behind your barefoot-coaches idea, and (b) find out who’s actually tried something similar before, what results were generated, and what insights were gained.
Some Coaching Programs Are Already Out There!
Thanks for your great article on the need for coaching low-income folks, spoken from experience.
Your emphasis on the need for coaching reminds me of Harvard’s Project IF: Inventing the Future, in which Harvard students mentor, tutor, and counsel low-income youth.
One of its programs, “Brandywyne Tutors,” sends Harvard students into a mixed-income housing community that’s kind of like your neighborhood in Oakland. They offer homework help, more general educational mentoring, and what they discreetly describe as “enrichment opportunities.”
Another Project IF initiative sends Harvard students into the Boston public schools to promote educational achievement and “psychosocial development” of elementary and middle school students. (They’ve been well-trained -- they’re interns from the Risk & Prevention Program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.)
“I think of my work in terms of possibility development rather than problem treatment or prevention,” says Project IF co-founder and Harvard research associate Michael Nakkula (who himself grew up in a low-income household).
Also worth mentioning is Mentoring USA, an independent nonprofit that trains mentors to work with young people in New York City.
Mentoring USA sounds exactly like your article when it states, “Research increasingly indicates that children who succeed, despite often enormous personal, economic or social obstacles, do so because of caring, competent adults who believe in them.”
Mentoring USA claims that its mentors help young people improve “relationships with peers and adults,” “academic performance and attendance,” and even self-esteem. Besides being THERE for young people personally (and academically), the mentors consciously try to teach “tolerance,” “nutrition and healthy lifestyles,” and “financial literacy” -- all things you want your coaches to teach or otherwise get across.
Both Project IF and Mentoring USA focus on the youth population. Your proposal -- to focus on low-income people regardless of age -- is considerably more ambitious.
But your proposal will gain in plausibility and traction once you factor in the results of the careful studies that Project IF and Mentoring USA have conducted (or have allowed to be conducted) on the effectiveness of their various projects. For more information, see their Web sites [linked above - ed.].
Target Mature Adults!
May I respond to integrating the community-service element into your solution to poverty?
Target mature adults, not people in their 20s, to serve in this role of “coach,” mentor, guide.
Perhaps it’s my exposure to law students from many different schools, but I’d say that the kind of coaching the folks in your building could use requires people who bring to the fray a heavy dose of social intelligence informed by experience.
Most younger adults -- even the ones who are the academic stars at their schools -- aren’t ready to go into your building and bring with them the credibility and wisdom needed to connect with the life-weary individuals you describe. Their 20-something life experiences haven’t caught up with their abundant, well-schooled raw talent.
And THAT, perhaps, relates to a somewhat lamenting comment you made near the end of that piece about how the Sixties Generation can make a signature contribution. NOW many of them are ready, and it may have taken all the Sturm and Drang of the past 40 years to get them there.
Target the Middle Schools!
Thanks for your heartfelt essay and your thoughtful proposal. Although I'm probably a dozen or more years older than you, and have worked for many “establishment” entities, I haven't lost my concern about where our society is headed.
My concern may be even broader than yours, since the problems of our poor apply (in my opinion) to a growing number of young adults, including those with considerably greater economic freedom than that of your neighbors. Lack of capability is a genteel way of expressing it.
Fundamentally, we are faced with the consequences of a prolonged dumbing-down of the society, a numbing of curiosity, a need for quick gratifications, and outright cynicism. I cannot separate the targets of our economic-political system into categories of poor, working class, or middle class. They're all fair game in the aggregate.
I grew up in Anacostia, a now very poor neighborhood in Washington DC. As I try to keep abreast of its horrible descent, I often wonder what happened, but of course have few real answers. Poverty, bad schools, guns, drugs -- aren’t they all just symptoms?
I suppose I have long believed in the need for the capabilities you've listed in Part II of your article. As to how to impart them, I have to question the effectiveness of your approach, at least as a primary vehicle.
It seems to me that post-adolescents simply won't be responsive to well-meaning volunteers, typically from outside the immediate neighborhood and often from considerably farther afield.
If I had a magic wand, I'd introduce required courses in every middle school that would begin to focus on each student's personal responsibility to shape his or her own future. Creation of a personal “life plan” would be required in order to pass.
Work sheets explaining the capabilities in question would serve as the matrix for each student's plan. In fact, it's not far-fetched to think of computer software providing templates to get the student into the process.
Naturally, these plans would be fanciful, often wildly unrealistic, but they would call for thinking of oneself as an autonomous human being -- one who will face a world of complexity, but also a world which can be mastered by self-preparation.
How much feedback these life plans would receive from teachers is a question. One thing for sure: The plans should not be graded.
Years ago, I became a believer in the “personal contract,” whether in groups or within the family. Perhaps that could be an element for follow-up in these plans as a means of measuring one's development of the capabilities that you and I seek to bestow.
A Compassionate-Conservative Amendment
I think we cannot rely on the government to help the poor. Philanthropic institutions -- both religious and secular -- are best equipped for this job.
The government can help by giving such institutions generous tax incentives and low-interest loans; and their work should be monitored by regulatory agencies.
A Liberal Alternative: Raise All Ships!
I am often struck by the fact that the normal “distribution curve” has about 15% at the bottom -- just as, at the other end, there are 15% who are always well off.
As they say, the poor are always with us, at least so long as our populations are distributed “normally.”
It seems unlikely that we’ll ever change the situation. Perhaps the best opportunity is to raise our whole society’s level of well-being.
With regard to trying to discover “what the poor need now,” I wonder if your experience in your building is a good grounding for you.
Many of the people I work with and give seminars to would also be classed as poor, albeit the “working poor,” in that they could probably make more money working for, say, the government. But entrepreneurship, controlling their destiny, following their passion, working on their own terms, is very important to them. Working with them makes me feel a lot more optimistic than you sound.
Many years ago I was a landlord with “Section 8” tenants like those you describe. Men who rammed their fists through sheetrock walls when they came home drunk. Women who flushed sanitary napkins down the toilet, thus stopping up plumbing. I was never so happy as the day we got out of that!
But, again, not every tenant was like that. Some were very nice. Paid their rent on time. Took good care of their kids. Kept their place clean, and picked up other people’s trash outside. They had pride and gumption, even though little money.
What’s the difference between the two groups? I don’t have a good answer -- but we can’t address “what the poor need now” just by looking at your apartment mates.
One question does jump out at me: Are today’s poor the children and grandchildren of yesterday’s poor? Or did the kids of yesterday’s poor make it out of the tenements into the working class, to be replaced by a new group?
That is clearly the way it works with immigrants, who make up a large proportion of the poor. A “chronic lower class” is different from a “rotating lower class,” and each would require very different programs.
Alienation and estrangement sound like common themes among the people you describe. While that can be a by-product of poverty, I don’t think we can start there -- with the alienation -- to effectively tackle the roots of poverty. My approach would be more “let’s raise the tide to raise all ships.”
A Radical Alternative
Your thoughts about poverty are inadequate, since they do not acknowledge that poverty is basically a systems problem.
If you set up a game, for instance, you get winners and losers. Key is to set up a different kind of system, one that is more conversation-based than competition-based.
My strategy for achieving this is the Wisdom Council process. It is aimed at transforming the public conversation of a large system -- be it a neighborhood (like yours in Oakland) or a nation -- to create an inclusive voice of “We the People.”
A Cantankerous Alternative
I enjoyed reading about your apartment building mates. As I live alone in a 400-year-old house in a small mountain village in the south of France, with no close neighbors, it is important for me to know what my options are . . . what I’m missing out on.
Coda I: Love and Political Journalism
I’ve been following your newsletter off and on, but not until this last piece on poverty did I sit up and go, whoa, this is significant.
Not that your other articles haven’t been interesting and insightful, but this is the first one that conveyed a truly unique voice, blending the personal and the political, in ways that your old newsletter New Options did but with an added dose of policy-oriented wisdom. It is the most human, wise, and least judgmental writing I’ve seen from you in some time.
It also was refreshingly free of swipes at the left and right that I believe, at times, have unnecessarily undercut your message. This stands on its own. It doesn’t need a label, or to ping other ideological perspectives, to proclaim that it’s saying something different.
You should build on this poverty article. The short vignettes in the piece (and I’m sure you can offer more) richly describe the human milieu . . . or, for wonks, the factual bases behind the “policy challenge.” The prescriptive aspect, which you start to develop in a tantalizing way, cries out for greater detail. There’s a monograph, law review article, and / or short book there -- a statement of truly “visionary law and public policy.”
By the path you have chosen, you are an exception to the demise of the independent, bohemian public intellectual that Russell Jacoby wrote about in The Last Intellectuals more than 20 years ago. I think we’re facing some huge challenges in the years to come, and I hope that your unique voice and example will help to clarify how we respond to them.
Coda II: Love and Political Struggle
Poverty piece is moving; but Sandra [whom you dedicated the piece to] is essential. Love and the life of political struggle should be intertwined -- each supporting.
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