Blogging Pew’s Economic Mobility Report

Last week, the Pew Charitable Trust released a series of three reports on economic mobility across generations, in hopes of providing “information and tools that will provide the nation’s leaders with an objective and accurate picture of the status and health of the American Dream.

You can find all three reports here, or download a two page “fact sheet” here.

While the release of the reports was covered widely in the news, I’m finding little in the blogosphere about the reports’ overall findings that depending on one’s starting points, income mobility may be more limited than many Americans believe.

An exception is the Wall Street Journal’s Wealth Report, where Robert Frank contrasts the finding of the reports that family background still strongly influences where one winds up on the economic ladder with recent reports supporting the belief that in the U.S.,
“wealth is [now] ruled by the entrepreneur and the middle-class guy made good”.

And over at Writing in the Wild, Ray Watkins provides a good summary of the reports and insight into the possible “glass half-full/half empty” interpretations of their findings.

In contrast, No Oil for Pacifists seems to have given the Pew Reports a very quick read, indeed. Ignoring the high rates of downward mobility of African American children from middle-income families, he proclaims that

“the economic prospects for African-Americans has improved dramatically since the mid 1970s; I suspect the gains over the past decade are closer to those of whites”.

Similarly, he proclaims that unlike Europe, “nearly everyone in America has the chance to be rich”, when the Pew Reports repeat the findings that are widely cited elsewhere: that America is a less mobile society than other developed nations. He’s missed, also, one of the report’s central findings: that much of the growth in family income in the past generation is attributable to more women going to work, not to the ease by which ambitious people simply work their way into wealth.

The Washington Post’s Michael Fletcher’s on-line Q and A focused on diverse explanations for the fall of so many African Americans from middle income status, while Get Religion, going far beyond the data used in these reports, insists that these long-term economic trends can be explained by individual choices (decline in involvement in religion, single parenthood) made by African Americans.

Insisting, instead, that the data in the reports are evidence of ongoing racism, Jack and Jill Politics blog takes exception to NPR’s Juan Williams’ essay on the divergence of black culture and values along class lines.

It will be interesting to follow Pew’s ongoing work on this project of careful scrutiny of the American Dream — and to follow, also, the public discourse that their work generates.

Sometimes, It Seems, You Can Go Home Again

Amidst all of the angst about class border-crossing, all of the pain in the voices of those who write their narratives of mobility, all the frustration of those who continue to chronicle the classism in their lives, I’ve stumbled upon a writer from among my people back in rural Wisconsin who suggests that maybe, in the right circumstances, you can go home again.

I’ve been working through the essays in Michael Perry’s Truck, a Love Story, and Population 485: Meeting your Neighbors One Siren at a Time, and finally, Off Main Street.

Perry grew up on a farm in a town not far my home town, smaller than where I come from but populated, it seems, by many of the same characters. And after college, after leaving his nursing career to write full-time, after living in Europe and traveling in Central America, he came home, bought a house, and writes there now at a window that looks down over Main Street. He joined the volunteer fire department, and his writing is often interrupted by barn fires and wrecks on the highway. On these emergency calls, he works beside his mother and brothers to save the lives and property of people he’s known since childhood.

And he deeply respects them, writes about them without patronizing, without irony. Truck is about (among many other things) restoring his 1951 L-120 International Harvester pickup truck under the tolerant, amused eye of his infinitely more skilled working-class brother-in-law.

I’ve spent the last hour paging again through his chapter “My People” from 485 , looking for the right quote to include here, knowing that of all he’s written in his three books, this is the place where he speaks most directly to the questions of belonging, identity, and going back home. I simply can’t find that single quote. This is not pithy academic writing. This is a chapter of inseparable stories about deer hunting, elderly gay modern dancers, a smelt fry, poetry readings, lunch with one’s publisher in New York and, of course, the Packers. Perhaps you could just go find a copy and read it.

These are not books about politics, about the ways in which small towns like his (and mine) are on the brink of economic devastation if not already there, about the more general state of the world. They are about belonging and dignity and loyalty.

And now a confession.

Michael Perry came to town recently for a book reading. It had been on my calendar for weeks. The room was packed — many people wearing Fleet Farm t-shirts and Packer caps. It felt like a reunion among strangers.

And the confession part: When Michael opened his mouth to read, I was stunned –barely consciously, and only for a moment — that he sounded exactly like my people: the long nasal vowels, the clipped consonants, the cadences that I fall back into when I’m home, the familiar sounds of my brother-in-law, my nieces, my mother.

And the fact that I was momentarily stunned reminded me that unlike him, I’m still working on this project of figuring out how to connect the dots from where I’m from to where I am now; from understanding my people intellectually and still knowing them in my heart and soul; of realizing, that in spite of the more theoretical understanding that I might bring to this work , I am still surprised in ways that make me cringe that someone who writes this beautifully could be this much like the people I left behind.

And in the end? Perry writes of something that I do understand deep within my being. Among our people, when distances and differences threaten to divide, we always come back to the very same deep connection. And that is simply this:

Go Packers.

Parents in Pain

Writing of upwardly mobile women from the working class, Valerie Walkerdine speaks of young professionals grappling with the conditions in which their parents still live. :

To leave is to get out, but social mobility is no cure for social injustice. There is nothing wrong with wanting to leave pain, nor are those who cross the borders responsible for the horrific and painful effects of poverty and overwork, written on the minds and bodies of workers. Why would they not want to leave for the pleasures of another life and the fantasy of the absence of pain and oppression of the old one? It could be understood to be masochistic to want to stay, and yet, what a dilemma. They get out and leave their parents in pain. Watching parents in pain for children who are looking for safety can be very hard.

She goes on to say:

It is precisely the complex relationships between the old and the new inscriptions, simultaneously cultural and social, semiotic and psychic, that are so important to understand”.

Yet in almost twenty years of formal schooling, no one ever, ever talked to me about such transitions, about the double-edged experience of moving forward while grimacing as we looked back, about the particular “dual consciousness” that we might bring to deliberations about justice and equity.

Schools talk endlessly about “making it”. What will it take to also begin talking about the costs?

Walkerdine, V. (2006). Workers in the new economy: Transformations as border crossing. Ethos, 34, 10-41.

Downward Mobility

From NPR’s Day to Day show comes this story on a study released today indicating that sons  today are faring less well economically than their fathers. Specifically:

on average, 30-something males make about 12 percent less than they would have 30 years ago.

Additional commentary is provided by a high school social studies teacher, the son of a mortgage banker.

Perhaps, rather than “No Child Left Behind” [NCLB], we should be have “Ok, So Many Of You Are Going To Be Left Behind your Parents’ Generation. Now, How Far Will Your Slide Be?” [OSMOYAGTBLBYPGNHFWYSB]

Even Margaret Spellings would have trouble spinning that one on Jon Stewart.

Harvard, Happiness, and Social Class

Continuing on the theme of the significance of rising standards for admission to elite schools, I found much to admire in this essay from a journalist from an “unworldly blue collar” home who was admitted to Harvard 35 years ago. He marvels at the multiple accomplishments of the kids he now interviews as part of the admissions processes to Harvard, even while he understands that many of these students won’t be admitted, in spite of all that they’ve accomplished.

Yet I’m conflicted when I read about how he’s eventually come to terms with shifts in the admissions landscape:

I came to understand that my own focus on Harvard was a matter of not sophistication but narrowness. I grew up in an unworldly blue-collar environment. Getting perfect grades and attending an elite college was one of the few ways up I could see.

My four have been raised in an upper-middle-class world. They look around and see lots of avenues to success. My wife’s two brothers struggled as students at mainstream colleges and both have made wonderful full lives, one as a salesman, the other as a builder. Each found his own best path. Each knows excellence.

Here, it seems, is the essential question of class.

I completely accept that there are many paths to personal happiness and many routes to individual excellence.

Yet there are, of course, fundamental differences between finding happiness within the options that are available to you and having many choices about where one might seek happiness.

As long as institutions like Harvard are growing less accessible to kids who can’t afford the frenetic resume building now required for admissions, and as long as Harvard remains a vital route to political and economic power, the questions of admissions go beyond whether one’s own child might find personal happiness there, or whether attaining excellence as a builder will, in the end, provide personal fulfillment.

Unless, of course, the children of the elite are asking the same questions.

It seems, however, that most are not.

As long as the kids who do eventually graduate from Harvard are going to wield power over other people’s kids, and as long as the grand narrative of the culture is that those Harvard kids deserve that power because they are essentially better people than kids who went to college elsewhere (and certainly, better than those who didn’t go to college at all), admissions is a social problem, not just a problem of misguided individual choices.

Straddling Class Borders

Renny Christopher once wrote that class is essentially invisible until we stand at the very point of crossing class borders.

I thought of this as I read this account of class as lived experience, from a young person home on spring break.

I can’t think of anything since Sennet and Cobb’s The Hidden Injuries of Class that has sought to capture the experiences of the parents of the upwardly-mobile, but it would seem that there are indeed stories to be told, even when such stories are lived as tales of personal pain and resentment.

Over-Achievement, Salvation, and Alienation

While I’ve been away, I’ve been catching up on reading the ever-growing stack of books on my desk. I have been reading and re-reading sections of Telling our Lives: Conversations on Solidarity and Difference, a remarkable and complex account of a multiple-year conversation among three women from the working class: One African-American, one Jewish-American, and one Irish-American. One is lesbian, the other two straight; all are now academics who have been meeting around kitchen tables to record their many-layered conversations about their lives and work.

They each talk about early engagement in school, the development of a keen competitive edge, the centrality of early literacy in their identity development. They write:

For all three of us, public presentation of self, enacted within and through the discursive regimes of the school, would become extremely important. At the same time, however, outstanding academic performances indicative of high levels of public literacy do not tell the whole story. The flip side of our overachievement (and to some extent, its motivation) was marginalization — primarily class based, although other factors contributed. The houses we built of words always had shaky foundations.

I come back again and again to these questions of how to best serve children poised at the boundaries of class divides that they can’t possibly understand, sensing the precariousness of their footing, floating between the joy of accomplishment and the quiet sense of unease that they cannot name.

Certainly, we can educate the teachers of these children that so much is going on beneath the high test scores and competitive treks through the classroom library.

Yet I know of few teacher education programs that come even close to engaging in such work.