What Really Keeps Poor People Poor
The New York Times has a great piece this week about how top colleges (many of which are heavily subsidized by the government) are, in their words, largely for the elite. It’s well worth reading. In it, Anthony Marx, the president of Amherst College, is quoted as saying the following:
“We claim to be part of the American dream and of a system based on merit and opportunity and talent,” Mr. Marx says. “Yet if at the top places, two-thirds of the students come from the top quartile and only 5 percent come from the bottom quartile, then we are actually part of the problem of the growing economic divide rather than part of the solution.”
There’s a lot of evidence that suggests that the admissions policies of the top universities tend to perpetuate the notion of rich getting richer. This post isn’t meant to argue for or against that point. Rather it’s to argue another point which is that when you look at this issue the larger concern here shouldn’t be that people from lower-income families aren’t able to receive as good of an education as people from higher-income families. That’s of course very important but the critical factor is that people from lower-income families aren’t able to gain access to the same networks that higher-income families have access to.
One of the articles that has been influential in my thinking here was Malcolm Gladwell’s 1999 article in The New Yorker entitled “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg“. I’ll let you read the whole thing but suffice to say it’s the story of an unlikely “super connector” named Lois Weisberg and includes this very pertinent passage:
If the world really is held together by people like Lois Weisberg, in other words, how poor you are can be defined quite simply as how far you have to go to get to someone like her. Wendy Willrich and Helen Doria and all the countless other people in Lois’s circle needed to make only one phone call. They are well-off. The dropout wouldn’t even know where to start. That’s why he’s poor. Poverty is not deprivation. It is isolation.
Poverty is not deprivation. It is isolation. When the high school senior from the inner city doesn’t get into Harvard or Yale, she’s being isolated from the networks that could allow to reach the highest rungs of society. In all fairness, many people from impoverished communities have been able to access these networks in recent decades and it has lead to some of the greatest success stories of our time. Michelle Obama. Sonia Sotomayor. Even a story like Lloyd Blankfein‘s (Goldman Sachs CEO/Chairman) is largely one of accessing networks (through a full ride to Harvard) that would have been normally inaccessible to a son of a Postal Service worker.
As Gladwell states in his article:
Minority-admissions programs work not because they give black students access to the same superior educational resources as white students, or access to the same rich cultural environment as white students, or any other formal or grandiose vision of engineered equality. They work by giving black students access to the same white students as white students — by allowing them to make acquaintances outside their own social world and so shortening the chain lengths between them and the best jobs.
We live in an age where with a solid Internet connection and someone to guide you through the process of self-education (admittedly something many people don’t have) you can learn just about anything. Certainly enough to qualify for some of society’s highest-paid positions. But unfortunately that’s not enough. Because despite the fact that it’s easier than ever to learn the things that will qualify you for a well-paid position in the world, it’s not easier (perhaps even harder) to gain access to the networks that will let you achieve your full potential.
Waiting for Superman paints a very compelling picture about the dire situation in our inner-city schools. And the point that it might not be that schools reflect their surroundings but rather that surroundings may reflect their schools is well worth pondering. But it’s often overlooked that the most tragic part of children from the inner-city not gaining access to elite schools probably isn’t the fact that they might be losing out on access to a world-class education. Rather, it’s that for most that was their best shot at gaining access to an elite network.
So can we change this? I think we can. It starts with recognizing the problem for what it is and doing what we can to teach kids from impoverished backgrounds not just how to read and write but how to become upwardly mobile in their networking. That might sound strange but it’s not like there aren’t role models for how to do this. Guys like Russell Simmons or Jay-Z. How do we instill in our less privileged youth an attitude and aptitude for rising up the ranks and meeting the people they need to meet Lois Weisberg-style, regardless of what university they happen to get into?
Sounds like a hell of an idea for a world-changing non-profit. If you know of anyone doing anything like this I’d love to talk to them.