What Really Keeps Poor People Poor

jayzThe 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.

26. May 2011 by Jon
Categories: Disruption, Personal | 83 comments

  • Jk

    A child born in 1835 came of age in 1856, five years before the start of the US civil war.

  • Stacey G

    The problem is not the poor lacking access to elite networks, but elitism itself. We live in a society that puts power in the hands of a dispropotionally small group of people and the vast majority of people are seeing their wealth diminish and their schools failing to give their children a proper education. So what if the ruling class is becoming more diverse? That is NOT what democracy looks like. As long as we continue to limit the distribution of wealth and power fairly we will continue having this conversation focusing on 'what is wrong with poor people.'

  • http://twitter.com/zeonglow Chris Huang-Leaver

    “The chain” as you call gets longer the more unequal a society is.  Read “The spirit level” it's as good as they say it is

  • http://twitter.com/geniusnowblog Greg Burton

    Here's a fun little game. Go through the comments, and identify which ones came from some actual experience, and which ones come from denial. Among the denial comments, see if you can identify which are from trustafarians, and which from folks who think they're just “temporarily” on the wrong side of the tracks and can climb out of it. 
    Of course your networks count. If you're honest, you recognize that a poor kid at an Ivy is already behind the curve, because he or she didn't go to the right prep school. Microsoft was built on Lakeside, after all. What's depressing is this blame the poor because you can't admit you have privilege.

  • http://www.postlinearity.com gregorylent

    poverty is a belief structure, first .. one that results in having little money.

  • http://twitter.com/darth_schmoo Bryce Anderson

    I didn't bother to read a word of your response, but you're completely wrong about everything.

  • http://thewheatandchaff.com Matt Bieber

    I think you're forcing a false choice here, Jon. (The title feels like a bit of a giveaway: What “Really” Keeps Poor People Poor).  It's not as if poor people have equal access to everything BUT the top networks.  They also frequently lack access to all sorts of other important things as well – including decent food, education, health care, and safe neighborhoods. (Along with other crucial stuff, of course – like a sense that opportunity really is out there, and that hard work will be rewarded.  If you come from a place where opportunity isn't very visible, believing in it might feel a lot less realistic.)

    In other words, it's not a choice between networks and resources.  Poor folks deserve both, and addressing poverty adequately will require both. 

    I worry that you're underselling the value of education, too – that you depict it as mostly about the kind of job it can land you after you graduate.  To my mind, part of the deprivation of not getting to go to the school that your talents warrant is that you don't get to BE in a top school, alongside other smart folks who could push you to grow!

  • http://vivresavie.tumblr.com vivresavie

    New reader–great post.  Social capital has always been key in social mobility.  I work at a prominent charter network in Philadelphia which turns around failing public schools.  Like many charters aimed at closing the achievement gap, we have a very selective hiring process and a rigorous, comprehensive teacher evaluation system, because we know that it takes an excellent teacher to get dramatic results, particularly in a population of high need.  Something which our schools also do, which I think makes us somewhat unique, is build “college prep” life skills into our social and emotional learning curriculum.  Kids in wealthy suburbs have parents who think nothing of throwing a few thousand down for a Kaplan test prep course or personal tutor; our families could never afford that, so we build SAT Prep into the course catalog.  Kids in wealthy suburbs also have an abundance of college connections and tend to have grown up in a “college culture”–i.e., their parents have likely gone to college, and they've probably grown up assuming and hearing over and over again that they're going to college, so they have an in where our students might not.  For instance, filling out a FAFSA form might be a mere annoyance to a middle-class family in a Main Line suburb (if it's even necessary), but even the simplified FAFSA forms could be enough to deter a student from applying for schools.  A more well-off students might have parents who have the luxury and time to shuttle them back and forth on multiple college visits; we compensate by arranging college visit field trips.  Our seniors have a whole course on college readiness.  We regularly have college acceptance rates above a 90%.  

    We have plenty of brilliant students–many of our graduating classes meet or surpass the average on state tests–and we prepare them as best as we can, but even with all of our best laid plans, we're finding that we're not yet at the college graduation rates that we want. What we're realizing is that, once they're at college, it's tempting for our students to drop out.  Why?  Because the majority of their network is not at college with them–they're back home in their neighborhoods.  It's not even an issue of schoolwork; many of our returning students who make it through their freshman year comment on how well-prepared they were academically.  It's an issue of socialization; a common trend we noticed were students not even leaving for school in the fall, because it was so easy to stay behind with their friends. We know that having a social network is integral to our dreams of college graduation for all of our students, so we're taking steps to build up an alumni network that will help alleviate student anxiety about leaving home for school.  

    Anyway, this post outlined a truth which seems pretty obvious and simple to those of us with first-hand experience, but seems to be hard to grasp for those without.  Thanks for the enlightenment.

  • http://thewheatandchaff.com Matt Bieber

    Good stuff Vivresavie.  My sense is that America's addiction to bootstrap narratives not only tempts us to overlook how rare class mobility really is, but also prevents us from seeing some of the social phenomena that hinder mobility.  The example of kids who've been accepted to college but choose not go because they fear leaving their entire networks behind is a really moving example.

  • Andy Rankin

    You might like to check out  Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever. Just getting into Princeton doesn't get you into Cottage Club.  Some networks are tough to crack if you weren't born with blue blood.
    http://www.amazon.com/Lost-Mer

  • http://twitter.com/americandesi333 startabiz

    The internet has opened that playing field a little bit over the past decade. It is now easier to have the same access to information even if you come from an impoverished background. 

    The biggest difference is that if you come from a poverty, most of the burden is placed on the YOU to make that change. I moved to US at a young age of 15 with nothing in my pocket and needed to really persevere to where I am today. Speaking from experience, it requires a lot of motivation and persistence to stop that viscous cycle and make a different future for yourself. Its not handed down to you BUT it is achievable. Thats what we have always called achieving the 'American Dream'. 

    Now the question is, what percentage of people are able to push themselves? What tools, mentor-ship programs, curriculum can be developed to motivate the masses to move towards that direction?

    Good post.

  • http://thewheatandchaff.com Matt Bieber

    Thanks for bringing up Kirn's book, Andy!  I also went to Princeton, and I often had difficulties getting into Cottage Club too. (I wasn't interested in joining, but even attending the parties there could be a trial – there'd frequently be a bouncer, even on nights when the club was near empty.  I snuck through the kitchen once or twice (along with the windows of some of the other elite clubs) before deciding that eluding doormen and risking injury was a degrading way to try to make friends.

  • Jojo

    Russell admits that he rose to the top by selling drugs

  • Reyna

    “those same impoverished people don't even seem to be motivated to move
    up any higher than the top levels of the ghetto they live in.” = racism.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V

  • Kabir

    Great post, carry on.

    Kabir

    Best Linux Hosting

  • Network out of Poverty

    I have worked with high risk young people around the world for thirty years. A major emphasis to my work has always been “Poverty is a lack of healthy relationships.” We've followed the premises of “Six Degrees of Separation,” and now, “Six Pixels of Separation,” to help young people build positive social networks around their own compelling vision statements. This article affirms what we've been doing and I want to say — on the street — this really works. Helping young people — who often feel they are victims — come to a point where they can say, “I can network myself out of my current situation,” is so much healthier than “waiting for superman.” Thank you. Jerry Goebel – Communities of Trust

  • http://www.douglascrets.com Douglas Crets

    I love this, and I want to tweet you all over the place, how can I do this?

    “Poverty is a lack of healthy relationships” is the best I have heard on

    this. Thank you.

  • Pookdoo

    jay z is god

  • 1motorpsycho

    Amen! I like the fact that you pointed out isolation. That is what it boils down to.

  • asdf

    Jay-Z says “All us blacks got is sports and entertainment”

  • Vhodgdon

    Maybe I missed it, but I did not see the connection between genetics and poverty memtioned, except in the comment about the welfare system.

  • Guest 2

    tl;dr

  • guest

    that isnt true..as long as you are pregnant or have a child under 18 you can get food stamps, AFDC which is like child support if you have a dead beat dad in the picture among others you can get this forever just keep on having babies and dont work too much and it is big bucks $250 min for food stamps for first child $250 min afdc for first child oh and dont forget the tax refund you get woohoo so you can go get yourself a big tv and sit on your fat butt
    or smoke crack or whatever it is you do. 
    PS I have been there and I used the system to get myself out of the poverty cycle graduate and move on to another social class. My family and friends cousins etc did not many years later they are still on it babies having babies. From my point of view, I would have been more careful and not got myself into this situation if I knew I couldnt get a give check of food stamps.

  • cbp

    As someone from a poor background who has gained access to successful circles, I'm actually pretty tired of dealing with priveledged elites who seem to have no idea what the real world is like.  I'm seriously contemplating taking a job with much less “prestige” as a results.  Simply providing access is not going to solve the problem.  There are huge cultural and value barriers that are night and day between the strata of society, and you are fooling yourself if you think this is going to be solved, ever.

  • Mark

    If you're going to criticize someone you should at least KNOW what you're criticizing. But furthermore being stupid enough to actually acknowledge that you didn't read it is beyond ignorance. Artie's tone changed by the end of the article and he presents a case that is worth consideration and in fact along the same vein of importance as the original poster. The issue has a large grey area and the points of both the OP and Artie are worth contemplation.

    I would love to know what type of person actually took the time to write “I didn't bother to read a word of your response, but you're completely wrong about everything,” because they are obviously the type of person that is self-restricting and belongs at the bottom of the barrel according to the discussion.

    Consider this:

    1. It's one thing to say someone is wrong about something.

    2. It's another thing to say someone is wrong about something and NOT back it up.

    3. It's a whole new level of stupidity to say someone is wrong about something and NOT have even read what they've wrote – in many cases the point is more than the opening couple of sentences and to judge based on them is the height of ignorance and certainly equates to judging a book by its cover.

    4. You have to be DOWNRIGHT IDIOTIC to say someone is wrong, ignore what they've written, and go the extra mile to actually STATE you haven't written what they've read. People like you obviously cause your own depravity in life and aren't worth any effort.

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  • Stphvict

    There has also been studies that have shown that IQ is based on nurture rather than nature. Unless you are a child genius (what ever color you might be), you are still born with the same IQ as a privilege counterpart. Moreover, if your statement holds any truth than hatred of a specific element,color or creed is innate rather than a forced idealism set by ones environment.

  • lindandan

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  • lindandan

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  • martinfreed1234

    Jesus fucking Christ, STOP writing “she” instead of “he,” you fucking cultural Marxist imbecile. It’s incredibly disconcerting and makes the reader constantly have to pause and ask himself, “Who is ‘she’?” The notion that any one random human female may somehow feel “excluded” upon sighting a masculine pronoun is so absurd, only P.C. dunces could ever have a sufficient disconnect with reality to believe it.

    So much for education.

  • martinfreed1234

    Another liberal loon.

  • martinfreed1234

    A steaming waste of a blurb about those “poor, disadvantaged youths.” The right network only goes so far when your IQ refuses to catch up. Stick to relevant posts and leave the looney toon liberal hogwash aside. Truly intelligent people don’t care.