My husband and I spent some time last night talking politics.  (As much time as he can in one sitting; he studied political science as an undergrad and now find the entire subject annoying and pointless.)  We were talking about the  presidential race.  I mentioned that I would probably end up voting for a Democrat (historically unusual for me).  This will have no real impact, since I live in a red state.  However this led us to discussing what we disliked about the two parties.  For my husband, his dislike of the welfare state and entitlement programs is more important than many other considerations, making it hard for him to consider a democrat.

Specifically he made the argument that he has no problem with safety nets for people who hit bad spots but that someone who makes bad choices should have to pay the consequences.  3 years ago I would have agreed enthusiastically.  However I have no spent 3 years in an ultra-liberal (bordering on socialist) education school, and while I generally still agree I am more aware of how the choices that he and I have (and know to make) are very different from the choices people of other backgrounds may have. 

This was driven home for me today through the Privilege Meme that is making the rounds of the academic blogosphere.  It consists of 34 items that you might have had growing up.  A couple are more age dependent (for example kids didn’t have TVs in their rooms when I was in school; heck we only got cable when I was in high school…) while others are more open to interpretation (does “lessons” mean private lessons or would group dance classes count?).

Still for all that, I marked nearly half of them.

  1. Father went to
    college (yup)
  2. Father finished college (got his BS in his late 30s)
  3. Mother went to college
  4. Mother finished college
  5. Have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor
  6. Were the same or higher class than
    your high school teachers (same)
  7. Had more than 50 books in your
    childhood home (Encyclopedia Britannica and my books)
  8. Had more than 500 books in your childhood home (I’m the only one that read)
  9. Were read children’s books by a
  10. Had lessons of any kind before you
    turned 18 (Dance classes, swimming lessons)
  11. Had more than two kinds of lessons before you turned 18 (see above)
  12. The people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed
    positively (except women)
  13. Had a credit card with your name on
    it before you turned 18 (not common in the early 80s)
  14. Your parents (or a trust) paid for the majority of your
    college costs
  15. Your parents (or a trust) paid for all of your college costs
  16. Went to a private high school
  17. Went to summer camp (girl scouts)
  18. Had a private tutor before you turned 18
  19. Family vacations involved staying
    at hotels (we camped every summer)
  20. Your clothing was all bought new before you turned 18 (I was the oldest)
  21. Your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them (worse, I got a hand-me-down from my younger brother who had gotten a junker for getting thrown of the BOCES bus.  I’d gotten a 10-speed for graduating in the top 10% of my class.  I’m still a little bitter over that one.)
  22. There was original art in your house when you were a child (*snort* my parents have awful taste in art so it’s probably a good thing they never put any up.  Our walls were blank)
  23. You and your family lived in a
    single-family house
  24. Your parent(s) owned their own house
    or apartment before you left home
  25. You had your own room as a child (also the only girl)
  26. You had a phone in your room before you turned 18 
  27. Participated in a SAT/ACT prep course (I don’t remember hearing about these at the time)
  28. Had your own TV in your room in
    high school (not common in the early 80s)
  29. Owned a mutual fund or IRA in high school or college (nothing more than a savings bond)
  30. Flew anywhere on a commercial
    airline before you turned 16
    (yes, to DC as 12)
  31. Went on a cruise with your family.
  32. Went on more than one cruise with your family.
  33. Your parents took you to museums and art galleries as you grew up (I tried to take my mom as an adult; it didn’t go well; she thought 2 hours was sufficient for the Louvre…)
  34. You were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family (what kid knows this?

Basically all the solid, middle class stuff.  None of the super-rich…  I don’t think this list is even close to complete, think it leaves some things out and has things in it that I’m not sure make sense

I guess the point here is that it’s easy to forget what growing up white and middle class teaches you about the opportunities that exist.  Even at 18 I had confidence and a better idea of the resources out there than Kim, who went to the same school but lived with her single mother in a trailer park.

The fact is that if I were magically dropped on a corner, filthy and without a penny to my name, knowing no one, I could get myself out of it.  Without a mental illness in the picture I would clean myself off, pick myself up and start over.  It would be difficult, unpleasant and painful, but I have lists of things in my head that I would/could do if necessary; places to look for help, resources that I know are out there.  I think in many ways that is what is meant by social capital; its knowing the expected behaviors and knowing about what is out there so that, when necessary, you have the resources. 

Yet I am also aware that there are people out there who don’t know these things.  Who don’t know how to behave, don’t speak well enough to impress a potential employer, don’t realize what possibilities exist.  They may not be physically disabled or mentally ill, but they could well be socially deficient/crippled.  What then is society’s responsibility to them?

Here I find myself partway back with Husband; Society’s responsibility is to help them learn what they need to get out of the situation, but not to support them while they wallow in it.  However I think that making a program available isn’t the same as making sure that the people who need said program are aware of it.  Perhaps the reason so many sink into eternally living on government assistance of one type or the other is that we don’t provide them with both the knowledge needed to get out of their situation and the incentive (in the form of an end-date) to make the necessary changes. 

KIPP charter schools actually address this.  They are schools specifically for low income struggling students.  They are hard, with high drop-out rates.  But the poor inner city (generally minority) kids who emerge from them have not only the academic skills but also the social capital to succeed within our current social order.  They are drilled the virtues of punctuality, politeness, proper english, honesty, and all the other things that employers and colleges expect.  Some in my department say that this just perpetuates the hegemonic culture, and it does, but it also explains that culture to those who don’t have the right kind of home/family situation for it to be explained there.  Those students then do better, both there and later in life.  By replicating certain aspects of privilege (access to books and the internet) and explicitly teaching social capital, these students escape the cycle of poverty and despair that they were in danger of falling into. 

That, to me, is the type of program we need to be fighting for.  Let the adults change the culture if they don’t like it, but give kids the tools to excel within it.  That means an approximation of the key aspects of privilege and the social capital to succeed in society the way it is now.

(sorry; that rambled a little….)