Quit Making Me Feel Guilty and Give Me Some Solutions
David Brooks just wrote an Op/Ed piece in the NY Times that infuriated me even though I agreed with many of his points. Brooks has been making more sense to me lately, but I believe he mostly missed the boat with this one. Read “How We Are Ruining America” before continuing.
In summary, David Brooks has laid the generational poverty problem at the feet of the middle and upper middle classes as a purposeful result of exclusionary activities and privilege.
And I call bullshit on that. For one thing, I believe David Brooks has some facts just simply wrong (see the nonsense on college admissions below). For another, there are huge differences between the unintended consequences of income inequality (see the comments on breast-feeding) and the need to correct horrifically discriminatory public policies of the past (see the points on zoning). And finally, there is the true historical and current reality that our Constitution and implicit values foster equality of opportunity, but not equality of outcomes – in other words, there will always be some who have more than others.
Let me go one step farther. Let me assert that if the approach to solving generational poverty problem is to try to either guilt the middle-class into change or tax us into submission, IT WILL FAIL.
Why? Because most of us are unwilling to cede the results of our grandparents, our parents, and our own hard work, effort, and sacrifice just because we were successful. Even if we acknowledge that we had help (better access to education, middle-class neighborhoods, not being born a person of color), which, by the way, we should, we still are not going to give up what we tend to regard as mostly due to our own hard work. And, I may add, trying to make us feel guilty about that success is not only damn annoying, it is worse. It is worse because it will not work.
Let’s consider the unintended consequence of success. A traditional family with one worker (historically male) enables the mother to breast-feed her baby longer than the household headed by a lone parent (historically female) who must return to work. There is a correlation with learning achievement and life success and length of time of breastfeeding. Aside from the fact that this reality has been in place since the time of the Pharaohs, Brooks cites it as example of middle-class privilege and perhaps it is. But that begs the question of what to do about it (assuming, of course, that this is a big enough issue with a big enough impact to make it a high priority for public policy which I am going to assume must be true or else why would David Brooks make such a point unless of course he was just firing off bullshit as random, distracting factoids). On this, Brooks is silent.
Brooks then asserts that “elite” college admissions “sit atop a gigantic mountain of privilege and then with their scholarship policies they salve their consciences by offering teeny step ladders for everybody else.” I call bullshit on this as well. He’s just plain fucking wrong. I will give three examples. Princeton, Williams and Grinnell College. Princeton was the #1 college in the US News & World Report rankings. Williams was #1 and Grinnell #19 in the liberal arts colleges. All three are elite, private institutions. According to US News, at Princeton, “59% percent of full-time undergraduates receive need-based financial aid and the average need-based scholarship or grant award is $44,270”. Of those applying and accepted, 100% of need was met. At Williams College, 49% percent of full-time undergraduates receive need-based financial aid and the average need-based scholarship or grant award is $46,007. Here, as at Princeton, 100% of accepted students need was met. At Grinnell College, “68% percent of full-time undergraduates receive need-based financial aid and the average need-based scholarship or grant award is $38,612. Again, here, 100% of accepted students need was met.
Looking through the rest of the top 20 rankings of liberal arts colleges, the results are similar. In other words, at the top colleges in the country, most students are getting most of their college funding needs met by the college. If you do the quick math, these colleges are giving away much more than 50% of their comprehensive fees in financial aid and many of them meet the clear majority of need for students with need. Between the discounts, the diversity targets for recruiting minority students and for economic diversity, programs like Posse (and others) that support minority community admissions and financial aid, many colleges and universities are making huge efforts to ensure that “underprivileged” kids are represented. Is it perfect? Of course not. But Brooks’ condescending, snarky comments about what “elite” colleges do is complete bullshit nonsense.
What Brooks did not mention at all was the reality that there are many communities in the US where the value of education is not appreciated. Read Hillbilly Elegy, Mr. Brooks and tell me what our nation’s colleges and universities are supposed to do about communities that see no value in post-secondary education. Hey, your own party doesn’t believe in higher education. I urge you all to read “Sharp Partisan Divisions in Views of National Institutions” in which 58% of Republicans surveyed now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country. How about we fix that before we begin castigating those parents who do understand the value of a college education and work hard at making that happen for their children.
Then, Brooks asserts, “To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carriage, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine, and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.”
Brooks (particularly the last point above) should avoid trying to be sarcastic because, based on the evidence above, he sucks at it. Now I know David Brooks didn’t intend to include me in this group, I am too old. But other than that, I believe I would qualify as one of those “privileged” he is talking about. I guarantee you that I cannot tell a barre move from a bar, never had the right baby carriage, have listened to only 2 podcasts in my entire life and then only on long car rides, don’t trust food trucks unless I have no other choice, am just fine with anyone’s black tea, buy wine I like, never done Pilates, found David Foster Wallace a tremendous bore, and think intersectionality is total horseshit because it has become the modern-day intellectual excuse for anti-Semitism. If these are the things David Brooks believes distance the middle- and upper-middle classes from the underprivileged, I strongly suggest you have not spent enough time outside of your neighborhood, ‘cause sure as shit these are not the things my community values.
And let me add another point here. Every culture, sub-group, and tribe has its own language that is meant to be exclusionary. Hip-Hop has its language. Millennials have theirs. Teenagers have always had theirs vs their parents. Texters have theirs. My daughters had to translate LOL (which I first thought meant lots of luck) and I have had to look up NSFW and ICYMI and many others. If you want to part of any group to which you at first do not belong, you must learn the lingo. If I wanted to be, say, a conservative Republican (as David Brooks has been and perhaps still is), then I would have to learn that “Southern Values” means segregation and worshiping monuments of people who made war on the United States of America, that “Entitlement Reform” meant taking benefits away from poor people who are referred to as “Dependents, that “Family Values” meant anti-gay propaganda, and that “Pro-Choice” means forcing women to give birth to babies that we can then forget about, “New York values” means Jews, and “Urban” means Black people. And a blunt or a spliff, I think, is what I used to call a joint. See, it’s everywhere and it is not a middle-class plot to keep poor people poor. I think David Brooks needs to STFU on this one.
Then we get “American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class” and uses as evidence of this his friend who is only a high school graduate confounded by not knowing soppressata, capicola, or a striata baguette.
What? So, your friend wasn’t Italian, and had never ordered a sub sandwich at a real deli or Greek diner or went to a Subway for lunch? Bad fucking example. Better point would have been made around the topic of “social capital”. That’s a real issue. These days, if you have no network, you are at a significant disadvantage. But Brooks did not make this important point and certainly did not provide any answers as to how to fix this.
Brooks does get one thing right: our society has been purposely discriminatory regarding housing, zoning and GI benefits and that has effectively segregated populations, separating the poor from the middle-class. The result is a population that gets poorer schools, fewer opportunities, and increasing inequality. It is a huge, and real, problem. But don’t look to David Brooks for any answers here…. just feel guilty that you have a nice house in a nice neighborhood with decent schools. And forget the fact that you actually pay for that in higher property taxes and, in many cases, with city and village income tax.
The most infuriating thing about Brooks’ column (outside of the wrong facts and wrong approach) is that he offers not one iota of solution. Assume that I understand the severity of the problem (I think I do, and believe it is a horrible stain on our country) and dislike the outcomes that have resulted (which I do). You can also assume that I do not feel personal guilt. I want to make this country work better. Now what? From David Brooks, a big fat, odiferous nothing. Not one clever idea. Having accused me of collusion, Brooks does not one damned thing to guide me to any solution.
That is not a winning approach.