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Nov. 9 2009 - 12:56 pm | 614 views | 1 recommendation | 8 comments

Three simple rules for getting out of poverty – but how easy are they to follow?

Photo by PSD on flickr

Photo by PSD on flickr

We’re a nation of bootstraps. Pull hard enough and you can pull yourself from rags to riches.

Or so we like to think. New research suggests we’re not as strapping as we might think when it comes to economic mobility.

New research from the Brookings Institution shows that economic mobility – the chance a child born into a poor family has to escape poverty – isn’t as robust as we might think.

If you’re born into a middle-class family, there’s a 76 percent chance you’ll end up middle class or even wealthier. Born into a poor family? Only a 35 percent chance.

But Brookings has a solution. Three simple rules to end up middle class, no matter how low you started out.

One: graduate from high school.

Two: work full time.

Three: marry before you have children.

They all make sense. But how easy are they? In theory, they should be easy. Public education offers everyone the chance to learn. Work is available for anyone who’s diligent enough to find it. Marriage and children are choices we make as individuals. Right? Well, that’s what we tell ourselves.

These simple rules are based on an individual’s actions. Following them means your chance of ending up poor goes from 12 percent to 2 percent, and your chances of joining the middle class jump significantly.

America is the land of personal responsibility. It’s a phrase inserted into every presidential speech for the last three decades. Say “personal responsibility,” and you connect with the middle-class American brain, the part that feels everyone could be as successful as they are, if they only worked just as hard.

We’re not that open to structural causes – to the idea that political, social and environmental structures are in place that shape our personal choices.

Just one example? Lead poisoning. The South and West sides of Chicago are chock full of lead. The families there tend to be poorer, and the houses they live in less likely to have been rehabbed or new.

Lead Poisoning MapLead dust is invisible and pervasive in these homes. It doesn’t take much to poison a kid. Just a sugar packet’s worth of lead across a football field is enough to poison a two year-old.

Kids who suffer from lead poisoning have permanent brain damage. Decreased IQs, trouble concentrating,  behavioral problems. They tend to be aggressive. They don’t get along well in school.

Graduating high school for these kids may not be so easy. Most don’t even know there’s a problem. They just know they’re not as quick as the other kids, the teacher doesn’t like them, and they don’t like school.

I’m sure that we can all agree that these three individual choices are good choices, positive choices. They’re the things we want for our own kids. But they’re not just individual choices. Fixing poverty isn’t as simple as changing decision-making.

We need to change the larger forces that take our individual choices away. Every school in Chicago should be excellent and inclusive. Every home should be eradicated for environmental toxins. Every child should have the nutrition and health care they need to be good students. Work should be available to high school graduates, full-time work with benefits and a living wage. Contraception should be available for teenagers, and they should be encouraged and mentored enough to know that having a family too early isn’t inevitable and isn’t the best for them.

Of course, choices make a difference. But kids don’t grow up in a vacuum. A kid doesn’t choose to be lead poisoned. He can choose to drop out of high school, but the reason he makes that choice is shaped by forces he can’t control – the quality of your school system, the involvement of your parents, your own intellectual abilities, your safety at school, and rules and regulations shaped by government officials he’s never met.

The statistics Brookings’ offers are useful, but we can’t let their laser beam focus keep us from seeing the bigger picture.

Poverty is about personal responsibility, but we can help people make the right choices if we eliminate the larger structural barriers to it.


2 T/S Member Comments Called Out, 8 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    Before I launch into my speech, I’d like to say thanks for covering the “hidden” Chicago.

    As usual, I think it’s a good idea to ask “Who benefits?” from the way things are. Here it’s another round of Blame our Problems on the Weak.

    Brookings rules make it possible for people who benefit from structural problems to redirect attention onto personal responsibility instead of addressing the ideology behind the structure. Add to that the idea of Personal Responsibility is a carefully crafted phrase that helps conceal that structure.

    I think you could flip your last sentence around to say the Poverty is about Structure. Period.

  2. collapse expand

    Forgot to add–

    The Three Simple Rules is a kind of inspirational agenda that’s torn apart by Barbara Ehrenreich’s in her latest book “Bright-Sided”:


  3. collapse expand

    “Every school in Chicago should be excellent and inclusive.”

    This would mean either getting rid of the public school system or starting a voucher system.

    “Work should be available to high school graduates, full-time work with benefits and a living wage.”

    I hope you aren’t advocating for higher minimum wages because minimum wage laws only take away jobs from the poorest and most uneducated. And these are the people who most need jobs in order to escape poverty.

    “Contraception should be available for teenagers”


  4. collapse expand

    In addition to the structural barriers you discuss, another problem is that “America is the land of personal responsibility” without recognizing limits to what the personal can do. It’s like we’re allergic to seeing human vulnerability and fraility … nice post!

  5. collapse expand

    Here’s a nice correllary map:

    I’ve been semi-aware of the lead paint issue for a long time, but since I don’t have kids and don’t even have a lot of friends with kids in the City, it just has a hard time holding my attention against all the other things.

    But every time I do think about it, I wonder why there isn’t a national drive to eliminate it. I know it’s a big task, but it seems like the problems caused by it are so dramatically evident that it should be a national priority.

    Is there any organization currently advocating universal mitigation of lead-based paint in the U.S.?

  6. collapse expand

    Social mobility will be nothing more than a hot debate amongst politicians and economists alike from here to eternity.

    If the issue of ‘personal responsibility’ comes into this argument, then it implies that those affected by poverty are adequately informed about their own choices in the first instance and thus empowered to some degree to get out of it.

    It is ultimately laughable that these platform of powers know so little or nothing about the reality of the socio-economic boundaries, and sheer limitations that poverty bring. Let them spend some time doing ‘real’ findings instead of intellectual ones – The gap between the socially mobile and the ones that aren’t is huge, despite how informed people are or aren’t about whether they are in poverty.

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    About Me

    I'm a journalist living in Chicago writing about poverty and public housing. I don't come from the streets - I grew up on a farm. But I'm passionate about urban issues and getting to know people who are completely different from me. I'm quirky, funny and friendly.

    I have this idea about journalism - that it should be approachable and less "newsy." I want my stories to make you laugh, cry and draw you in to neighborhoods and situations you don't deal with every day. I hate the broadcaster voice. I hate TV news. I hate the inverted pyramid. I love surprise. I love humor. I love people and telling their stories.

    In addition to being a journalist, I also teach dance for the Chicago Public Schools. I don't just do it for the money. I love children and love arts education. I'm also on the board of a new nonprofit dedicated to helping the underserved find jobs called Employing Hope. I write fiction, keep house, and am generally a renaissance woman.

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