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