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Social Issues Mon Nov 30 2009

"I'll Just Go Back to Grad School"

My social, family and professional networks allow me to move pretty regularly through very diverse groups of people: people of color, WASPs, the poor and working class, immigrants, wealthy businesspeople, creative professionals, the highly educated and completely uneducated. So when one day, in line for coffee, I overheard the following, I was completely floored: a woman, about my age (late 20s) was complaining about some job she did not get. Off-handedly, she said, "I guess I'll just go back to grad school, like everybody else."

She was just being glib, but the profound wrongness of that statement and the inability of her or her friend to see the irony in it--I looked back; they weren't smiling--really shocked me. Did they understand how unbelievably fortunate they were to even be able to think about going to graduate school? How that made them among a very tiny group of human beings on the planet with that kind of opportunity?

Consider for a minute that less than 30 percent of American adults have a bachelor's degree. So more than 70 percent of Americans have no college degree. That is an enormous majority. Of those 70 percent, a clear majority never even attend college.

I think about that conversation often; it snaps into my mind anytime I come across a statistic that should remind people of just how many Americans don't have anything like the "equality of opportunity" crowed about by conservatives and neoliberals.

Think of the last eight friends or family members you talked to on the phone or over email. Is one of those eight people surviving on food stamps?

If not, you move in very fortunate circles. Because one out of every eight Americans can only get enough food to eat with the assistance of food stamps.

There are 239 counties in the United States where at least a quarter of the population receives food stamps, according to an analysis of local data collected by The New York Times.

The counties are as big as the Bronx and Philadelphia and as small as Owsley County in Kentucky, a patch of Appalachian distress where half of the 4,600 residents receive food stamps.

In more than 750 counties, the program helps feed one in three blacks. In more than 800 counties, it helps feed one in three children. In the Mississippi River cities of St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans, half of the children or more receive food stamps. Even in Peoria, Ill. -- Everytown, U.S.A. -- nearly 40 percent of children receive aid.

Peoria is "Everytown, U.S.A." thanks to Richard Nixon and his phalanx of conservative ideologues, who coined the expression "Will it play in Peoria?" when designing their particularly pernicious brand of hateful identity politics. That original army of conservatives still infect our political class. That 40 percent of children in Peoria now survive only because of the social safety net that movement is intent on eroding to nothing is an irony that would surely be lost on them. Besides, when their children fall a little behind, they just go to grad school. Like everybody else.

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Viva La Che / November 30, 2009 1:19 PM

You shouldn't confuse equality of result with equality of opportunity.

... and you apparently don't see the irony of projecting your own hateful brand of identity politics on that superficial cloak of compassion.

Hailey / November 30, 2009 1:19 PM

surely though, more than 30% of people in their mid to late 20's hold undergraduate degrees. It's basically high school part 2 these days, where in you need a bachelors to get a job working at potbellys, or so it seems in today's economic climate.

Ramsin / November 30, 2009 2:13 PM

Viva La Che, why would somebody project something onto a cloak? Wouldn't that defeat the purpose of a cloak?

Oh, and I'm not confusing those things. Quite the opposite. The whole sloganeering of "equality of opportunit,y not equality of outcome" is the thing that's nonsense. Do you think those 70% of Americans are all failures, rubes, lazy? Or do you think maybe they didn't have the same opportunities as many of other people did?

The number of choices you didn't get to make by the time you have any real control over the decisions that affect you are so many and so important that the conservative sloganeering is past dishonest into malicious. We have equality of opportunity, as though we all get to pick who our parents are, how well they raise us, where we live, how much money our neighbors make, how safe our communities are, etc. By the time you start to get some real control over your own life, when you're sixteen or so, the children of the wealthy and upper middle class have been being drilled about getting into not just college, but the best colleges, for a decade already.

They have "equality of opportunity" with a kid whose parents don't know anything about how to get into college, don't bother paying attention to how their kid does in school, can't afford or don't care to give him extra tutoring, and can't afford to move out of a rough neighborhood surrounded by bad influences?

Right. Keep repeating the mantra to yourself because it salves your callous disregard for the human condition. As long as you've got yours, then all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, right? Conservatives use this phony cowboy "realism" exactly because they're actually nervous Dr. Panglosses plugging their ears to brute reality of life. I'm rich because I'm the best, you're poor because you're the worst.

But you know its phony. Was I advocating for an "equality of result" anywhere in there? Nowhere. You just fell back on conservative sloganeering, because that's all you have. I don't want to ensure equality of outcomes; but you don't want to ensure equality of opportunities either, because that would mean addressing the enormous, tangible benefits that the children of privilege get over the rest of us.

Surprisingly, Hailey, it's actually lower.

Dutch / December 1, 2009 9:14 AM

So I've read your original article, and the comments, and I don't understand your point. What's the point? That there are those out there who are less fortounate than others? You don't offer any advice or solutions, but mearly statistics that there are poor people out there who can't go to college or grad school, and an anecdote about those who fail to realize how privelaged they really are. I'm not trying to belittle you or anything, I just don't get your point. Was this an observation that made you think and you wanted to blog about it? It's an astute observation, for sure, but where are you going with this whole thing?

Ramsin / December 1, 2009 10:53 AM

It was an observation that made me think and want to blog about it. Thank you for saying it was an astute observation.

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