A problem too big to ignore: U.S as a land of “selective” opportunity

Class issues have been very much on my mind this week.  So you’ll have to forgive me if I carry on a bit here  about the yawning gap in the U.S between the haves and the  have-nots. 

I just finished watching the  HBO documentary, “Homeless,” about the families who live in the motels around Disneyland in Anaheim, California because they can’t afford a real home.  As a newspaper reporter  covering Disneyland in the early 1990s, I was well acquainted with  these seedy motels just footsteps from “The Happiest Place on Earth.”  But I had no idea the extent to which they’ve become the last resort for so many really young  kids and their parents.  The documentary, which was produced by Alexandra Pelosi, was heart-wrenching as it illuminated the lives of these children crammed in single rooms with their families and  playing in parking lots and alleyways rife with drug addiction and gang violence.  The kids even go to a special school, Hope School, that runs all year so that they can get regular meals and be kept off the streets.  Watching it, I kept thinking of  how I’d been less shocked to see poor kids in third world countries, than in a rich country like the U.S., where everyone is supposed to have a chance.

And yes, Ms. Pelosi is the daughter of the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.  But regardless of your politics, this program is eye-opening.   What was most jarring to me was that most of these people were working full-time if not overtime ( though often minimum wage jobs at places like Target, Wal-Mart and even nearby Disney), yet they still couldn’t afford to rent a house in Orange County.

The majority of people Pelosi interviewed were also white, which made me think of a great piece I read recently in the Wall Street Journal that argued how affirmative action had failed America because it’s not helping the folks who really need it.  It was written by Senator Jim Webb (D-VA), who has also gone out on a limb backing prison reform.  For my money, there are few legislators who have a better fix on the problems ailing the U.S. – or more courage in confronting them – than Webb.   He asserts that as affirmative action has been expanded to include all people of color and other protected groups, it has shortchanged the African-Americans it was designed to help.  And that’s not all.  As Webb writes:

Those who came to this country in recent decades from Asia, Latin America and Africa did not suffer discrimination from our government, and in fact have frequently been the beneficiaries of special government programs. The same cannot be said of many hard-working white Americans, including those whose roots in America go back more than 200 years.

The fact that Webb’s editorial has more than 1,000 commenters, many in support of what he says, suggests that a lot of us are seeing the disconnect.    In essence it’s not about race or ethnicity — it’s about economic and social disadvantage.  Americans who fall or are falling into the lower class are the ones most in need of assistance. 

This is also highlighted in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” which I recently picked up when I saw an 11-year-old boy reading it at the pool.  (I’m assuming for the chapter on what it takes to succeed in sports, since he’s typically carrying a football.)   In the book, Gladwell basically skewers the Horatio Alger myth of the self-made man, by illustrating many of the extraordinary advantages our up-by-their-bootstraps heros have actually had.   He also cites class in explaining why being a genius doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be a success, pointing out that there are certain things well-off parents teach their children about making their way that children from poorer families often  don’t know. 

Any way you look at it, it’s a tough problem.  Readers, what are your thoughts?

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1 Comment

Filed under class issues, homelessness, jobs, UVA Lacrosse, wages

One response to “A problem too big to ignore: U.S as a land of “selective” opportunity

  1. I don’t have HBO so missed this important documentary. But your comments certainly made me think about the Shirley Sherrod case that held the news hostage last week. Her message that was hidden in an edited video was the same one you mention here: it’s not a race issue; it’s a have vs. the have-nots issue. I think it’s important to point out the lessons you mention also, that people with money and education behind them can teach different lessons than those without. Some people truly have advantages that others do not, and that may be a very subtle thing. This is not to say that it’s ever too late to be taught. The question: but how?

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