The Nouveau Poor
Being poor in America just doesn’t seem to be what it used to be. Today a public school district is considered “poor” or classified as a Title I district when a certain percentage (40%) of its children qualify for a free or reduced lunch. Once any school or district reaches a point where over half of its students qualify for free or reduced lunches (in other words they are living in poverty) they’ve reached what’s become commonly known as their “tipping point” and those schools begin to spiral downward into the abyss of failure, almost never to return to successful stature again. Poverty really does equal failure in America. If you are poor then you can bet (if you have any money) that you will be hounded throughout your life by failure of one kind or another.
But whose fault is poverty? Does it have a fault? And what do I mean by the Nouveau poor? Isn’t poor, poor? To be poor means to be without money, right? That’s what I always thought but throughout my years teaching in a poor, Title I school district I have noticed some subtle changes in poverty.
Many of today’s “poor kids” (at least in my school) wear expensive clothes and they wear expensive sneakers and shoes (often several pair of various colors to match their various outfits) They carry cell phones which means they have monthly fees to pay just for the privilege of texting (they don’t even call) their friends who are sitting only a few feet or classrooms away. (Remember writing notes?) They drink 2 dollar bottles of water when water from the tap is virtually free. They are all wired with headphones and MP3 players. And many if not most even have regular jobs. Today’s poor kids just don’t have that one thing that would qualify them as NOT being poor…money! And it’s not just the poor who are poor anymore!
What family saves these days? What family pools all of its economic resources to pay for the important family bills like food and heat and housing and then skimps on the luxuries? It seems as though luxuries come first these days. Non essential first, then we eat. I’ll use my cell phone to text home, “I’m hungry!”
I’ve had students tell me that food is something they can steal if they need to, but not electronics or clothes etc. “They guard that shit!” Say the kids. Kids need to pay to have those things.
Think about it: Those stores have security measures and employ security guards while most food or grocery stores do not.
I’m not advocating being poor, nor am I saying that poverty doesn’t exist. Nor am I trying to blame poverty on the poor as many well off and no doubt well meaning people do. It just seems as though poor ain’t what it used to be. And poor isn’t just for poor people anymore either. Everybody wants to get in on the action…Today poor is when after you’ve spent your money on what you don’t need, you don’t have enough left for what you do need…like food and as the kids would say, “dumb crap like that.” I’ve even had friends tell me from time to time that they don’t know if they will be able to meet their month’s rent on their apartment or home. And they tell me this at the restaurant, just after having come from their health club, while checking the internet on their phone, and before producing a credit card to pay for their tab!
Many of today’s families are sliding down the socioeconomic ladder in the pursuit and the acquisition of goods or luxuries that were previously unobtainable but are now made tantalizingly affordable through mass marketing and mass production in places like China and India where sadly, the real poor live. Here in America many of our young people are learning about their new found poverty the hard way, by spending their way into the ranks of what I call the Nouveau Poor. They may be poor but at least they have the clothes, and the technology and the sneakers and the stuff that says, “We’ve earned it!”
What today’s public schools need is a better public: One that both collectively and individually pools its resources to spend on that which is essential and important before its wastes those same resources on what is frivolous and unnecessary. We need to tone down the marketing frenzy that tempts and lures our citizens, from their cradles to their graves, to behave in opposition to their better natures and encourages them to spend their hard earned money (In many cases before they’ve earned it!) on things they don’t really need or can get elsewhere for free. What we need to do is to start leading and encouraging our students and citizens to put their money where their mouth is, meaning to start spending it on their proper nutrition and diet and personal health, education and welfare where it will most directly contribute towards enhancing their chances of improving their lot in life. That is the true pursuit of happiness that Thomas Jefferson was speaking of in the Declaration of Independence and that George Mason had previously penned in the earlier Virginia Declaration of Rights to which he added “and obtaining.” (Curiously Jefferson borrowed Mason’s idea but dropped “and obtaining” from the end of “and the pursuit of happiness” when penning the Declaration. Hmmmmm…foreshadowing perhaps?)
America’s students need to be taught that they not only have the right to pursue their happiness but also the right to catch up to it and hang on and that it’s not only a right guaranteed by their government but also a responsibility expected and required of them and every other citizen of the United States. We won’t be able to keep whining about money spent and taxes levied, as long as we know that it is being spent on that which benefits the greater good of us all.
It would help of course if our politicians would chime in by showing some responsibilities of their own. One (1) predator drone, excuse me, Unmanned combat air vehicle, costs as much as 5 Sesame streets! The entire program of (let’s face it) “killer robots” costs 11.8 billion dollars! That’s 26.2 PBS stations! Call me a socialist but is it really better to kill than to receive? Which one of the above mentioned programs is for people and which one is for anti-people? Which would be the best way and the cheapest way and the most sensible way for our government to help keep us from going broke and becoming the Nouveau-est poor country in the world? By cutting 2 trillion dollars in additional defense spending or that other crap like housing, food and educational spending? Yes, I’m a socialist! Up with societies! Down with blowing up societies!
When will we learn that we cannot keep pursuing the “YouDaMan!” tactics of selfish capitalism? Instead we must seek the “Eudemonia” of a free society for all. And I’m not going to help you with that one. You’re going to have to look that word up on your own!
Hey, I’m a teacher! I know the odds of you looking it up…
eudemonia: happiness as the result of an active life governed by reason.