Saturday, September 11, 2010


It occurred to me recently that something is often lost in the way we think about social development.  There is a sort of "pop-sociology" model that we use when thinking of dysfunctional individuals.  My wife was describing a friend of hers who seems to always encounter problems in her life.  The poor woman, to hear her tell it, is simply savaged day in, day out by one misfortune after another, generally involving mistreatment at the hands of another.  Yet of course, there is always two sides to these stories. 

In this recent case, my wife had recommended her favorite hairdresser to this "unlucky" friend.  After the appointment, the friend was severely disappointed with her service.  The woman had done a horrible job, and she was never going back!  Yet when my wife saw the hairdresser again, she was told of an individual who was very rude and difficult to work with.  Even after receiving a full refund, she called up and berated her over the phone, accusing her of not actually refunding her money.

So my immediate reaction upon hearing this story, and having heard before of this poor woman's daily struggles, was to ask whether she had had a difficult childhood.  According to her, of course, she indeed had.  But I realized too how cheap this analysis really is.  What does a "difficult childhood" really mean?  And why is it that many people seem to have come out of deeply troubling childhoods relatively unscathed - generally well-adjusted and free from nagging psychodynamic tensions?

What next occurred to me is that the line of analysis wasn't exactly misplaced.  There is an obvious causal connection between environment human development.  Those who have experienced childhood trauma are simply much more likely to struggle in adulthood.  But what is missing from this "pop-sociology" is the degree to which we are able to dig into the details and tease out the specific, granular details.  These things often require much deeper analysis, often at the hands of professionals, as the individual is likely to have never completely sorted out the unpleasant narrative, either from fear or because they lack the metacognitive skills.

And because this is Super Vidoqo, we must relate this experience to education.  As is generally the case with education, the micro is expressed at the macro level.  If one is to think of society as a single organism, poverty can be thought of as our collective "troubled past", in which a legacy of systematic dysfunction continues to play itself out not in the psychodynamics of the unconscious, but in the hidden ghettos and low-wage underworlds of the lower classes.  These are unpleasant stories with complex answers, and require complex solutions.  Just as we can't pop-sociologize our way into the dysfunction of a friend, we can't simplify the narrative of generational poverty, specifically the locus of its reconstitution, the impoverished child.

We use poverty/SES as a sort of rule of thumb, but it is a blunt instrument.  Some poor families will do better than others.  Why is this?  In a word, social and human capital - what parents pass on to their children and the environment they live within.  So this is emotional, language, cognitive, etc.  A parent rich in human capital yet financially poor will still serve that child well.

Our number one policy goal ought to be identifying these disparities in social & human capital and leveraging resources to overcome them.  This ought to start in maternity wards, where mothers can be briefly evaluated and "plugged in" to a network of services that continue to track the child, via nurse-visits, or community center incentives. 

I work with at-risk teens and 17 year old girls are in no way competent to raise children without help.  In just a few years these are the kids entering kindergartens vastly disadvantaged to peers in other neighborhoods.  This program of social/human capital tracking - assessment & remediation, is beyond the purview of the standard schoolhouse model, much less the classroom teacher.  "At risk" families and children ought to be placed in a database that follows them, regularly checking in on their progress and providing a sort of socio-economic scaffolding. 

This is would certainly be a costly endeavor.  But maybe not as much as it sounds at first.  And ultimately the payoff will far outweigh the investment, both in economic and moral terms.  Ending generational poverty could save us billions in lost productivity as well as criminal justice expenditures.  This new model completely disposes of current reform thinking, leaping past it and attacking the real problems placing so much downward pressure on poor families.

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