Saturday, March 3, 2012

Designed to Fail

On a lark, I recently took to investigating the local industries here in the Coachella Valley, so as to possibly prepare for a career change (at the mention of which my wife went quietly ballistic - "You're a damn teacher!").  I didn't find much of interest in terms of employment.  But I did encounter a fascinating perspective on the regional economy.

In an article responding to a recent regional economic initiative, I found this profound little description of the valley's socio-economic dynamic:
....did you know there are 500,000 people living in the Valley during peak season?
In fact, some of the cities are very high-end resort communities. Cities like Palm desert, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, and La Quinta. The Coachella Valley also has farmland, and also some lower income areas, and cities, which helps provide all labor for the major hospitality industry during the winter months when everyone comes to stay and play. Indeed, there are 200 golf courses in the Valley.
I suppose this is in many ways a mundane, obvious observation.  But it gets at something far more profound about the way our society functions, and the pressures that citizens face in striving to live their lives with dignity and equality of opportunity.  
A major talking point in the current Republican primary race is the idea that conservatism emphasizes "equality of opportunity", while liberalism "emphasizes equality of outcomes".  This framing is flawed in that its rhetorical design is to elicit agreement that conservatism's ideological framework, and subsequent policy prescriptions, is superior - a notion that is of course debatable.  However, on its face the framing isn't exactly incorrect, and might even be useful in understanding the deeper nature of our ideological differences.

Liberalism argues that equality of outcomes - a basic fact of our society - are determined by factors including, but not limited to, personal initiative.  In fact, personal initiative itself would be argued as the result of larger factors that shape individual citizens' sense of self-efficacy.  So while there may be in theory an equality of opportunity, an individual may not be able to access it because of socio-economic forces that have conspired to inhibit his personal agency, his ability to take advantage of those opportunities.  
In emphasizing the current inequality of outcomes, liberalism argues both that this is the result of socio-economic dynamics that are alterable, and then what policy options are available to broaden access to equality of outcomes.  This policy would ideally find the greatest point of leverage in a given negative dynamic and then design a program that effectively removes it as a negative factor in the individual's ability to affect positive outcomes.  
In educational pedagogy, new forms of learning always require what is termed "scaffolding".  A student is not expected to succeed with complete independence at the beginning of the lesson.  First, the teacher provides a model of what is expected.  Then the student is slowly given an opportunity to perform the task himself, but with the teacher right beside him giving him support; some of the scaffolding has been removed.  Finally, the teacher allows him to work completely independently, as he is now competent to succeed independently; the scaffolding has been completely removed.

This analogy is not necessarily meant to equate the learning process with a citizen's intellectual or behavioral capacity, although sometimes behavior is indeed a factor in the dynamics of access to opportunity.  Rather, it is meant as an analogy to the realities of socio-economics.  
So, for instance, lets take the example of a young single mother with a high school education, who makes minimum wage.  Laying aside for a moment the social dynamics that first led to her position (that is water under the bridge now anyway), let's examine the socio-economic dynamics of her situation that make it difficult for her to access the opportunities that might exist, yet which for her are circumstantially impractical.

Because of her low pay, she is unable to afford a car, babysitter, health insurance (for both herself and her child), or schooling for her child.  She can only afford to live in the poorest of neighborhoods, and struggles to pay for groceries.  Without government programs designed to help her and her family (her child), her life prospects would not be good, and she would be unable to access the majority of opportunities for betterment, should they even exist.  
With government, however, she has a decent chance of leveraging herself and her family to a better, more equal life outcome.  Public transit allows her to get to work without a car.  Subsidized health insurance allows her child (at least) to get the medical care he needs to stay healthy and prevents a medical issue from devastating her fragile situation.  Subsidized child care allows her the time to take classes at the local community college.  Public parks, libraries and community centers in her neighborhood allow a measure of quality of life and opportunities for her and her child.  Food stamps supplement her paltry income, allowing her to at least better feed her family, and possibly even save a little money in the bank.  Public education allows her child to get an education that she would not have been able to pay for privately, nor afford the time to spend homeschooling him - were she even to be competent enough to do so.

Conservative scolds will likely point out that her situation is her own fault.  She shouldn't have gotten pregnant, at least not without marrying first.  That might help.  However, two parents earning minimum wage are still hardly enough to support a family.  They might also point out that the provision of government services likely contributed to a sort of irresponsibility in family planning on her part, in that she must have known that, in the end, she would be taken care of.  
However, all we need to do is to is look back to a time before the modern liberal state, before these programs were in place, to see that illegitimacy and poverty were just as much problems then as they are today.  In fact, the research on what actually drives human behavior and life choices, there are much more profound socio-economic factors than the existence of government support.  Things like family background and education level are far more predictive of behavior than the prospect of government dole.  While we ought not discount this critique entirely - I'm sure it does play some role, the reality is that an analysis of the cycle of generational poverty shows that profound deficits in both human and social capital are by far the biggest drivers of impulsive, dysfunctional and short-sided behavior.

One of the most coherent and broadly negative of these dynamics is the geography of poverty itself.  Essentially, what we have in every region of the country is the isolation and stratification of citizens with low levels of human and social capital into communities along socio-economic lines.  These communities become highly reinforcing of negative behaviors, including out-of-wedlock birth, violence, substance abuse, mental illness, low education, inadequate parental involvement and guidance, etc.  (at the opposite end, you have more affluent communities concentrating individuals with high levels of human and social capital - education, savings, networking, mental health, physical fitness, impulse control, etc.).  To be raised in one of these neighborhoods, to fraternize with one's peers, attend school together, etc. is to be raised in a deficient, depleted, and more often dysfunctional environment.  Government programs or no, the sense of self-efficacy and agency, not to mention one's actual physical, emotional, behavioral, moral, academic, etc. development is still going to be massively malnourished.  Whether or not government programs can ever sufficiently remedy this socio-economic deficit - that translates into practical, thus literal opportunity and outcome depletion - is reasonably debatable.  But the larger issue is the structure of our economy itself.

Let us return now to the Coachella Valley.   
....lower income areas, and cities, [help] provide all labor for the major hospitality industry.
This is nothing less that a large-scale, macro-socio-economic recipe for continued poverty and inequality.  As long as there exists a market for low-wage services, there will be low-wage workers who live together in low-wage neighborhoods.  Thus all those who, for whatever reason (lack of education, lack of mental health, behavioral development, etc.) can do no better than work in low-skill, low-wage jobs will continue to make up an underclass of citizens for whom opportunity is inaccessible, and outcomes will be unequal.  We will continue to wrestle with the problems they inflict both on themselves and us in the form of crime, lost productivity and dysfunction.  Yet until we begin to wrestle with the ways in which we - as a society with a distinct social and economic structure - have inflicted problems on them, lasting solution will continue to elude us.

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