Parenting and poverty


by Carla Bates, 2/19/08 • Jolinda Simmes – a teacher and frequent contributor on the Minneapolis Public Schools forum – pointed all of us to some researchers from Harvard who were exploring the role of parenting as contributing to the achievement gap. The researchers are excellent and they suggested that two-thirds of the “achievement gap” could be attributed to factors other than the schools: parenting and poverty.

Although I think education reform will remain a central issue, I also think it’s important to be talking about the other two-thirds. And both issues will be hard to discuss for different people for different reasons –

The difficulties of talking about parenting for me –

* As a parent, it’s hard to talk about parenting without feeling all squeamish: depending on the day, I feel guilty or self-righteous or lucky or sad or thankful or angry or misunderstood or overwhelmed or – rarely but sometimes – confident. It’s all that psychological, personal, self-help sort of stuff that is so powerful but rarely makes it into public discourse beyond Oprah. (And, thank goodness for Oprah, at least!)

* As a progressive, it’s hard to talk about parenting because I worry about being labeled a conservative: I fear that I am supposed to be focused on economics and criminal justice and anti-racism rather than the “family”. There’s pressure to stay focused only on systemic, structural problems rather than personal responsibility. It’s a PC thing.

* As a lesbian, it’s hard to talk about family because people either totally don’t “see” my family and talk about the “fundamental” importance of marriage and fatherhood or they miss my shared ideas about the importance of commitment and loving adults in a child’s life or they say something weird about how great it is for a kid to have two nurturing moms, as if I somehow lost my curmudgeonly demeanor at home and became a marshmallow.

* As a white woman, the race issue makes the family issue really, really hard to talk about sometimes. But the video that Jolinda pointed to helped – as it was about values rather than race per se so it gives us common issues to talk about – the importance of stability, the need to turn off the TV, the value of family meals, the value of schedules etc. etc. etc. If parenting is part of the achievement gap then parenting is part of school success for all children and we need to be talking about it loud and clear for everyone concerned.

And the difficulties of talking about poverty for me –

* As someone who grew up very poor, it takes a lot of time to help people who did not grow up poor understand how it’s not always somebody’s fault – how poverty is about mental health issues and no health care or the persistent, chronic lack of well-paying jobs for low-skilled workers or the lack of a good schools or the lack of stability as a family or the lack of labor unions, good welfare programs and responsive government or the mistakes made as a young person in a nation where we have been giving up on forgiveness.

* As a progressive, it’s been very hard to talk about the need for welfare and for strong labor unions because of the maniacal focus on “personal responsibility” and – frankly – the emphasis on materialism. In the 1980s, I did a lot of welfare rights activism and it was like shouting into the wind – no one could hear and too many people stopped listening, especially the middle class as the tech boom and then the housing boom forestalled our need to deal with the growing inequality in our midst. We need to do more volunteering and less shopping.

* As a white person, I know that I benefited greatly from my skin tone and race is always hard to talk about. Not more than a handful of Native American kids made it out of Pierre, SD schools despite the fact that many began with me. The numbers of students of color who actually graduated from my college were small in comparison to how many went and there were only two or three students of color in my graduate school class in the early 1990s. As education is one of the avenues of class mobility in this nation, the inability of education to better integrate people of different races as well as classes is a failure of our nation to deliver on the promise rather than the fault of the schools alone. Lately, I’ve been reading a couple of books to help me talk about these things – Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal is an unapologetic and very insightful call for better labor law and a more generous welfare state: it’s smart and hopeful. I’m also doing a lot of reading about parenting and community including Bill Cosby and Alvin Pouissant’s book to black America called Come on People.

Minneapolis is one of the most segregated cities in the nation. This fact weighs heavily in understanding the achievement gap in our schools – for the sake of our city, we are going to have to address the well-being of our schools, the well-being of our families, and the well-being of our economy if we are going to address the systemic reasons for the achievement gap.

The catalyst for today’s post: Poverty is Poison by Paul Krugman

Carla Bates is the parent of children enrolled in the Minneapolis Public Schools, and she is a candidate for the Minneapolis School Board. Information on her candidacy is available at