Last night, I read an opinion piece written by Gene Marks, a contributor for Forbes magazine. While reading his piece, I became upset. His basic point was that if he was a poor, black kid he would do the following things as stated by himself on Huffington Post:
1. Study hard and get good grades.
2. Use technology to help you get good grades
3. Apply to the best schools you can.
4. Get help from a school’s guidance counselor
5. Learn a good skill.
Yup…that’s my advice. No, I’m not ashamed of myself. Sorry if you don’t agree with it.
In his piece, Gene Marks offers an oversimplified solution to one of the most complex social ills of our time: poverty. If it were this easy to escape the cycle of poverty, the United States would not be the growing land of inequality that it is today. Marks describes things that an individual can do to escape poverty. What Marks fails to acknowledge is that individuals have been escaping poverty for quite some time. Take my father for example; he was the first in his family to go to college. Today, I am a college graduate and working as a teacher making an honest living. My dad is not the first, nor will he be the last to do this.
Nevertheless, what creates a better America is not its ability to create pathways for a few people to achieve success, but ensuring that all people have a fair opportunity to achieve the American dream. Unfortunately, this is not the current world we live in. Fortunately, it is a world we can create.
What is the use of having a few people achieve, if there are many who are falling drastically behind? Something has to change, and it is not the newborn that was born with the stakes against him/her. It is the community that child grows up in. By working to create better communities, we not only help that child, but that child’s neighborhood to advance. Therefore, if I were Gene Marks, I would change my viewpoint because his view has not helped most people living in poverty.
King got it right. In his book published in 1967, Where do We go from Here? Chaos or Community?, he said:
Up to recently we have proceeded from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils: lack of education restricting job opportunities; poor housing which stultified home life and suppressed initiative; fragile family relationships which distorted personality development. The logic of this approach suggested that each of these causes be attacked one by one. Hence a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities to furnish tools for better job opportunities, and family counseling to create better personal adjustments were designed. In combination these measures were intended to remove the causes of poverty.While none of these remedies in itself is unsound, all have a fatal disadvantage. The programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis or at a similar rate of development. Housing measures have fluctuated at the whims of legislative bodies. They have been piecemeal and pygmy. Educational reforms have been even more sluggish and entangled in bureaucratic stalling and economy-dominated decisions. Family assistance stagnated in neglect and then suddenly was discovered to be the central issue on the basis of hasty and superficial studies. At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.
Moreover, it is easy for someone to look from the outside and give a critique. Many Americans are fortunate to not have to live in poverty or have family members living in poverty. Numerous do not have to work in an impoverished neighborhood–let alone come in contact with someone living in poverty. So for these privileged individuals my advice is that you do the following things:
- Vote for local, state and federal representatives who seek to create a more leveled socio-economic landscape
- Get out of your comfort zone. Engage in dialogue with people who do not have the same life experiences as you.
- Spend some time on the other-side of town and invest in it. Encourage cities to build up their low-income areas with quality affordable housing options, great schools, and businesses. Create more jobs in these areas.
- Do not just throw money at the problem. Philanthropy is great, but philanthropy coupled with service and action is an unstoppable force.
I do thank Gene Marks for doing one thing: sparking dialogue around a sensitive issue in America. I just hope that in doing so he is also open to understanding and actively listening to viewpoints other than his own.