Wednesday, August 01, 2007

David Brooks Flip-Flops on Cultural Integration

In the most recent David Brooks column at the NYT website, I see a distinct flip-flop on the cultural integration that Mr. Brooks has exalted and even supported in the past.

Brooks compares the Poverty platforms of Barack Obama and John Edwards and frames the difference this way (and I won't even go into the ways that he short-shrifts both candidates' overall ideas):
As Alec MacGillis of The Washington Post observed, Edwards emphasizes programs that help people escape from concentrated poverty. Obama emphasizes programs that fix inner-city neighborhoods. One helps people find better environments, the other seeks to strengthen the environment they are already in.

Note that Brooks references Alec MacGillis' poorly informed May Washington Post column as if it was a fair and balanced article. In this forementioned article, Mr. MacGillis had hyperfocused on the portion of John Edwards' Poverty platform involving the use of housing vouchers.

Brooks says he's swayed by Barack Obama's platform on poverty reduction because he thinks that "Obama seems to have a more developed view of social capital." Brooks says,
Edwards offers vouchers, job training and vows to create a million temporary public-sector jobs. Obama agrees, but takes fuller advantage of home visits, parental counseling, mentoring programs and other relationship-building efforts....The Obama policy provides more face-to-face contact with people who can offer praise or disapproval.
Brooks categorizes a neighborhood as a "moral ecosystem". What he distinctly moves away from are his own opinions of the past about the ways that he believed the "moral ecosystem" in these neighborhoods (the ones he now apparently prefers the poor to be locked into) are not progressing because of a failure to break up zones of concentrated poverty.

Go back to September 25, 2005 when Mr. Brooks begins to bemoan social stratification that he claims is due to economic stratification. He chooses to point to education as the reason for the default line:
....economic stratification is translating into social stratification. Only 28 percent of American adults have a college degree, but most of us in this group find ourselves in workplaces in social milieus where almost everybody has been to college. A social chasm is opening up between those in educated society and those in noneducated society, and you are beginning to see vast behavioral differences between the two groups.......Educated parents not only pass down economic resources to their children, they pass down expectations, habits, knowledge and cognitive abilities. Pretty soon you end up with a hereditary meritocratic class that reinforces itself generation after generation....
We realize that inner-city schools, to this day and despite all the lip service, are producing horrific results and do not provide the average inner-city student with an adequate education. Is it any coincidence that wealthier school districts are producing better results? Brooks is quick to blame "the educational system" and loathe to seek other answers as to why these neighborhoods aren't progressing.

Forward just a bit to October 6, 2005, when Brooks again attacks the education establishment as the chief blame for inequality.
...The main problem is not that poor students can't afford college....Nor is the main problem that these poorer students don't have access to college....The problem is that students who enter college often find they are unable to thrive there....The new inequality is different from the old inequality. Today, the rich don't exploit the poor, they just outcompete them. Their crucial advantage is not that they possess financial capital, it's that they possess more cultural capital....The forces driving cultural inequality are powerful, and maybe insurmountable. But each generation of Americans seems to be challenged in its own way to provide its children with an open field and a fair chance.....

This time it's an inequality of opportunity to compete and, again, it's the educational system to blame. So how do these neo-underpriveleged people gain cultural capital?

Forward to October 9, 2005, when Brooks exuberantly offers his solutions,
I believe that social mobility is the core of the American experience. I believe that society should be structured so that as many boys and girls as possible can work, and rise the way young Hamilton and Lincoln did....If something is going to make American society more fluid and dynamic, then I am for that thing. That's why I love globalization, even while I am aware of its costs.....I can't believe people want to shield America behind the walls of "fair trade agreements."....I hated the old welfare system, which pushed its victims away from work. I love welfare reform, which encourages work. I hate government that directs ever more money to the affluent elderly, but I would love a government that gave poor children savings accounts at birth, which would encourage them to think about the future and understand that their destiny is in their own hands.....I love the charter schools and the forces of reform.........
Wow. So Brooks is gung-ho for outsourcing jobs so that poor people in foreign lands can compete, but try to get him to support John Edwards' idea to have our nation - the richest on the face of the earth - create temporary opportunities for the poor to make work work for them and the community of their reasonable get themselves and their own American children out of neighborhoods that are clearly not woking as a "moral ecosystem" should? What's good for the developing world is not good for the poor of Mr. Brooks' own nation.

In the same October 9 piece, Mr. Brooks chose to heap more blame on America's educational establishment for inequality in our communities.
I hate the forces of the education establishment, which protects its system even though after years and billions spent, African-American students still graduate from high schools at academic levels four years behind their white peers.
Wow. He really hates the educational establishment. To him, it seems like education in America is the root of all evil. Trouble is, I don't believe that for a minute. Do you?

I saved the best and oldest reference for last.

September 8, 2005, just after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.

Katrina was a natural disaster that interrupted a social disaster. It separated tens of thousands of poor people from the run-down, isolated neighborhoods in which they were trapped. It disrupted the patterns that have led one generation to follow another into poverty.

It has created as close to a blank slate as we get in human affairs, and given us a chance to rebuild a city that wasn't working. We need to be realistic about how much we can actually change human behavior, but it would be a double tragedy if we didn't take advantage of these unique circumstances to do something that could serve as a spur to antipoverty programs nationwide.

The first rule of the rebuilding effort should be: Nothing Like Before. Most of the ambitious and organized people abandoned the inner-city areas of New Orleans long ago, leaving neighborhoods where roughly three-quarters of the people were poor.

In those cultural zones, many people dropped out of high school, so it seemed normal to drop out of high school. Many teenage girls had babies, so it seemed normal to become a teenage mother. It was hard for men to get stable jobs, so it was not abnormal for them to commit crimes and hop from one relationship to another. Many people lacked marketable social skills, so it was hard for young people to learn these skills from parents, neighbors and peers.

If we just put up new buildings and allow the same people to move back into their old neighborhoods, then urban New Orleans will become just as rundown and dysfunctional as before.

That's why the second rule of rebuilding should be: Culturally Integrate. Culturally Integrate. Culturally Integrate. The only chance we have to break the cycle of poverty is to integrate people who lack middle-class skills into neighborhoods with people who possess these skills and who insist on certain standards of behavior.

The most famous example of cultural integration is the Gautreaux program, in which poor families from Chicago were given the chance to move into suburban middle-class areas. The adults in these families did only slightly better than the adults left behind, but the children in the relocated families did much better.

These kids suddenly found themselves surrounded by peers who expected to graduate from high school and go to college. After the shock of adapting to the more demanding suburban schools, they were more likely to go to college, too.

The Clinton administration built on Gautreaux by creating the Moving to Opportunity program, dispersing poor families to middle-class neighborhoods in five other metropolitan areas. This time the results weren't as striking, but were still generally positive. The relocated parents weren't more likely to have jobs or increase their earnings (being close to job opportunities is not enough -- you need the skills and habits to get the jobs and do the work), but their children did better, especially the girls.

The lesson is that you can't expect miracles, but if you break up zones of concentrated poverty, you can see progress over time.

In the post-Katrina world, that means we ought to give people who don't want to move back to New Orleans the means to disperse into middle-class areas nationwide. (That's the kind of thing Houston is beginning to do right now.)

There may be local resistance to the new arrivals -- in Baton Rouge there were three-hour lines at gun shops as locals armed themselves against the hurricane victims moving to their area -- but if there has ever been a moment when people may open their hearts, this is it.

For New Orleans, the key will be luring middle-class families into the rebuilt city, making it so attractive to them that they will move in, even knowing that their blocks will include a certain number of poor people.

As people move in, the rebuilding effort could provide jobs for those able to work. Churches, the police, charter schools and social welfare agencies could be mobilized to weave the social networks vital to resurgent communities. The feds could increase earned-income tax credits so people who are working can rise out of poverty. Tax laws could encourage business development.

We can't win a grandiose war on poverty. But after the tragedy comes the opportunity. This is the post-Katrina moment. Let's not blow it.

Now it seems that Mr. Brooks chooses to turn away from that post-Katrina moment and prefer to keep the poor with limits as to choices about where their children will live and be educated - even after all of his exuberant talk about how education is key to opportunity and how cultural integration is such a worthy idea and how he values work over welfare.

He is seemingly convinced by the older, more romantic notion that big federal government will accomodate the social policy funding with wide bipartisan support, as in the 1960s-era War on Poverty. The federal government significantly retrenched from its prior position of dominance in funding and directing community development activities decades ago. I cannot imagine hearing David Brooks advocating for bigger government when Obama would actually come looking for the dollars for failing inner city neighborhoods. Who is he trying to kid?

The fellow is all over the place on his philiosophy.
It sounds like a lot of flip-flop to me.


Larry said...

Brooks is like many of his political ilk.

He wants all he can get for himself and his kind, while hoping to suppress those who have little, in order to gain even more for himself.

His arrogance and insensitivity show he doesn't choose to understand the plight of the poor.

JollyRoger said...

Brooks is another apologist scum mouthpiece that is incapable of expressing an independent thought.

I'd like to find the machine that turns out these morons, and break it.

Jude Nagurney Camwell said...

I'd like to find the machine that turns out these morons, and break it.

I like to think, somehow, that that's what we bloggers are doing, bit by bit, every day. Chipping away at the rust and the "grease" that keeps them less than intellectually honest. We've got to get that same "grease" from lobbyists out of the pockets of our political leaders, too.

GreenSmile said...

Its a post like that that makes you one of my reference-shelf bloggers, Jude. A sound take-down and just what Brooks admirers need to read.

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