In the last two days I have read two pieces that provide radically different views of government programs and their use by those in poverty. On the one hand there was a piece on Slate by Neil deMause which looked at the way Georgia has managed its Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program so that few families enroll relative to the number of poor in the state. This piece clearly paints the state administrators as mean spirited and depriving potential clients of needed services. On the other hand Nicholas Kristof from the New York Times writes about families in Jackson, Kentucky pulling their children out of reading programs so they can continue to qualify as intellectually disabled and thus garner the family additional payments. This strategy does not need much analysis to be seen as a horrible way to exploit a program at the cost of children’s future.
Taking these two pieces together make me understand how hard it is to simplify and generalize about the issues involved here. Where I teach, at an independent school with a yearly tuition of $25,000 or so, the students in my class usually have no firsthand experience of being in poverty although they may have observed poverty as part of service learning opportunities. I often hear comments about the lives of the poor being easy because of government provided food, housing, and other benefits. I also hear complaints about the poor lacking the work ethic (undermined by government programs) to move up in society. The challenge comes in when I want to ask students to question those assumptions, but I do not want to error on the other side by painting a picture where all those in poverty are striving nobly against a hostile economic system. The challenge is to teach nuance–always a grand difficulty.