Chart: Gender Equality Around the World

The World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Report determines disparities between men and women in areas like political empowerment, economic opportunity, health, and education. Scores are tallied between zero and one, with one signifying perfect equality (an impossible ranking thus far for even the most progressive countries, though thankfully no country ever ranks at zero). Here is a chart of some of the results courtesy of The Economist.

Out of 142 countries examined in 2014′s index, Iceland topped the list at 0.86, followed by the rest of the Scandinavian countries — Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden — taking the next four highest slots. This is perhaps not too surprising, given that these nations typically perform very well in just about every metric of human development, from poverty to social stability.

But plenty of developing countries have high gender equality as well; Nicaragua, the Philippines, and Rwanda each made it to the top ten despite being among the world’s poorest countries. This challenges the notion that economic and political development are the main factors bettering the lives of women (although such solutions certainly help of course).

Like most social and culture values, a lot of multidimensional influences are at work in determining the treatment and opportunity accorded towards women. Thankfully, many countries seem to be improving in this and other metrics of human development, but we still have a long way to go. What are your thoughts?

 

Giving to Charity Intelligently

There are so many causes worth supporting, and no shortage of charitable organizations to choose from to address them. But since money tends to be short and there are only so many groups to give to, it is important to know where you get the most bang for your buck.

If anyone needs help determining which charities they should support, check out CharityNavigator.com, which was founded to help improve the efficiency of charitable giving. To that end, it evaluates philanthropic organizations based on a range of criteria, such as financial efficiency, accountability, and transparency. It also provides a detailed profile on every nonprofit, including how much goes to overhead versus the cause, how much CEOs are paid, where donations come from, and the like.

Moreover, you can compare charities within particular fields (education, animal welfare, etc.), view a top ten list of the best (and worst) charities, see which organizations needs the most help (and which do not), and learn about the most recent trends and developments in the world of humanitarianism (for example, which organizations are involved in fighting Ebola in West Africa). You can even find vital tips on how to donate most effectively

Fortunately, my research suggests that Charity Navigator — which is also a nonprofit that could use some donations — is an independent and trustworthy source; crucially, it does not except donations or advertisement from any group it evaluates, and all of its own financials are public record and available on its website. Of course, you are free to leave any feedback regarding this or other charity watchers, so that we can all do a better job of doing good in the world.

Graph: The U.S. Leads the Way in Low-Wage Work and Pay

As has sadly been the case all too often these days, one of the latest reports from the Economic Policy Institute, an American think-tank, is grim: low-wage workers (the 10th percentile of wage earners) have seen their real pay decline by five percent over the 1979-2013 period, despite concurrent productivity gains of 64.9 percent.

Consequently, American low-wage workers fare the worst in the developed world: according to the OECD, as of 2012, they earned just 46.7 percent of what a median worker worker does, far below the OECD average of 59.9 percent; to catch up to that average, U.S. low wage workers would need a 28 percent raise in their wages.

The graph below highlights this issue rather starkly:

Note that over a quarter of America’s labor force — 25.3 percent to be exact — is low wage, which is defined as earning less than two-thirds of the median wage. On this metric, too, the United States ranks the highest among the 26 countries surveyed, and far higher than the OECD average of 16.3 percent.

Thus, the U.S. has the largest number of low-paid workers in the developed world, and they in turn are the lowest paid in the developed world. And while several countries, such as the U.K., Ireland, and Canada, come close, most of them at the very least have more developed social safety nets to offset the shortfall among low-wage workers (universal healthcare alone is a major mitigating factor, given that medical bills account for many cases of bankruptcies among the American poor).

Setting aside the considerable amount of misery that comes with low paying and often menial labor, the broader impact on the long-term prosperity of the nation cannot be understated: with one out of four workers (and their dependents) having so little income, consumer demand — the lifeblood of the economy — stagnates. Fewer people are able to afford an education or vocational training, leading to a lot of untapped and desperately needed potential.

All this despite the nation’s economic elites — its executives, shareholders, and investors — broadly doing better than ever. Is it really so untenable for companies to spare some of their record, post-recession profits to improve the plight of their beleaguered workers — i.e. the consumers and patrons they all so badly need?

 

In any case, this is a point I have made too many times before, so instead of retreading it once more, I will leave you with this illuminating report by  Elise Gould (also from EPI) on Why America’s Workers Need Faster Wage Growth—And What We Can Do About It. As always, feel free to share your thoughts and feedback.

Hero Highlight: Kailash Stayarthi

As many readers know, the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize rightly went to Malala Yousafzai, who at 17 is the youngest Nobel laureate in history, for her courageous advocacy of women’s rights to education and equal opportunity (both in her native Pakistan and across the world). For this she was subject to a high-profile assassination attempt that nearly claimed her life and forced her and her father (the equally courageous Ziauddin Yousafzai) to flee to the U.K.,from where they nonetheless continue to fight for various human rights causes).

Although an already (justifiably) global figure by the time of her widely anticipated award, Malala’s co-recipient was unfortunately lesser known outside humanitarian circles and his native India: children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi (the Prize Committee was explicit about the symbolic message of selecting a Pakistani Muslim and Indian Hindu to share the prize). Such a pairing is well-warranted, for together with Malala, he has helped bring attention to, and advance the cause of, helping one of the world’s most vulnerable demographics.

Satyarthi has been a leading figure in fighting child slavery and labor exploitation for nearly three decades, beginning with his founding of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save Childhood Movement) in 1980, which campaigns to free children from bondage and promote their education. It has so far freed over 80,000 children from servitude, also helping to successfully re-integrate, rehabilitate, and educate them.

Since that time, his storied career in human rights has spanned numerous other movements and groups — he has served as secretary general for for the Bonded Labor Liberation Front; has been involved with the Global March Against Child Labor and its international advocacy body, the International Center on Child Labor and Education (ICCLE); founded Goodweave, the first voluntary monitoring and certification system for rugs manufactured without the use of child-labor in South Asia; and co-founded the Global Campaign for Education, for which he served as president of from its inception in 1999 to 2011.

A clearly energetic and dedicated figure, a recent article in The Guardian highlights just how active Satyarthi is on this front, going so far as to involve himself directly in the risky operations on the ground:

He would show the scars from the interventions that had gone really badly, like the time a group of men from the Great Roman Circus – who were employing trafficked teenagers from Nepal as dancing girls – attacked him with iron rods and cricket bats.

And we would discuss the industries and the places that were proving harder to rid of the “scourge of child labour”– his phrase – than others.

With Kailash’s guidance and contacts, I pursued stories on Indian children making footballs for sale in Australia; girls sold into bonded labour schemes in textile mills; boys from poor families trafficked thousands of kilometres to work in tiny, collapse-prone ‘rat-hole’ coal mines; girls from itinerant families forced by economic circumstance into mining mica, the mineral that goes into makeup to make it shiny.

From direct intervention, to constantly shining a spotlight on this often ignored issue, Satyarthi is as unrelenting as Malala in ensuring that the fight for human rights continues onward, unabated. Quoting a telling part of The Guardian piece:

But always there was more with Kailash: more stories the media could cover to highlight the problem; more that the government could do to enforce the legislation parliament had passed to outlaw child labour and mandate education; more police could do to stamp out the corruption that meant officers looked the other way; more that multinational companies in the developing world could do to ensure they weren’t making their money from the bent backs of children.

Like Malala, he places a considerable emphasis on education as a means to uplift the plight of children and, subsequently, improve the condition of millions of people worldwide for years to come:

Children in schools will change the world.

Girls born to a literate mother are 50% more likely to survive until the age of five.

Boys who have the chance at a genuine education and a working life beyond don’t become radical fundamentalists.

Universal education will transform developing nations such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, places where the practice of keeping children (especially girls) from school – to work, to be married, to raise siblings – stubbornly persists.

Across those three countries, an estimated 22 million primary-school aged children are not in school. But, overwhelmingly, the obstacles that keep them from class are solvable.

Malala was stopped from going to school by the vile fanaticism of the Pakistani Taliban. But for every girl stopped by fundamentalism, there are 10 in her part of the world who are not at school for much more prosaic reasons.

They don’t go because the school is too far away, because it is not safe to walk there, because there is no segregation of boys and girls, no modesty wall, or working toilets.

They stop going because the teacher turns up only to mark the roll and get paid, or because there are no books or pencils.

They stay at home because they have to care for younger siblings, because they have been married off as children, or because they are made to go to work.

In the wake of his Nobel win, Satyarthi promised to “join hands” with his fellow laureate. But the Indian man rescuing children from slavery and the Pakistani teenage girl encouraging them into school are already working hand in hand.

With an estimated 168 million children still living in bondage, deprived of an education and decent standard of living, their work is as relevant as ever. But with the number of such victims declining by a considerable 78 million since 2000, it is clear that the work of such tireless advocates is having an incredible impact. Let us hope that the spotlight of this year’s Nobel Prize does a bit more to advance this worthy cause.

Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai (Source: India Today).

New Report Finds Global Poverty Worse Than Previously Thought

That global poverty is a serious and pervasive problem is without doubt. But it appears the scale and scope of it — despite being already staggering — may have been underestimated all this time. That’s the conclusion of a recent report by the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI) called the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index 2014 (MPI), which is considered the most accurate measure of world poverty to date.

As The Atlantic reports, the MPI takes into account certain factors that are overlooked by the United Nations Development Programme‘s Human Poverty Index (HPI), which is the leading source for such data.  While it defines the poor as those making it less than $1.25 a day, it lacks in two key areas:

First, it counted countries as one whole mass, unable to differentiate degrees of poverty within a country and locate the worst pockets. And second, it placed all of its scrutiny on income, without considering other indicators such as health and education.

Sure, making a certain amount a day is one way to measure the physical comforts a person might be lacking: home, food, clothing. But what about limited (or a total lack of) access to medical care? Or barriers to getting an education? And just because someone has a roof over his or head doesn’t mean it’s a sanitary, safe place to live—impoverished people in cities are often concentrated in slums where open sewage, crowding, and rickety housing make for dangerous living conditions. Consequently, many didn’t consider HPI’s income index to be particularly accurate.

OPHI addressed this issue by going beyond just basic income and including what it calls “deprivations”, other needs such as nutrition and child mortality; years of schooling and school attendance; and things like sanitation, water, and electricity. If a person is deprived of a third or more of the indicators, he or she would be considered poor. Degrees of poverty were also factored in; for example, whether someone had a shack for a home versus no home at all.

The MPI’s other great advantage is its ability to pinpoint poverty down to a local, rather than national, level. So not only can one find which countries or regions are the poorest, but which particular areas within those borders are worse off – an invaluable asset for aid workers and policy makers seeking to better target their work.

So what did this multidimensional approach yield? How much worse is global poverty?

Sadly, the world is more impoverished than we previously thought. The HPI has put this figure at 1.2 billion people. But under the MPI’s measurements, it’s 1.6 billion people. More than half of the impoverished population in developing countries lives in South Asia, and another 29 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa. Seventy-one percent of MPI’s poor live in what is considered middle income countries—countries where development and modernization in the face of globalization is in full swing, but some are left behind. Niger is home to the highest concentration of multidimensionally poor, with nearly 90 percent of its population lacking in MPI’s socioeconomic indicators. Most of the poor live in rural areas.

So there are 400 million more people living in poverty than previously believed. For a point of  reference, that’s more than the entire population of the United States and then some — hardly a minor oversight. Needless to say, this is vital information, bringing to light the dire circumstances of hundreds of millions of people.

Granted, I wonder whether this will make any difference in stirring up public and political action: if an already eye-watering 1.2 billion people living in poverty isn’t enough to rouse humanitarian interest, will an extra 400 million make the difference? Will the numbness and inaction be any less prevalent? If anything, I fear the sheer scale of the problem will only lead to more cynicism and subsequent apathy.

In any case, I’d like to end this sobering revelation on a more optimistic note. As intractable as the problem seems to be, especially in light of widening global inequality, there has been progress:

Nepal is improving its situation the fastest among developing countries—and it’s in South Asia, the poorest region. In five years, Nepal reduced its MPI numbers from 65 percent of its population to 44 percent. Other classically poor countries, like Rwanda, Ghana, Bangladesh, and Cambodia are also improving, not just getting richer but also seeing some narrowing of the gap between rich and poor.

While these improvements are just a drop in the bucket compared to how many people are left suffering — including the hundreds of millions who are not technically poor but remain precariously close — every human life that is lifted up from misery is worth it. That’s why we can’t afford to ignore a single impoverished person.

If you would like to read the full report, including its methodologies and sources, click here. As always, feel free to share your own thoughts and reactions.

Quote

New polling out from NBC and the Wall Street Journal shows a huge shift in attitudes towards poverty and the poor over the last 20 years. According to the survey, 46 percent Americans believe that poverty is caused by circumstances beyond people’s control, versus 44 percent who think it’s caused by impoverished people not doing enough to improve their station in life. The last time the survey asked that question, in 1995, a full 60 percent of Americans felt that the poor weren’t doing enough to lift themselves out of poverty, compared to just 30 percent who blamed extraneous factors. Hard times, it would seem, have made us more sympathetic to the plight of the poor. There’s nothing like a massive economic downturn to foster a little empathy.

And that makes sense. When the economy so rapidly and viciously turns on so many people, it’s hard to maintain the sense of idealism that leads one to believe that hard work and ambition are all that’s required to secure a comfortable, reasonably prosperous existenc

Simon Maloy, Salon

New polling out…

Ten Myths About Poverty

Misconceptions about the origins of poverty are a dime-a-dozen, especially if they place the blame on the poor themselves. But thankfully Mother Jones clears up ten of the most popular and persistent myths bedeviling efforts to address poverty in the U.S.

1. Single moms are the problem. Only 9 percent of low-income, urban moms have been single throughout their child’s first five years. Thirty-five percent were married to, or in a relationship with, the child’s father for that entire time.*

2. Absent dads are the problem. Sixty percent of low-income dads see at least one of their children daily. Another 16 percent see their children weekly.*

3. Black dads are the problem. Among men who don’t live with their children, black fathers are more likely than white or Hispanic dads to have a daily presence in their kids’ lives.

4. Poor people are lazy. In 2004, there was at least one adult with a job in 60 percent of families on food stamps that had both kids and a nondisabled, working-age adult.

5. If you’re not officially poor, you’re doing okay. The federal poverty line for a family of two parents and two children in 2012 was $23,283. Basic needs cost at least twice that in 615 of America’s cities and regions.

6. Go to college, get out of poverty. In 2012, about 1.1 million people who made less than $25,000 a year, worked full time, and were heads of household had a bachelor’s degree.**

7. We’re winning the war on poverty. The number of households with children living on less than $2 a day per person has grown 160 percent since 1996, to 1.65 million families in 2011.

8. The days of old ladies eating cat food are over. The share of elderly single women living in extreme poverty jumped 31 percent from 2011 to 2012.

9. The homeless are drunk street people. One in 45 kids in the United States experiences homelessness each year. In New York City alone, 22,000 children are homeless.

10. Handouts are bankrupting us. In 2012, total welfare funding was 0.47 percent of the federal budget.

The sooner we discard this inaccurate and damaging misconceptions, the sooner can address the root causes of poverty and end the suffering of millions.

Forty-Five Sobering Facts About Global Poverty

Although many readers have no doubt heard this before, it bears reaffirmation: around one billion people — one out of every seven human beings on Earth — live on a daily budget equivalent to just $1.25. That unconscionably meager amount is intended to cover food, healthcare, and shelter, much less any of the pleasantries in life that we take for granted.

While the percentage of people living in such abject poverty was halved by 2010 – and is set to decline by half again in the next two decades — extreme poverty remains a persistent problem in most parts of the world. Although we have greater means and resources than ever to resolve the problem, we still have a long way to go, as indicated by the following 45 facts about poverty in today’s world (courtesy of PolicyMic).

[Apologies for the bad formatting, WordPress seems to be acting up a bit.]

  1. The number of people living on less than $1.25 per day has dramatically decreased in the last three decades, from 52% of the citizens in the developing world in 1981 to 21% in 2010. But, there are still there are still more than 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty.
  2. The top five poorest countries in the world are India (with 33% of the world’s poor), China (13%), Nigeria (7%), Bangladesh (6%) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (5%).
  3. Adding another five countries — Indonesia, Pakistan, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Kenya — would include almost 80% of the world’s extreme poor.
  4. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for more than one-third of the world’s extreme poor.
  5. Combining results from 27 Sub-Saharan African countries, 54% of residents are living in extreme poverty — the highest proportion among global regions worldwide.
  6. About 75% of the world’s poor people live in rural areas, depending on agriculture for their livelihood.
  7. About 22,000 children die each day due to conditions of poverty.
  8. In 2010, the average income of the extremely poor in the developing world was 87 cents per capita per day, up from 74 cents in 1981.
  9. Approximately 1.2 billion people — nearly as many as the entire population of India — still live without access to electricity.
  10. If the developing world outside of China returns to its slower pace of growth and poverty reduction of the 1980s and 1990s, it would take 50 years or more to lift 1 billion people out of poverty.
  11. India has a greater share of the world’s poor than it did 30 years ago. Then, India was home about one-fifth of the world’s poorest people. Today, close to one-third of the world’s extreme poor are concentrated in India.
  12. But poverty is not just an issue in the developing world. There are 16.4 million children living in poverty in the United States. That’s about 21%, compared to less than 10% in the U.K. and in France. The percentage of poor children in America has also climbed by 4.6% since the start of the Great Recession in 2007.
  13. In 2012, a North Carolina legislator claimed there was no such thing as extreme poverty in the state. However, three of the top 10 poorest areas in America are located in the North Carolina.
  14. Israel has the highest poverty rate in the developed world, about 20.9%, according to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
  15. The “extreme poverty rate” among women in the United States climbed to 6.3 percent in 2010 from 5.9 percent in 2009, according to census data.
  16. One out of every six Americans are enrolled in at least one government anti-poverty program. One in four children in America participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, in 2011.
  17. One in 3 American women — about 42 million — either live in poverty or on the brink of it. And, 1 of every 6 elderly people in America live in poverty.
  18. More than 7.5 million women fell into the “extreme poverty category” in 2010.
  19. Taking food stamps, housing subsidies and refundable tax credits into account, the number of American households in extreme poverty is 613,000, which is about 1.6% of non-elderly households with children.
  20. Poverty is the main cause of hunger because the poor lack the resources to grow or purchase the food they need.
  21. Even though there is enough food produced worldwide to provide everyone with an adequate diet, nearly 854 million people, or 1 in 7, still go hungry.
  22. Around 1 in 8 people in the world, about 842 million people, were estimated to be suffering from chronic hunger between 2011-13.
  23. About 2.8 billion people still rely on wood, crop waste, dung and other biomass to cook and to heat their homes.
  24. Despite the fact that China has achieved more than any other nation in energy efficiency, the country still faces some of the world’s greatest energy poverty challenges. Almost 612.8 million people, nearly twice the population of the United States, lack clean fuel for cooking and heating in China.
  25. More than 6.9 million children died under the age of five in 2011 — that’s about 800 every hour — most of whom could have survived threats and thrived with access to simple, affordable interventions.
  26. The 500 richest people in the world have an income of more than $100 billion — more than the combined incomes of the poorest 416 million. Put differently, the richest 85 people in the world control as much wealth as the poorest half of the world.
  27. A child born in the world’s poorest nations has a 1 in 6 chance of dying before their fifth birthday. In high-income countries, the odds are about 1 in 165.
  28. The world’s 100 richest people earned enough money in 2012 to end world extreme poverty four times over, according to a report by Oxfam.
  29. Rich people who live in neighborhoods with other wealthy people usually give a smaller share of their income to charity than rich people who live in economically diverse communities, according to this study of tax records in the United States.
  30. About 47% of those surveyed believe that if poor people received more assistance, they would take advantage of it.
  31. According to a survey titled “Perceptions of Poverty: The Salvation Army’s Report to America,” almost half of those surveyed agreed that “a good work ethic is all you need to escape poverty.”
  32. Almost 43% agreed that if poor people want a job, they could always find a job, while 27% said that people are often poor because they are lazy. Another 29% even said they have lower moral values.
  33. The median income for people in the developing world is $3 or less. That’s less than the cost of a frappuccino at Starbucks.
  34. The “global middle class” income bottoms out at about $10 a day.
  35. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that out of 52 mainstream media outlets analyzed, coverage of poverty issues amounted to less than 1% of available news space from 2007 to 2012, a period that covered the historic recession.
  36. The report also concluded that media organizations chose not to cover poverty because “it was potentially uncomfortable to advertisers seeking to reach a wealthy consumer audience.”
  37. An online game titled “Survive125,” was launched by Live58, an NGO devoted to ending extreme poverty and challenges gamers to survive one month on $1.25 a day by facing a series of daunting questions that millions of people face every day just to survive.
  38. However, campaigns like one have been criticized for being “patronizing”: “The idea that you can simply dip your toe into human suffering for a week is spurious and patronising to those who actually live in poverty,” wrote Maya Oppenheim for Ceasefire Magazine.
  39. Given the number of occasions that world leaders and influencers have promised to eradicate poverty, the world should be much further along than it is. In April 2013, Jim Kim, president of the World Bank, said “For the first time ever, we have a real opportunity to end extreme poverty within a generation.” Eight years before that, Nelson Mandela said “in this new century, millions of people in the world’s poorest countries remain imprisoned, enslaved, and in chains. They are trapped in the prison of poverty. It is time to set them free.” Before that, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched his war on poverty by saying “for the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty.” That was back in 1964.
  40. In order for the world to effectively reduce poverty, countries need to focus not only on achieving growth as an end in itself but implement policies that allocate resources to the poor including raising income growth among the bottom 40% of earners.
  41. One report warns of poverty’s “revolving door,” alluding to the fact that climbing out of extreme poverty and staying there can be very difficult unless more is done by 2030 to support the world’s poorest populations in hard times.
  42. The world achieved Millennium Goal Development 1 — to halve the poverty rate among developing countries — five years ahead of schedule in 2010.
  43. If we maintain the same rate of progress toward eradicating poverty that we’ve had since 2000 (or hopefully, accelerate it), we would reach the target around 2025-2030.
  44. The world’s richest man, Bill Gates has even gone so far as to say there will be “almost no poor countries by 2035.
  45. Despite financial crises and surging food prices, the share of people living in extreme poverty across the globe has continued to decline in recent years.

Needless to say, it helps to have a bigger picture about this complex and often poorly understood issue. While there has definitely been progress, the human toll of slow, inefficient, and half-hearted efforts to address the problem remains disturbingly high — especially when compared to our potential to do more.

The Bootstraps Myth

From Melissa McEwan of the blog Shakesville:

The Myth of Bootstraps goes something like this: I never got any help from anyone. I achieved my American Dream all on my own, through hard work. I got an education, I saved my money, I worked hard, I took risks, and I never complained or blamed anyone else when I failed, and every time I fell, I picked myself up by my bootstraps and just worked even harder. No one helped me.

This is almost always a lie.

There are vanishingly few people who have never had help from anyone—who never had family members who helped them, or friends, or colleagues, or teachers. 

Who never benefited from government programs that made sure they had electricity, or mail, or passable roads, or clean drinking water, or food, or shelter, or healthcare, or a loan. 

Who never had any kind of privilege from which they benefited, even if they didn’t actively try to trade on it. 

Who never had an opportunity they saw as luck which was really someone, somewhere, making a decision that benefited them. 

Who never had friends to help them move, so they didn’t have to pay for movers. Who never inherited a couch, so they didn’t have to pay for a couch. Who never got hand-me-down clothes from a cousin, so their parents could afford piano lessons. Who never had shoes that fit and weren’t leaky, when the kid down the street didn’t.

Most, maybe all, of the people who say they never got any help from anyone are taking a lot of help for granted.

They imagine that everyone has the same basic foundations that they had—and, if you point out to them that these kids over here live in an area rife with environmental pollutants that have been shown to affect growth or brain function or breathing capacity, they will simply sniff with indifference and declare that those things don’t matter. That government regulations which protect some living spaces and abandon others to poisons isn’t help. 

The government giving you money to eat is a hand-out. The government giving you regulations that protect the air you breathe is, at best, nothing of value—and, at worst, a job-killing regulation that impedes the success of people who want to get rich dumping toxins into the ground where people getting hand-outs live.

What are your thoughts?

The Way We Treat Children

If my perceptions are correct, there seems to be a growing sentiment (perhaps typical of each older generation) that today’s youth are needlessly and excessively coddled and “wussified” (to use the kinder terminology). But the apparently prevailing notion that kids nowadays are excessively spoiled is actually dangerously overstated, according to a recent article in AlterNet by Paul L. Thomas, a doctor of education and long-time teacher.

After recalling a few anecdotes regarding personal or observed mistreatment of kids (mostly in the context of school), he makes the following point:

A day or so ago, I received an email from Alfie Kohn about his new book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child. I noticed it was similar to a book I am co-editing, Pedagogies of Kindness and Respect: On the Lives and Education of Children. I also noted that our perspectives on children—on how parents, teachers, and society treat children—appears to be a minority view.

I have been mulling, or more likely stewing, about this for some time: What makes adults—even the ones who choose to spend their lives with children—so damned negative and hateful about those children? That is the source of my palpable anger at the “grit,”“no excuses,” and “zero tolerance” narratives and policies. I grew up and live in the South, where the default attitude toward children remains that they are to be seen and not heard, that a child’s role is to do as she/he is told. If a child crosses those lines, then we must teach her/him a lesson, show her/him who is boss—rightfully, we are told, by hitting that child: spare the rod spoil the child. I find that same deficit view of children is not some backwoods remnant of the ignorant South; it is the dominant perspective on children throughout the U.S.

As Barbara Kingsolver explains in “Everybody’s Somebody’s Baby”:

>>For several months I’ve been living in Spain, and while I have struggled with the customs office, jet lag, dinner at midnight and the subjunctive tense, my only genuine culture shock has reverberated from this earthquake of a fact: People here like kids. They don’t just say so, they do. Widows in black, buttoned-down c.e.o.’s, purple-sneakered teen-agers, the butcher, the baker, all have stopped on various sidewalks to have little chats with my daughter. Yesterday, a taxi driver leaned out his window to shout “ Hola, guapa !” My daughter, who must have felt my conditioned flinch, looked up at me wide-eyed and explained patiently, “I like it that people think I’m pretty.”

With a mother’s keen myopia, I would tell you, absolutely, my daughter is beautiful enough to stop traffic. But in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, I have to confess, so is every other person under the height of one meter. Not just those who agree to be seen and not heard. When my daughter gets cranky in a restaurant (and really, what do you expect at midnight?), the waiters flirt and bring her little presents and nearby diners look on with that sweet, wistful gleam of eye that before now I have only seen aimed at the dessert tray. Children are the meringues and eclairs of this culture. Americans, it seems to me now, sometimes regard children as a sort of toxic-waste product: a necessary evil, maybe, but if it’s not their own they don’t want to see it or hear it or, God help us, smell it.<<

I’ve often noticed — and frankly even related with — the contradictory ways in which we regard children: they’re cute and enlivening on the one hand, but also irritating and burdensome on the other.  Their easily exploitable and powerless status also makes them a tempting target for venting one’s frustration or sense of inadequacy, which perhaps explains why children — along with women and the elderly — are frequently the victims of abuse in households and care centers.

Thomas also notes how the overall negative treatment of children intersects with racist and classist sentiments as well:

A child is not a small adult, not a blank slate to be filled with our “adult weariness,” or a broken human that must be repaired. It is also true that children are not angels; they are not pure creatures suited to be set free to find the world on their own. Seeing children through deficit or ideal lenses does not serve them—or anyone—well.

>>Within the U.S. culture there is a schizophrenia around kids—we worship young adulthood in popular media, but seem to hate children—that is multiplied exponentially by a lingering racism and classism that compounds the deficit view of childhood. Nowhere is this more evident than in the research showing how people view children of color:

Asked to identify the age of a young boy that committed a felony, participants in a study routinely overestimated the age of black children far more than they did white kids. Worse: Cops did it, too… The correlation between dehumanization and use of force becomes more significant when you consider that black boys are routinely estimated to be older than they are… The less the black kids were seen as human, the less they were granted “the assumption that children are essentially innocent.” And those officers who were more likely to dehumanize black suspects overlapped with those who used more force against them.<<

In the enduring finger-pointing dominant in the U.S.—blaming the poor for their poverty, blaming racial minorities for the burdens of racism, blaming women for the weight of sexism—we maintain a gaze that blinds us to ourselves, and allows us to ignore that in that gaze are reflections of the worst among us.

Why do the police sweep poor African American neighborhoods and not college campuses in search of illegal drugs? Why do we place police in the hallways of urban high schools serving mostly poor African American and Latino students, demanding “zero tolerance”? Why are “grit” narratives and “no excuses” policies almost exclusively targeting high-poverty, majority-minority schools (often charter schools with less public oversight)?

Here’s the basic crux of Thomas’ point.

Children are not empty vessels to be filled, blank hard drives upon which we save the data we decide they should have. Nor are children flawed or wild; they do not need us to repair or break them. Neither are they to be coddled or worshipped. They are children, and they are all our children. Yes, there are lessons to be taught, lessons to be learned. But those driven by deficit or idealized views are corrupted and corrupting lessons. Each and every child—as all adults—deserves to have her/his basic dignity respected, first, and as adults charged with the care of any child, our initial question before we do anything with or to a child must be about ourselves. In 31 years of teaching, I can still see and name the handful of students I mis-served in my career, like Billy above. Those faces and names today serve as my starting point: with any child, first do no harm.

What do you think?