Friday, February 4, 2011

Movin' on up?

Although the traditional breakdown of social classes into upper, middle, and lower may not be nuanced enough to capture all the subtle differences between groups of people today, it is at least clear that given the enormity of income and wealth inequality in the United States, where the bottom 40% essentially have no wealth at all, there is definitely some form of class hierarchy.

A few years ago Janny Scott and David Leonhard of the New York Times did a series of articles on social class in America, and although they noted that the term means different things to different
people, class is generally comprised of four factors: occupation, education, income, and wealth. Income and wealth are not the only markers of class, but it is not difficult to intuit that a person's education and occupation are highly interrelated with their wealth and income. Scott and Leonhard argue that even though merit is playing a greater role in determining who can climb to the heights of society today, "parents with money, education, and connections cultivate in their children the habits that meritocracy rewards. When their children succeed, their success is seen as earned." Thus, the class we are born into has a significant impact on our social mobility.

None of this is incredibly surprising, but I believe the subtlety of how the class we are born into affects our social mobility poses a special problem for rural people in this new meritocracy. Given that rural citizens are generally poorer than urbanites, rural children also tend to have fewer educational opportunities due to lack of funding and parents who are less able to invest directly in their kids' education.

But, I think there may be a more deep-seated obstacle facing rural education reformers: rural culture. It would certainly be very unfair to assume that all rural areas and their inhabitants share the same cultural values. No rural place is exactly the same as any other. But the "traditional values" (article download) that are so often popularly associated with rural places include self-reliance, hard-work, and personal accountability, among others. Under this value set, the harder you work and the more focused you are, the more successful you will be- mirroring the meritocratic philosophy that predominates in America today. The question is, do these values also have embedded in them the idea that it is fundamentally unfair to take the hard-earned fruits of one's labor through taxes and give them to someone who has not been able to succeed on their own?

Maybe this line of reasoning is a stretch- a strong sense of community is also seen as a traditional rural value, which would entail that rural people are more likely to help neighbors in need. But in both the media and my personal experience, I have found that many conservatives fundamentally bristle at the notion of someone getting something for nothing. We all have to earn our own way.

Rural people tend to lead to the right, and although there are certainly myriad reasons why, cultural values must have played a part in forging their conservative disposition. Is it possible that the very values politicians so often laud when discussing rural America, actually prevent rural voters from supporting policies that would give them a fairer shake in the meritocracy? Maybe this question assumes too much, but until more people realize that hard work often just isn't enough to move up the ladder, traditional assumptions about fairness and self-determination might hold us back, especially those with little to start with.


Dusty said...

This made me think of another instance in which the politicians have advice for their rural constituents that may actually work against their personal needs. Historically many "rural" states with lots of family farms were pretty commonly socialist or incredibly democratic for the time. For example, Oklahoma in the first of half of the 20th century. So many of these once "blue" states became 'red" conservative states because politicians over time influenced the masses away from self-dictated direction and socialist leaning collective governing.

Chez Marta said...

I second Dusty's comment: that rural residents NOW tend to the right politically should not be taken for granted. The redistribution of wealth through taxation and subsidization is a complicated phenomenon, but I think the rural population has no problem with understanding the subsidies their government provides to corn farming, for example. It is no small wonder that the Republicans could convince corn-farmers that the state should not hand out benefits, except for those benefits that the state should definitely hand out.

Caitlin said...

I also think that it is important to remember that "education" encompasses a lot more than what we urbanites view as formal schooling. In all kinds of communities, education and being learned in things deemed important depend largely on what the community and social world deem important. Intelligence ranges widely--spacial, social, practical...and it seems that a large barrier to urbanites' dreams of reforming rural education systems could lie in a lack of practical understanding about the richness of intellect that must exist, just not in ways that urbanites deem to be a mark of education or intelligence. Tests like the SAT or even those administered under No Child Left Behind most likely fail to capture or measure rural intellect, much like they fail to adequately test intelligence in racial minorities.