Category Archives: Poverty and the Justice System

The 34justice Political Tool: Ethics, Truth, and a Case Study of Michael Brown and Ferguson

Seating arrangements during the French Revolution gave us the Left-Right political spectrum.  During the first National Assembly in 1789, the king’s supporters sat on the right and proponents of revolution on the left.  In contemporary American politics, we often consider liberals, who  “believe in government action to achieve equal opportunity and equality for all,” to be on the Left. Conservatives, who “generally emphasize empowerment of the individual to solve problems,” form the Right.

The Left-Right political spectrum (via http://www.stephenpratt.net/Politics/illusionOpposites.htm)

The Left-Right political spectrum (via http://www.stephenpratt.net/Politics/illusionOpposites.htm)

David Nolan, one of the founders of the Libertarian Party, found this one-dimensional political spectrum problematic.  Theorizing “that virtually all human political action can be divided into two broad categories: economic and personal,” Nolan believed that “political positions can be defined by how much government control a person or political party favors in these two areas.”  Nolan’s views laid the foundation for The World’s Smallest Political Quiz, a ten-question survey which categorizes an individual’s political views on a two-dimensional chart.

If you take The World's Smallest Political Quiz, your views will be plotted on this chart.

If you take The World’s Smallest Political Quiz, your views will be plotted on this chart.

Nolan’s categorization scheme, though more descriptive than the Left-Right spectrum, unfortunately suffers from the same major flaw: it presents opposing points of view as ethically and intellectually equivalent.  A better system would articulate how different degrees of attention to social justice and the truth drive competing political perspectives.

Published in 1971, the same year that Nolan released the current version of his chart, A Theory of Justice laid out an approach to determining ethics that is widely considered to be the most “fair and impartial point of view…about fundamental principles of justice.”  American philosopher John Rawls argues that we must consider a thought experiment in which each of us is behind a “veil of ignorance” in “original position:”

The idea of the original position is to set up a fair procedure so that any principles agreed to will be just…Somehow we must nullify the effects of specific contingencies which put men at odds and tempt them to exploit social and natural circumstances to their own advantage…[A]ssume that [all people] are situated behind a veil of ignorance. They do not know how the various alternatives will affect their own particular case and they are obliged to evaluate principles solely on the basis of general considerations.

It is assumed, then, that the parties do not know certain kinds of particular facts. First of all, no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like…They must choose principles the consequences of which they are prepared to live with whatever generation[, race, class, gender, disability status, sexual orientation, etc.] they turn out to belong to.

The veil of ignorance, by forcing us to consider the possibility that we will be anyone in society, focuses us on fairness and equality of opportunity.  Especially given human beings’ risk aversion, rational people behind the veil of ignorance would seek to minimize imbalances of power.  The ethics of a given policy proposal or viewpoint can be defined by the degree to which Rawls’s thought experiment informs our thinking, which generally means the degree to which we contemplate the circumstances of populations with low levels of power and privilege.

A better political categorization tool can capture this thought experiment with a horizontal “ethics axis.”  “Privilege-defending” viewpoints and policies that ignore the veil of ignorance – those that mainly consider the ideas, desires, and needs of people already in power – fall on the left side of this axis.  “Power-balancing” viewpoints and policies developed after reflection about the veil of ignorance – those that more ethically think through the concerns and needs of less-privileged people – fall on the right.  The vertical or “accuracy axis” of the tool orients us to the facts; it plots views according to the degree to which a combination of sound theory and empirical evidence informs them.

Political Tool.003

The ideal policy, developed with consideration of the veil of ignorance and using the most accurate interpretation of the facts, sits in the upper right hand corner.  This tool thus provides several advantages over the Nolan Chart and the traditional Left-Right spectrum.  First, it forces us to think about what matters; we cannot plot opinions on this tool without ethical and intellectual analysis.  Second, the tool captures that objectively good policy (policy in the upper right hand corner) is more desirable than the “center” of opposing viewpoints.  Third, it gives us a common framework to discuss policy ideas with people with different perspectives, orienting our conversation to two pillars – truth and justice – instead of normalizing disagreement as inevitable.

Applying the 34justice Political Tool

A case study of the Michael Brown shooting and related events in Ferguson, Missouri can illustrate how to use the 34justice political tool.

The Veil of Ignorance in Ferguson

Ethical considerations require us to imagine ourselves behind the veil of ignorance in original position.  We don’t know if we’re white or black, police officer or regular citizen.  We must ask ourselves what sort of policies rational people would adopt in that situation.  Given the power differential between police officers and citizens, rational people who knew they might end up as citizens would want a system that set high standards for police behavior.  They’d want to ensure that the police force acted with transparency, restraint, and the best interests of the community in mind.  Rational people behind the veil of ignorance would also want to make sure police officers could enforce reasonable laws and use force to protect themselves if necessary – they might end up as police officers, after all – but they’d set a very high bar for the use of that force.

Knowledge of institutional racism would also factor heavily into the calculation of the rational person in original position.  We are much more likely to harbor subconscious biases against and jump to negative conclusions about black people than white people, and black people routinely face both overt and covert forms of discrimination.  A rational person behind the veil of ignorance, knowing that he might become a black citizen, would be especially wary of mistreatment by police.  Nobody in original position would agree to a system that placed more responsibility on black citizens than white officers; a viewpoint that did so would consequently be privilege-defending and unethical.

An ethical and power-balancing viewpoint, therefore, approaches the actions of the Ferguson police force with more skepticism than the actions of the black community.  It begins with an attempt to understand the concerns and perspectives of black citizens.

We can thus categorize knee-jerk reactions about the Michael Brown shooting and Ferguson, all unsupported by evidence, as follows (as originally noted by Billy Griffin post-publication, the viewpoints described in the following sections are meant as an illustrative sample, not as a complete set of all possible viewpoints):

Viewpoint A (privilege-defending): The police behave responsibly, so the conflicts are really the fault of an unruly black population.  The police officer who shot Michael Brown wouldn’t have done so unless he was in danger.  Similarly, the police wouldn’t use force against protesters unless it was necessary to maintain law and order.  Race is not an issue.

– Viewpoint B (partially privilege-defending): The police may have acted inappropriately during the shooting of Michael Brown and its aftermath in Ferguson, but Brown and the black community likely shoulder an equal amount of responsibility for what has happened.

– Viewpoint C (power-balancing): The police are in power and responsible for protecting citizens; police actions deserve intense scrutiny when they harm civilians.  We must avoid blaming the victim.  This situation is the likely product of systemic racism and institutional injustice.

Political Tool.004

The Accuracy Axis in Ferguson

Here are the facts from the Michael Brown shooting itself:

[NOTE: the information below, updated on 11/14/15, contains both what we knew at the time this post was published and updated information (from the DOJ report) to match the ensuing investigation (big thanks to a commenter on Twitter for pointing out the discrepancies).  Strikethroughs and bold italics indicate changes.]

– Brown was shot at least six times.  He was unarmed.

Eyewitness accounts following the shooting say that Brown had his hands up in the air and was trying to demonstrate that he was unarmed when he was killed.  Recent video has seems to have corroborated that Brown’s hands were, in fact, raised.

– The police did not release their version of events until the day after the crime.  The report, when released, said that Brown reached for the officer’s gun in the car and was shot as a result of the struggle for the weapon.  Forensic evidence confirms that Brown was first shot in the hand while involved in a struggle in the car, though it’s not clear how the struggle began. The department also did not release the name of the officer who shot Brown (Darren Wilson) for 6 days, despite repeated requests by the media and public (the police claimed that the delay was due to threats on social media).

Anonymous police sources have originally claimed that Wilson was injured and taken to the hospital after the shooting, but initial reports about the injuries turned out to be false (as did a photo circulated by a Chicago firefighter). The police did not originally provide have not provided independent verification of the injuries.  It was confirmed later, however, that there was “bruising on Wilson’s jaw and scratches on his neck, the presence of Brown’s DNA on Wilson’s collar, shirt, and pants, and Wilson’s DNA on Brown’s palm.”

Commentators have also debated whether several additional facts are related to the shooting:

– Brown took cigars from a convenience store without paying about 10 minutes prior to the shooting.  He shoved the store clerk on his way out the door.  We know this fact because the police department released a video of these events (which, despite the police chief’s claims, the press and public did not ask for) the same day they released Wilson’s name (which the press and public did request).  Wilson almost certainly did not know about the robbery when he stopped Brown on the street.  Wilson’s radio transmissions confirm that he received a dispatch call about the robbery and had a description of Brown when he first encountered him.

– Brown had marijuana in his system when he was shot (this information was released by an anonymous source and not in response to a specific request).  Marijuana can remain in a person’s system for over a month and there is no legitimate evidence linking marijuana use to violent behavior.

– The Ferguson police force has a (probably very long) history of unprovoked attacks on black people in the community.

Finally, the following facts relate to the protests in Ferguson immediately following the shooting:

– Across the country, numerous black citizens have been shot and killed by white police officers under suspicious circumstances.

– Unarmed black teens Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis have also been killed by white citizens in recent years.  Mostlywhite juries failed to convict the offending citizens of murder (Mike Dunn, Davis’s killer, was found guilty of multiple counts of attempted murder, while George Zimmerman, who killed Martin, was acquitted).

Most protests were entirely peaceful, but a small percentage of people threw molotov cocktails and looted local stores.

– The Ferguson police, wearing military attire and sporting intense assault weapons, pointed guns at and used tear gas and other violent crowd control tactics on peaceful protesters.

– There is a clear pattern of racial profiling in Ferguson.  About 67% of Ferguson citizens are black, but black people comprise less than 6% of the Ferguson police force.  Over 85% of police stops and arrests are for black people.  Some police lieutenants in Missouri have been caught ordering indiscriminate harassment of black citizens.

– The city of Ferguson makes considerable revenue by routinely fining poor black people for minor offenses (like driving with a suspended license).  When they can’t pay, these citizens often spend time in prison.

These facts can help us categorize more evidence-based viewpoints:

Viewpoint D (privilege-defending): We’ll never know exactly what happened when Michael Brown got shot, and we must remember that police work is difficult and dangerous.  Our police officers need to be able to use their judgment when they feel threatened.  Michael Brown was clearly violent, as can be demonstrated in the video of him robbing a convenience store and the forensic evidence indicating a struggle with Wilson, and he was also probably high.  There isn’t anywhere near enough evidence to convict Darren Wilson, and it is a concern that black people on the jury might show racial solidarity instead of looking at the evidence.

The black community’s rioting and looting also necessitated police action.  Citizens who don’t want to experience police violence should avoid doing anything that appears unlawful and/or dangerous.  Nothing is wrong with our police system.

Viewpoint E (partially privilege-defending): The circumstances of Brown’s death look suspicious.  The police department certainly should have released its report sooner, so it’s hard to trust them over eyewitness accounts.  At the same time, the main eyewitness was a friend of Brown’s and the community is more likely to side with Brown than with the police.  Additionally, the fact that Brown and Wilson were engaged in a physical struggle before the fatal shot robbed a convenience store beforehand, shoving and intimidating the store clerk, suggests that Wilson had good reason to fear Brown.

The racial disparities in Ferguson are definitely something to look into, but police also probably don’t pull people over for no reason at all.  And while the police used excessive violence in some cases, the rioting and looting of black citizens was a large part of the escalation of the situation.  The citizens in Ferguson and the police must both reflect on their behavior.

Viewpoint F (power-balancing): The Michael Brown shooting and Ferguson’s response to it are a direct result of the effects of institutional racism.  Black people in this country clearly face challenges that those of us with white privilege never encounter.  We must listen to the black community and work immediately to correct the policies that lead to a justice system that unequally treats blacks and whites.

It’s pretty clear that Michael Brown’s death was an unjustifiable murder – not only was he unarmed and shot at least six times, but Wilson had clear alternatives.  Even though there was a struggle and it’s unclear how it began, multiple eyewitnesses consistently report that he had his hands in the air and was no immediate threat to Wilson.  Tthe police department’s behavior raises considerable doubt about their claims.  There was no legitimate reason to delay the release of Darren Wilson’s name and the police report for so long, or to ignore eyewitness testimony.  The release of the convenience store video was also in bad faith because Wilson almost certainly did not know about this event when he stopped Brown executed very poorly and without explanation, which led many people to fairly believe that the police department wasseems more intent on blaming the victim than on assessing evidence relevant to the shooting.  Wilson should certainly get a fair trial, and both the robbery and the physical harm he sustained are definitely relevant information to consider during the trial, but police behavior has made it harder to trust even the final account of events.that less likely to happen.  The trials in related cases raise doubts about whether the mostly-white jurors will deliver an evidence-based verdict in this case.

Like Martin Luther King, Jr., we must remember that “it is as necessary…to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is…to condemn riots. [A] riot is the language of the unheard.”  These riots are caused by frequent police harassment, unfair treatment by the criminal justice system, and a feeling of powerlessness.  Addressing those root causes is where our focus must lie.  That the vast majority of protests were peaceful and the police were the aggressors in nearly every conflict underscores the need for rapid reform in the way law enforcement operates.

The ethics and accuracy axes aren’t completely independent.  It’s relatively difficult to find somebody espousing an unethical viewpoint that accounts for all the facts, for example, and Viewpoints D and E require selective interpretation of available information.  A privilege-defending but evidence-based viewpoint (Viewpoint G) would have to acknowledge unequal treatment of blacks and police misconduct but, harboring open racial animus, excuse it anyway.

Political Tool.005

Another category of interest might be viewpoints based on deliberate lies, rather than on a lack of information; they would fall below Viewpoints A, B, and C.

Assuming we agree that ethical considerations and the truth matter, Viewpoint F is objectively superior to the others.  Calling Viewpoints A, D, and G “conservative” and Viewpoints C and F “liberal,” as we might today, fails to identify fundamentally racist positions as unacceptable.  The traditional spectrum also ignores the importance of conducting thorough and accurate analyses.  Our traditional political categorization tools falsely suggest that truth and morality are relative.  In most cases, like the case of Michael Brown, they very clearly aren’t.

If we instead evaluate viewpoints using the veil of ignorance and a thorough analysis of the facts, we will more easily identify the root causes of disagreements.  We will also be forced to focus our conversations around ethical considerations and honest dialogue.  Over time, we could potentially revolutionize the way we discuss politics.

Note: The Huffington Post published a version of this post on Tuesday, September 23.

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Filed under Philosophy, Poverty and the Justice System, Race and Religion

On Education and Poverty, and How We Talk About Them (Part 3b)

StudentsFirst Vice President Eric Lerum and I recently began a debate about approaches to teacher evaluation.  During Part 2 of that debate, the conversation touched on the relationship between anti-poverty work and education reform.  We resume that conversation below.

Here were the relevant parts of our original exchange, in case you missed it:

Lerum: The larger point that is made repeatedly is that because outside factors play a larger overall role in impacting student achievement, we should not focus on teacher effectiveness and instead solve for these other factors. This is a key disconnect in the education reform debate. Reformers believe that focusing on things like teacher quality and focusing on improving circumstances for children outside of school need not be mutually exclusive. Teacher quality is still very important, as Shankerblog notes. Improving teacher quality and then doing everything we can to ensure students have access to great teachers does not conflict at all with efforts to eliminate poverty. In fact, I would view them as complementary. But critics of these reforms use this argument to say that one should come before the other – that because these other things play larger roles, we should focus our efforts there. That is misguided, I think – we can do both simultaneously. And as importantly in terms of the debate, no reformer that I know suggests that we should only focus on teacher quality or choice or whatever at the expense or exclusion of something else, like poverty reduction or improving health care.

Spielberg: I believe you discuss [a] very important question…Given that student outcomes are primarily determined by factors unrelated to teaching quality, can and should people still work on improving teacher effectiveness?

Yes!  While teaching quality accounts for, at most, a small percentage of the opportunity gap, teacher effectiveness is still very important.  Your characterization of reform critics is a common misconception; everyone I’ve ever spoken with believes we can work on addressing poverty and improving schools simultaneously.  Especially since we decided to have this conversation to talk about how to measure teacher performance, I’m not sure why you think I’d argue that “we should not focus on teacher effectiveness.”  I am critiquing the quality of some of StudentsFirst’s recommendations – they are unlikely to improve teacher effectiveness and have serious negative consequences – not the topic of reform itself.  I recommend we pursue policy solutions more likely to improve our schools.

Critics of reform do have a legitimate issue with the way education reformers discuss poverty, however.  Education research’s clearest conclusion is that poverty explains inequality significantly better than school-related factors.  Reformers often pay lip-service to the importance of poverty and then erroneously imply an equivalence between the impact of anti-poverty initiatives and education reforms.  They suggest that there’s far more class mobility in the United States than actually exists.  This suggestion harms low-income students.

As an example, consider the controversy that surrounded New York mayor Bill de Blasio several months ago.  De Blasio was a huge proponent of measures to reduce income inequality, helped reform stop-and-frisk laws that unfairly targeted minorities, had fought to institute universal pre-K, and had shown himself in nearly every other arena to fight for underprivileged populations.  While it would have been perfectly reasonable for StudentsFirst to disagree with him about the three charter co-locations (out of seventeen) that he rejected, StudentsFirst’s insinuation that de Blasio’s position was “down with good schools” was dishonest, especially since a comprehensive assessment of de Blasio’s policies would have indisputably given him high marks on helping low-income students.  At the same time, StudentsFirst aligns itself with corporate philanthropists and politicians, like the Waltons and Chris Christie, who actively exploit the poor and undermine anti-poverty efforts.  This alignment allows wealthy interests to masquerade as advocates for low-income students while they work behind the scenes to deprive poor students of basic services.  Critics argue that organizations like StudentsFirst have chosen the wrong allies and enemies.

I wholeheartedly agree that anti-poverty initiatives and smart education reforms are complementary.  I’d just like to see StudentsFirst speak honestly about the relative impact of both.  I’d also love to see you hold donors and politicians accountable for their overall impact on students in low-income communities.  Then reformers and critics of reform alike could stop accusing each other of pursuing “adult interests” and focus instead on the important work of improving our schools.

Lerum: So I’m beginning to understand where some of the miscommunication is coming from. You speak a lot about how you view StudentsFirst’s (and other reformers’) discussion of poverty from the perspective of what you expect us to talk about, rather than from the perspective of our stated objectives. That is, what you deem as “lip service” is merely an acknowledgement of something that is not our primary focus. There are many folks in education reform – I have a few on my team – who could spend hours talking about poverty reduction and could very easily work in another field that more traditionally aligns with what you think of as efforts geared toward reducing poverty. But the route we’re taking is one where reducing poverty, achieving social justice, lifting the long-term opportunities for our country – they all intersect. And therefore what we focus on at StudentsFirst are the policy levers – what we think of as levers for reform or change. For example, creating the conditions for other reforms to flourish or for educators and school leaders to use their resources more wisely (fiscal transparency, structuring smarter compensation systems, creating more school-level autonomy) are levers, whereas something like instituting a STEM program or increasing funding for social and mental health services would be specific programs or initiatives. Both are great for kids. Both are needed in order to ultimately reduce poverty. But we’re squarely focused on the former, while critics seem to be expecting we would focus on the latter. This disconnect is made worse though because critics seem to believe that an approach that involves initiatives is the only way to combat poverty. There’s a lack of appreciation and understanding of what’s intended by reform efforts that target levers.

Spielberg: I actually wasn’t talking about the distinction between levers and initiatives; I was talking about accurate messaging and political activity.

My two critiques from above (rephrased and with my questions for you added) were:

1) StudentsFirst leaders and board members frequently suggest that education can improve the lives of low-income kids as much or more than alleviating poverty.  That suggestion is demonstrably false.  You could say the following, but don’t: “Research is clear that school-related factors cannot fix the achievement gap, but it’s also clear that schools make a difference.  They seem to account for about 20% of student achievement, and our organization believes we can maximize the impact of this 20% with an intense focus on certain policy levers.  We fully support other organizations that work on the anti-poverty efforts that are most important for low-income kids.”  Why won’t you speak honestly about the limitations and relative importance of the reforms you push when compared with other efforts?

2) Relatedly, StudentsFirst supports politicians (besides just Chris Christie, who I discussed above) who substantially harm some of the neediest kids: your preferred candidates have rejected the Medicaid expansion, slashed education spending, tried to prevent immigrants from enrolling in school, and actively discriminated against LGBT youth (though you finally withdrew support for your 2013 “education reformer of the year” after intense public pressure).  StudentsFirst says on your website that the candidates you support “have demonstrated a commitment to policies that prioritize student interests;” I find this assertion at best myopic, and at worst deliberately misleading.  How can you reconcile StudentsFirst’s candidate support with the fact that, on the whole, many of these candidates cause significant harm to low-income and minority students?

I appreciate, as you mentioned in a comment on Part 2 of this conversation, that you “created a school-based mental health program and piloted a half-dozen evidence-based mental/social/emotional health programs” in DC, and I’d love to talk more about the other issues you raised in your response, but I think your thoughts on the above points and questions are most relevant to typical reformer critiques.

Lerum: On the policy discussion, I would just end with this then. Saying that education can’t solve the achievement gap is demonstrably false only works if you base it on the education system we have now. To say that today’s education system cannot and has not solved the problem of poverty or the problem of the achievement gap thus far is correct. It’s also correct that in 60 years we haven’t solved the problem of segregation. But I got into this work because, like every reformer I know, I believe completely that we can do better than this. We don’t even know what’s possible because we haven’t actually tried. We’ve never run a public school system at scale completely differently. We’re not very good at breaking the mold of a model that hasn’t worked. But there are reasons – an increasing body of research – to believe that if we do, we just might get somewhere. That’s a theory of change. You can disagree with it. But you do not have the evidence that it won’t work because everything that’s been tried or done thus far has been done within some confines or under some of the restraints of the existing system. There are many limitations, that’s true. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of talking about those limitations through our advocacy work.

I would also add that there’s little evidence that other approaches that are championed as counters to reform will have a tremendous impact on kids either. I would love to see this “comprehensive assessment of de Blasio’s policies” that you spoke of earlier – but it doesn’t exist. Rather, there is simply a different theory of change – that certain other levers, be they class size or overall funding or whatever will have a greater impact than reforms we’re advocating for. What we need is a way to model, using rigorous research, what the potential impact of various reforms would be. That doesn’t exist right now either. But what I’m trying to get you to agree to here is that by attacking one side as only having a theory that’s not proven while not acknowledging that the anti-reform side isn’t exactly operating with a track record of success seems to me to be disingenuous, but more importantly, allows opponents to occupy this space wherein they own the debate on what’s good for solving poverty, what the right approach is to combat social ills, etc. And I just believe that way of thinking hasn’t gotten us very far and doesn’t advance social change.

As to the political issues you raise – we consistently say that we will support public officials who support the policies we believe are right for kids. I understand you have issues with our agenda – but there’s nothing inconsistent about a single-issue organization supporting candidates that support and will advocate for their issues. That almost always means as an organization we will support candidates with whom I may not agree with on a personal level when it comes to any number of other issues. But that is not unique to StudentsFirst and I do not think it is reasonable to expect us to answer for their stances on other issues or to ask them to change their stance on other issues. The issues we prioritize are those on our policy agenda and we work to stick with that approach, as do countless other organizations in other fields.

Spielberg: While I would agree with you (and said in Part 1 of our conversation) that the research on many in-school reforms is mixed, the suggestion that you seem to be making – that school-based reforms alone could potentially solve the opportunity gap – is contradicted by existing research and logic.  Research has never attributed more than one-third of the variation in student outcomes to school-based factors, we know that “children from rich and poor families score very differently on school readiness tests when they enter kindergarten,” and there is even “some evidence that achievement gaps between high- and low-income students actually narrow during the nine-month school year, but they widen again in the summer months.”  Though I suppose it’s theoretically possible that these studies are wrong, that could be said about almost anything, and the findings you link about teacher attrition and charters in no way support that conclusion.  Our knowledge about the disadvantages of growing up in poverty and the past several decades of research suggest that this theoretical possibility is negligible, which is why I called that statement demonstrably false.

I certainly understand the sentiment behind what you’re saying – we are in agreement that we haven’t yet maximized education’s contribution to anti-poverty efforts, and I think it’s important to remember and highlight that fact – but all the evidence points to a relatively low upper bound on what education reforms alone can accomplish.  Recognizing that anti-poverty work matters more than schools does not preclude us from arguing that what happens in schools is very important for low-income kids.

I really appreciate having had this conversation and want to thank you again for going back-and-forth with me, but I believe we’re at a bit of an impasse.  My questions deal with the out-of-school factors, like having access to health care, that very clearly matter for low-income students, and I don’t think your response addresses the issues I raised.  You’re absolutely right that StudentsFirst isn’t alone in narrowing its policy focus, but the fact that other organizations also do so doesn’t qualify as a defense of that approach.  Talking about what’s “right for kids” means considering more than just education policy.

As I’ve pointed out to critics of typical reform efforts before, I think it would be reasonable for reform organizations to focus their professional advocacy on school-based approaches to the opportunity gap if you did two things:

1) Acknowledge that the best school-based reforms imaginable, while important, would likely only be able to solve 20% to, at most, 33% of the problem.

2) Avoid undermining the anti-poverty work that can address a larger percentage of the opportunity gap.

I don’t believe that StudentsFirst currently does those two things, but I will leave it up to our readers to decide which arguments they find more compelling.

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Filed under Education, Poverty and the Justice System

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

“I used to be fast, man. I’ll race you to that gas station.”

There is only one group of American citizens that are constitutionally guaranteed the right to medical services, and you may be surprised to find that it isn’t politicians, law enforcement, the elderly, or even veterans—it’s prisoners. The U.S. has always had a love-hate relationship with its law-breakers. We romanticize the old-timey gangsters, the outlaws, and the reclamation stories about overcoming turmoil and coming out stronger in the end (plus, when was the last time that there was a U.S. president that didn’t admit to ingesting illegal drugs?). And we hate the inner-city gun violence, gangs, and “thug culture” that seems so pervasive in the media today. The prison-industrial complex has been getting a lot of flak in the U.S. for well over a decade (and rightfully so). Often lost in the talk about profit motives and unjust penalties for petty crimes are the effect it has on the prisoners themselves once they are released into a different world from when they last left.

Jail

I began running with Back on My Feet (BoMF) a couple months ago. Back on My Feet is a non-profit organization that aims to combat homelessness by having daily runs at 5:30am in which residents of homeless shelters are grouped together with non-homeless runners, and they run about 3-5 miles around Philadelphia. The program is designed for former drug users, ex-convicts, or otherwise down-and-out types to get a regiment centered around fitness and a routine. There are milestones that once reached entitle the members to new goods – new shoes, running equipment, etc.—and services—resume editing and interview workshops. The shelter that I run with is Ready, Willing, and Able (RWA), and consists mainly of ex-cons that are being reintroduced into society.

I don’t normally like waking up early. In fact, I only do it when I have to. It’s even harder to wake up early when it’s cold out, which it always is at 4:45am. When I first began running with BoMF I basically tried to get each session over with quickly so that I could go back to the friendly confines of my own bed. I soon realized that no matter how fast I ran to the meeting place, or how fast I sprinted during our morning jog with the RWA members I would still get home at the same time. I might as well try enjoying this I figured. Soon waking up early was still difficult, but rather than lament that I felt like I was one of the only people awake on the east coast I felt that I should embrace it. As I leave my apartment and jog towards the meet up I will frequently stop to walk and look at the sky above me. There are stars out and lots of them. Just about all of the neon signs are turned off in Philadelphia in those early hours and I can see as far into the universe as my contact lenses allow me. There is something quite surreal about looking up and seeing distant, tiny lights that you have never noticed before through your own warm breath walking alone in a city of one and a half million. Perhaps it is this feeling of isolation and quiet that allows strangers to share things about their life, or perhaps it is just frustration.

Technically the program is designed so that one has no idea who are the ex-homeless and who are there for support—but it’s pretty evident who’s in each camp. I met ‘Steve’ during my first session of BoMF and we exchanged the usual pleasantries that are the norm for a “res-member” (someone who is a resident of one of the shelters), and a “non-res-member” (someone like me, just an outsider looking to run). At about mile 2 we had exhausted talk of weather and sports and so we just ran side by side quietly. My body had acclimated to the temperature by now but Steve was sweating profusely, his balding head spewing a trail of steam in his wake as we glided alongside the Schuylkill River. He turned to me asked if I had any plans for the end of the year. I wasn’t really sure what he meant by that but I could tell it was his way of asking me to ask about his own plans. Steve then began to discuss how hard it is to find a job that pays well enough to allow him go back to school. Already equipped with a GED, he always wanted to go to a technical school to become a certified mechanic in a two-year program. This December he was finally moving out of the halfway house and onto another phase of his life, but it did not come without plenty of meetings with social workers and temp agencies.

He seemed to have done the math thoroughly because he was spouting out figures on how much he would need to make per week, per day, and per hour in order for him to pay for technical school. He said that he was beginning to look at rent in different areas in Philly for when he leaves RWA. He also said that a lot of the places he was looking at were in areas that are too expensive and so he would have to choose between living in a decent area but barely having enough money left over to eat after savings, or to live in “the ‘hood” but have some extra money. He went on to say that living in the latter areas is what led him to prison in the first place, and that going back there would be a recipe for disaster. I asked what he thought he would do and he said that he would try to live in a nicer area but try to take lots of side jobs and see how much money he could save for a year or two and hopefully he could gauge the probability of him going to school. We made that final turn down Bainbridge St. and headed towards the Hess station that was light up like E.T.’s spaceship in the forest that is Broad St. at 6am.

How does someone get out of a cycle like this? Steve is lucky in a way—he has no kids, no child-support, and no wife, but he will still face an uphill battle for the foreseeable future. Just supporting himself and hitting the reset button will take the better part of a decade, and for a forty-something year old with a history of drug abuse and living a hard life, that’s looking to be on the other side of the halfway point. It is easy to talk about statistics to report how our prison system is failing on so many levels. And how (like many other things in our society) the profit-motive doesn’t align with the mission of the industry, which is namely to rehabilitate those that are incarcerated, and should therefore be taken out of the hands of those that seek to make the profit. We are so inundated with numbers and reports that they have virtually no meaning. What is the number that will create outrage? 2.3 million adults are currently incarcerated, which is about 740 per 100,000 people or 0.7% of the US population. Prison private telecom systems, health insurance contracts, and the bail industry are making profits in the billions each year. Does it matter if it is 1 billion, 2 billion, or 50 billion? At what point do we stand up and say something is wrong here when nearly 40% of those incarcerated are African-American? Is it when the percentage creeps up to 43, or how about a nice round 50%? These are people, plain and simple. It’s easy for me to say this now only because I have met some of these people, but this system is self-sustaining and every generation that has a high percentage of its members in jail will surely have even higher percentages in the next generation. There are some members of RWA that are in their early 20s that have multiple children who they no longer see. Where are these kids going to end up in 15 years?

The black sky was finally half purple, with what almost looked like blue along the Ben Franklin Bridge. For all the things not going his way, Steve doesn’t seem to mind as much when he’s running. He beat me to the gas station—by a lot actually—then turned around and gave me a big smile while I gasped for the frigid air that was no longer being warmed by my throat sufficiently. This isn’t about me realizing that if there’s a will there’s a way. This isn’t a “things will get better if we work at it” story and it certainly isn’t Jim and Huck. This is about awareness and understanding. This is about making the connection from Steve’s life story to the millions of others who are similar only because they are all victims of the prison industrial complex. This is about realizing that even a positive ending to Steve’s story, which we’re all hoping for, is insignificant compared to the systemic changes that are needed to avoid creating millions more down-and-out Steves generation after generation.

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The Mural Capital

I consider Philadelphia my city. I have never lived in it or attended school there, but I have worked there and have family that reside all throughout its various far-reaching sections. Some of these family members will even order a “wooter” when they go to a restaurant from time to time, so that’s all the justification I need to feel one with the city. Just over a month ago I moved to Philadelphia and was offered the opportunity to go through a “mural bus tour” through Drexel (my school). This bus tour is designed to acclimate new students not from the area to get a feel for what some of the underserved areas of Philly actually look like by using the many murals that dot the city as points of interest.

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As I’m sure many of you know, Philadelphia has the most murals of any city in the world. There was a presentation by a member of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program to demonstrate how these filthy, crime-ridden intersections of seedy parts of the city can be transformed into magnificent centers for culture and the arts. Well that wasn’t exactly how it was presented but the mural projects were certainly framed in a way that made them seem as if they really could solve many of the problems plaguing these areas. The goal of the Mural Arts Program has many facets. Chief among them are to de-stigmatize mental illness and to advocate for at-risk people to seek help sooner rather than later, and to use the actual painting of the murals by ex-cons as a form of restorative justice that can bring them closer to their communities and ease them back into society.

This is all well and good. Who wouldn’t want a city beautified by some of the area’s most talented artists that could turn an abandoned building into something awe-inspiring that can also have many beneficial side effects? But then I began to think. Even in the areas with the most murals, crime statistics have seen an increase in the last five years, more people are on food stamps, fewer students are enrolled in high schools despite a larger population, etc. In other words, things look bleak for those who don’t need any more bad news. In cities like Rio de Janeiro the government has similar art projects in their slums in order to mask how decrepit and miserable life is in these areas. Are murals simply putting lipstick on a pig?

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The Mural Arts Program was initially a component of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network. The Anti-Graffiti Network’s aim was to redirect graffiti artists towards creating murals rather than “destructive graffiti”. In a somewhat literal sense, the program was designed to cover up poverty and make the lives of those in the lowest socioeconomic strata somewhat more palatable by giving them something pretty to look at on their way to their minimum wage job (if they are so fortunate). In a sense, graffiti is an indication that the area has negative socioeconomic indicators and is more of a symptom of a failing system, not a cause of it. Does covering up the graffiti actually do anything to ameliorate these factors? Will it put food on the table, pay a medical bill, or put a roof over a family’s head? It seems that it may provide hope to some but in all likelihood it will not get at the root of the problem.

After the presentation it was time to head to the streets to see the areas that would help us become compassionate physicians. The (mostly white) students piled into the two buses while we drove through unfamiliar territory that we would only find ourselves in if we accidentally made a series of wrong turns. It almost felt as though we were on a Six Flags Wild Safari tour. As long as we kept our arms inside the vehicle we could pass by inconspicuously, rather than drawing attention to what is essentially our “Privileged White Kids Tour through Poverty presented by a Medical School!”

We eventually got off the bus somewhere in North Philly to take a tour on foot of some of the current mural projects. As an African-American woman passed the throng of kids staring at a mural in progress, cynically and unprompted, she asked, “What is y’all doing here? You just gonna make us some more paintings, huh?” If this is a pervasive sentiment in Kensington, then it seems that the murals may end up doing more harm than good in the long run. Do these communities want their streets to be made beautiful so that they give the guise of economic self-sustainability, when in fact things are getting worse? Will the people in these areas end up being more resistant to outside help if it seems that it isn’t really help at all?

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While noble and perhaps just, murals do not attempt to eradicate the major factors contributing to the high incidence of mental disorders and gun violence. Perhaps the Mural Arts Program is only designed to be a safety net and to catch those that fall rather than prevent people from falling. I truly want to believe that the program is doing the most that it can to alleviate the issues that plague these communities. I am very interested to see the outcomes and conclusions of the Yale School of Medicine study of these programs, which is in the last of a 3-year study. If, for instance, the murder rate in the area of murals decreases does this mean that more murders are just happening a few blocks away? Correlation does not imply causation, because if murders are less likely to occur at intersections with a mural, then every city block in every major U.S. city should have them. Worst-case scenario is that not only do murals not contribute to fixing the underlying problems in these communities, but they divert resources away from other worthwhile community-building projects.

Philadelphia is indeed my city and I truly want what’s best for its citizens. It may be a point of pride to proclaim us at the Mural Capital of the World, but it seems like a hollow title. Projects like the Mural Arts Program seem to implicate an air of “things are getting better”, and with a little more elbow grease we can turn this place around one street corner at a time. Perhaps their optimism should be applauded, but I am generally skeptical of programs that put all of their resources toward glossing over why a problem exists and instead focus on how to make it better after the fact. Not that programs like these aren’t necessary, but they should viewed in the light that they can help rehabilitate a community, but not get at the factors that drive a community to the point of collapse– mainly income inequality. I’ll leave you with some anecdotal evidence about how little the denizens of these impoverished street corners care about their murals.

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