schools & the destruction of the working-class family

Michelle Alexander gives an eloquent and powerful presentation at the Urban Institute on the topic of mass incarceration in honor of the Black Families Five Decades After the Moynihan Report.

(Video at bottom and a partial  transcript of Professor Alexander's  talk is below). 
The Urban Institute | Webcast -- Black Families Five Decades After the Moynihan Report: "The family, “battered and harassed by discrimination,” is “the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community,” declared the landmark 1965 analysis, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Penned by Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan (later a senator from New York), the report is considered by many the most poignant collection of statistical analysis and social commentary in modern times—not because of what it revealed, but because of how close it came to the truth."
The report's prescience is notable. Professor Alexander eloquently explains the caste system mass incarceration has created and its horrific impact on urban communities of color. The school-to-prison pipeline is another leg of this caste system.

But neoliberalism and the kleptocracy, an out-of-control national security state, the growth of corporations, and the failure to provide an adequate safety net has also decimated the wages and jobs that kept the family as a viable social unit for the working class defined as including part of the middle class. Unnecessary austerity is accelerating this process.

In other words, it's not just African-American families or inner cities, and its not just a single mother problem or a marriage problem: the family as a viable social unit for half of the children in the US has failed and they are in poverty. Schools are even willing to create new forms of child labor to help private-sector coalitions retain their place.

Social Safety Net Collapse: 
Then and Now
Eleanor Roosevelt, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Ma...
Eleanor Roosevelt, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Mary Margaret McBride, and Maureen Corr in Val-Kill in Hyde Park - 16 June 1962
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In the Great Depression, bread lines were a symbol that the historic safety net of the family farm, which so many had relied on in hard times, was gone for city dwellers, now a majority of the US population for the first time. Urbanization meant more Americans were unable to fall back on the family farm for minimal food and shelter. A new safety net was required to ensure families could survive in cities when the inevitable boom-and-bust cycles of capitalism occurred and many programs were begun in the ensuing years. (African-Americans would again face discrimination and be left out of many critical programs, like the FHA.) Likewise, today many assume that modern institutions can rely on the modern nuclear family to provide the resources to get through hard times. The economic assumptions are explained in Elizabeth Warren's The Trap of the Two-Income Family.

Politicians, church leaders and school officials want the family to be there helping to overcome the lack of a true social safety net. If only families would turn off the TV, read to the kids, cook and eat meals together, if only fathers would stick around, if only parents would supervise their children, then failing schools, wage decline, obesity and gun violence would not be a big problem. We have heard years of plaintive admonishments that families do a better job. We have seen the growth of movements that penalize divorce, create the so-called crime of education theft and that enforce truancy with jail time, even for parents of kindergardeners.

These methods will not succeedWhen working-class wages do not sustain a family or provide stability, if a high school diploma cannot ensure someone a job of good quality, if healthcare is sporadic and costly and one illness can lead to bankruptcy, if cars are expensive and mass transit a dream, if real food is hard to get and needs time to prepare and fake food is widely available, if housing is expensive and poor quality and lenders are corrupt and discriminatory, if mass incarceration is a growth industry and the school-to-prison pipeline a jobs program, then the family is no longer a viable social unit for the working class.
The Washington Monthly - The Magazine - The New White Negro: "These differences in family formation are a problem not only for those concerned with “family values” per se, but also for those concerned with upward mobility in a society that values equal opportunity for its children. Because the breakdown of the traditional family is overwhelmingly occurring among working-class Americans of all races, these trends threaten to make the U.S. a much more class-based society over time.  ..."
A Stronger Social Safety Net for Social Health
The US does not provide the social services necessary to keep the family as a viable option for more than half the population and the economic costs of this are enormous. The lack of sick leave, family leave, accessible and good daycare as well as a tax structure that allows even working-class women to maximize the time spent at home with each child in the early years, family-friendly workplaces, and supportive schools, all of these services are needed to ensure that the US has a viable working class that can contribute economically.

Our economy depends on small social structures that, like microbial worlds within the soil, are the foundation of a stable and productive society. The working-class family is a fragile group arrangement and it has been devoured by bigger groups of people, called corporations, as well as by the corruption, racism, and selfish scheming that refuses to strengthen and enlarge the social safety net to provide the help other industrialized countries provide.

Schools Could Help
It isn't just about spending more: it is about making institutional changes to strengthen support. Families can no longer support the schools to make sure their jobs and numbers are good. Schools must help families.

And schools could transition to a learning services model, a model that would allow families to make choices that support their lives and kids in ways that they control not because choice is abstractly good but because each family must be able to shape their lives to help their children. A social service like schools cannot undertake something called education without children and families getting the basics they need to function well. Basics like sleep, time together, play, good food, exercise, and interesting things to do. And schools cannot become the family nor can children receive services while parents are ignored. The family is a relationship vital to learning and health. Schools should be a social service for the family, something lost when compulsory attendance laws were extended as an easy way to ensure the model worked. Even today the main policy lever in education is the blunt force instrument of compulsory attendance laws, laws homeschool families have fought in all 50 states.

Schools that offered learning services to families would bring families back into a deep relationship with a system they use and thereby enable many local adaptations even as we work to evolve relationships between and among schools, building the next phase of networked learning commons, the real answer to vouchers. (Kids should be able to move around more not just out of a "failed school" but to counter all sorts of segregation and network resources and create a richer social and intellectual fabric.) Charters will not do this as they do not alter the fundamental model, they just move administration out of the system and add costs. Privatization is not administrative innovation: it is an admission of administrative failure and the result of the further abstraction of schools from families and now from school boards, that cannot grasp how schools work, how to change the model, nor how local schools align with the economies of neighborhoods and cities.
  • Real change would be to start allowing families choices in their own schools
  • Real change means lessening at the credential arms race by changing the model to allow families to focus on learning and support. Homeschooling has pioneered this approach already. 
  • Real change would acknowledge the growing body of academic work, as well as first-hand experience, on/with peer-orientation, a modern problem when children and youth spend such prolonged time peer-based institutions
  • This would mean an expansion of services but would allow for families and schools to make the granular choices that could also conserve resources in the long run
  • We need to recognize how racism and class bias affects the ability to see that poor people care as deeply about their children (indeed, many poor and working-class families have made more real sacrifices than the contented upper middle ever has). 
The Urban Institute | Webcast -- Black Families Five Decades After the Moynihan Report:
NOTE: This is a long video and it is all worth watching, Professor Alexander is introduced about 44:30. Partial transcription below. 

homeschooling is the real legacy of holt, kohl, et al and why compulsory attendance laws are limiting our ability to change schools
mass schools and the truancy trap
make public schools truly public
what's wrong with the schools?
the cost of getting tough
semi-private clubs called schools
blaming families, juvenile justice edition
every parent should have real choices
deschooling, family style
undermining the family and the child
education (aka mass schooling) is not the answer to wage inequality

partial transcription (appr. start 53:5o)
"... I am painfully aware that behind all these statistics and numbers and graphs ... that behind all that ... and buried within it is a lot of pain, and suffering, there's a lot of healing that needs to take place... it's been said that things have worsened since the Moyhihan Report was released ... and I would say that that's a considerable understatement. A revolution has occurred ... a new caste-like system has emerged  in poor communities of color ...a caste system that has managed to destroy, decimate black families in the United States. ... in Chicago ... like so many urban areas ... a vast new racial under caste has emerged ... in many of these communities there is violence spinning out of control ... but rarely is there little honest discussion why ... some communities are now war zones and others are not ... and while I support gun control ... the reason that some of our communities are war zones and zones of hopelessness while others are not, does not have to do with the number guns in those communities ... it has to do with the number of jobs ... the number of good schools, the number of employment opportunities ... the number of children that live their lives with genuine hope ... those are the numbers that really matter .... and in cities across America today, a choice has been made ... it has been a deliberate choice ... rather than good schools, we have built high-tech prisons, rather than create good jobs and invest in the communities that need it most, we've embarked on an unprecedented race to incarcerate ... millions of fathers behind bars, millions of families destroyed ... how did this happen? ... [cites William Wilson's When Work Disappears] ... and over the last few decades ... jobs have disappeared from urban areas across America ... there was a time when black families could be supported by the wage of a man working in a factory ... those days are long gone ... work literally disappeared in urban America ... a wave of joblessness washed over urban communities ... as late as 1970 more than 70% of African-American men  ... held blue-collar jobs ... factory jobs .... by 1987 the industrial employment of black men had plummeted to 28% ... we could have responded to ... economic collapse ... with  ... care and concern ... but we chose a different path, a path more familiar when it comes to race ... as a nation we ended the war on poverty and declared the war on drugs ... black men found themselves suddenly disposable ... the Southern Strategy was unveiled with get-tough rhetoric on issues of crime directed toward communities of color and the perfect storm was created ... black men found themselves rounded up by the thousands ... primarily for non-violent and relatively minor drug offenses ... I fear many of us have been lulled to sleep over the past few decades by the rhetoric of color blindness allowing us to imagine that the success of some warrants our inattention or indifference to those who are  locked at the bottom ... I think its time that we wake up ... more African-American adults are under correctional control ... than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began ... in many large urban areas today, more than half of working-age African-American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives... in cities like Chicago and DC, the statistics are far, far worse ... in Chicago ... if you actually count prisoners as people and of course prisoners are excluded from poverty statistics and unemployment data thus masking the severity of racial inequality in the United States ... in the Chicago area ... nearly 80% of working-age African-American men now have criminal records and are subject to legal discrimination for the rest of their lives  ... in Washington DC, the figure is approaching 90% ... an in slavery ... a black child born today has less of a chance of being raised by both parents than a child born in slavery ... this is due in large part to the mass incarceration of black men ... by branding them criminals and felons at early ages, ... before they are old enough to vote ... [makes them] permanently unemployable in the legal job market ... and contrary to the image ... in media... of black men being a bunch of deadbeat dads ... the research actually shows that black men who are separated from their children .... actually make more of an effort to maintain contact with their children following separation than men of any other racial or ethnic ethnic group but no other racial or ethnic group faces so much separation ... but it hasn't stopped black men from trying ... we have got to be honest about the barriers, the structural organization of families today ... I believe that mass incarceration is like a new Jim Crow ... people react with stunned disbelief ... the greatest myth about mass incarceration, that its been driven by crime ... its just not true ... in the years since the Moynihan report was released, our prison population has more than quintupled ... we now have the highest rate of incarceration in the world dwarfing the rates of even highly-repressive regimes like Russia or China or Iran ... in the 1970s we had a ... prison  population of about 300,000; today we have an incarcerated population of over 2,000,000 ... but during those years, crime rates have fluctuated ... and today ... crime rates nationally are at historical lows ... but incarceration rates ... especially black incarceration rates have consistently soared ... most criminologists ... will acknowledge that crime rates and incarceration rates in the US have moved independently. ... what explains this .... the answer if the war on drugs and the get-tough movement ... there are more people in prisons and jails today just for drug offenses than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980 .... the drug war has been waged almost exclusively in communities of color ... studies show that the reasons people engage in drug dealing differ by race and by class ... but those who do time ... are overwhelmingly black and brown ... who is able to find work ... to find housing ... once you've been ... branded a felon ... for the rest of your liofe you face unemployment discrimination ... in fact, your family may risk eviction .. if you come home ... they can't even let Daddy come home ...  what do we expect people to do in this era of mass incarceration ... we expect them is to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees, fines, court costs, accumulated back child support ... and in a growing number of states you are expected to pay back the costs of your imprisonment ...  100% of your paycheck can be garnished ... what do we expect people to do? ... if we are serious about not just ending this ... system ... there is just no substitute ... nothing less than committing ourselves to building a major movement ... on behalf of black families ... consider the sheer scale of what has been created ... if we [return to incarceration rates of 1960] ... we would have to release 4 out of 5 people who are in prison today ... more than a million people employed by our prison system would lose their jobs ... private prison companies ... would be forced to go into bankruptcy ... its not just going to fade away without a fairly radical shift in our public consciousness ... we've got ... telling the truth about what has gone down ... a [caste] system that locks poor people ... into a permanent second-class status ... decimating families ... comparable to slavery ... because unlike the old Jim Crow ... there are no signs alerting you ... this system operates outside the awareness of [most] ... a lot of talk is not going to be enough  ... building an underground railroad ... that isn't going to be enough either ... if we are serious about healing families ... we have got to be willing to commit ourselves to the abolition of this incarceration system as whole and that means ending the drug war ... we've spent one trillion dollars waging this drug war ... its time to shift to a public health model for drug addiction and drug abuse ... its time to end the drug war and .. all these legal forms of discrimination ... we got to shift from a purely punitive approach ... investing in the communities who need it most ... all ... rest on one core belief ... that some of us are not worthy of effective care, compassion, ... [we need] a multiracial, multiethnic human rights movement ... we must awaken to the realities ... while so many of us have been asleep ... its our task ... we have got to also be willing to break this caste-like system in America ... 
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