Recently the New York Times carried an editorial about poverty in schools. The article maintained that children raised in poverty were traumatized. As a result they became sad, distracted, aggressive and tuned out. Chaos reigned and the most disruptive students dominated the class room. Their disruption impeded the learning process of the other students. It was expected of teachers to learn methods of controlling the disruption. When they were unable to do that the school was labeled dysfunctional. Surprisingly the article failed to mention an important factor contributing to poverty. Children of unwed, urban mothers have a high incidence of poverty. The offspring of these mothers manifest a much higher rate of delinquency, school drop out, drug use and teen pregnancy. This social pathology is perpetuated from generation to generation. The absence of healthy male roll models correlates with much of the antisocial behavior of disruptive students. Of course, the negative effects of single motherhood are compounded by other factors. Divorce, remarriage, serial cohabitation and conflicts about joint custody aggravate the the problems. We are often reassured that we are in a new era. The conventional, bourgeois family has become passe. Unmarried motherhood is merely an alternate life style that can replace the conventional nuclear family. Can that be true?
I would like to reexamine the notion that poverty is a type of trauma that damages children. To answer the question I would like to draw upon upon my personal childhood experiences. I am part of what some people call the greatest generation. We were raised during a severe economic depression. Safety nets did not exist. By today’s standards our level of poverty was considerably greater that that of the present welfare recipient. Yet we didn’t feel traumatized. Schools functioned reasonably well. A photo of my second grade class shows forty students with one teacher. Disruption was minimal. Miss Holland ruled with an iron hand. If we misbehaved she would send a note to our parents. They, in turn, would punish us. What was the difference between my generation and the present children in poverty? Without exception we came from intact, two parent families. We had male role models who went to work and mothers who participated in the teaching-learning process. The family expectation was that we would obey our elders, learn our lessons, not drop out of school and be successful.
Wait! There is an alternate version to this story. These trends and statistics do not apply to a portion of the population. The vast majority of women who are college graduates continue to delay pregnancy until married (roughly ninety four percent of college women delay having a baby until married). This statistic has remained steady over a period of years. These educated women tend to be in better position to civilize and educate their children. The social pathologies seen in many schools occur less often amongst children of educated families. Marriage seems to be the best bulwark against social disorganization. Single parenthood often correlates with dysfunctional behavior in the offspring.
Because of these disparities are we destined to produce a stratified society of the advantaged and the disadvantaged? The sociologist, Charles Murray suggests that America is fragmenting. The fault lines include lingual, cultural, monetary and political divisions. He also includes the disparities encountered by children raised in conventional, intact families compared to children who lack that experience.