Gallery of art and thoughts

The cartoons and contemplations of a twentysomething copy editor.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Getting in and out of poverty

Michelle Singletary, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote a thought-provoking column in the Dec. 25 issue of the Boston Globe. This column would have been welcome during the affirmative-action debate before the Supreme Court, for it addresses some misconceptions people have about poverty.

In a previous book review, Singletary discussed the Rev. Michael Eric Dyson's response to Bill Cosby's criticism of impoverished African-Americans. "Cosby launched into a rant against lower- and lower-middle-class blacks, who he feels are largely responsible for their economic condition," Singletary wrote. "Dyson criticized Cosby for his lack of empathy for the poor and ignoring the sociological, political, and economic factors that keep those in poverty from achieving more."

Readers who responded to Singletary's book review had harsh words, arguing that it is the decisions that poor people make that are chiefly responsible for their misery; some of these readers used personal testimony to illustrate how, thanks to their own prudence, they were able to escape poverty.

Singletary exposes the fallacy behind these arguments: the success of an individual is due partly to that individual's actions, but it is also due to fortuitous actions by role models -- parents, relatives, and teachers, for example. "My grandmother taught me how to be frugal," Singletary wrote. "But Big Mama wasn't much help when it came to applying to college. I got that push from my high school counselor, who literally hounded me until I applied for a journalism scholarship."

In high school and beyond, the roles played by adults become crucial to success -- particularly the mentoring and networking capabilities played by alumni of, for instance, prep schools and Ivy League colleges. Professional relationshops forged at summer internships or co-op programs also prove helpful.

Singletary deserves credit for her refreshing riposte to the American idea of individual success. "I hate the expression 'pull yourself up by your own bootstraps' because no one gets where they are in life without some help or guidance," she wrote. Words for us all to remember.


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