September 15, 2019
No, record players won’t solve inequalityRoundup
tags: Joe Biden
Mical Raz is Charles E. and Dale L. Phelps professor in public policy and health and associate professor of history and medicine at the University of Rochester and author of "What's Wrong with the Poor? Psychiatry, Race and the War on Poverty."
Responding to a question about the legacies of slavery during the Democratic debate Thursday, former vice president Joe Biden left many scratching their heads when he urged parents from poor backgrounds to “make sure you have the record player on at night” to ensure their children hear an adequate number of words. While much of the criticism of the remark has centered on Biden’s old-fashioned choice of technology, far more important is that his sentiment reflected an equally out-of-date view on what plagues poor children.
Biden was voicing a deeply flawed theory that arose during the 1960s and that blamed parents, especially mothers, for the struggles of poor children and children of color. These parents, the theory argued, doomed their children to fail in classrooms by not offering them enough mental stimulation, such as books, colors on the wall or educational experiences.
As a result, policymakers crafted solutions to change these behaviors rather than targeting poverty itself. While such theories began to fall out of favor in the 1970s, and have since been thoroughly debunked by research, this flawed understanding among policymakers and the public at large has never truly been displaced. As a result, policymakers like Biden often advocate what they perceive poor families to lack, such as positive role models, a respect for the values of education or even a better work ethic, rather than what poor families truly need: food security, jobs, access to health care and affordable housing.
In the 1960s, well-intentioned anti-racist policymakers developed theories about why poor children and children of color were falling behind. Rather than faulting failing schools or social inequities that left children hungry, policymakers suggested that parents, particularly mothers, were the ones at fault. Poor children were not ready to read, common wisdom suggested, because they were “culturally deprived,” meaning they were not adequately exposed to necessary cultural stimulation at home. There were simply not enough books in the house, not enough colors on the walls; poor mothers did not transform a trip to the grocery store into an enriching cultural experience like their middle-class counterparts.
These theories of cultural deprivation essentially faulted poor people for their failings, suggesting that a child growing without the trappings of a middle-class environment was doomed to fall behind. This idea that low-income and minority homes were fundamentally different from and inferior to middle-class homes was broadly accepted and formed the basis of many policy interventions designed not to ameliorate poverty but to “fix” poor people’s behaviors. Painting the ideal home for perceived educational success as a traditional white, middle-class, two-parent family resonated broadly with an American public concerned about rapid societal shifts.
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