Monday, June 27, 2011

The Moral From Two True Stories Of Need

I heard two accounts last week that could be an advertisement for a relatively new book The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks which I’m already re-reading for the third time.

Recently a friend of mind struck up a conversation with a newcomer she met in Durham’s new, award-winning Durham Station Transportation Center only to learn that this community had the dubious honor of being chosen from among several on the East Coast by this newcomer only because it afforded better subsidized housing and welfare benefits.

That’s, of course, not the intent of safety nets and examples such as this person not only fuel insensitivity to and stereotypes of the poor that are held by far more than just Tea Partiers but they can inure those of more fortunate means to the incredible stress currently felt by low income households as benchmarked in a poll released last week by the Pew Center.

Then later that same day, another friend told me the story of a young woman who just graduated from high school even though she has grown up in poverty far deeper and more pervasive than many of the 1 in 4 children who are now living in that condition.

Years ago she took the initiative to master technical skills so she could work her way through secondary school. At the time I heard her story she was living with another of my friends after being kicked out at the home of a sibling where she’d been since, for a variety of reasons, neither parent had ever been capable of fulfilling their legal obligations to this kid.

Still she fought through the adversity to graduate and earn a scholarship to college this fall only to discover she couldn’t make the deposit necessary for housing because the place where she worked had suddenly closed without warning or payment of her earned wages, leaving only a “For Rent” sign in the window. Now she has overcome that obstacle too, just as she has far too many others in a life so young.

Years ago, of her own volition, she reached out and built a long-distance relationship with a disabled grandparent in another part of the state who hadn’t been in her life previously. She has now chosen to go to a college in a school in that city so can go over and help her sightless grandmother out when needed.

While far too many young people her age and younger seem overindulged, bored and unable to weather simple setbacks or disappointments or homesickness or peer pressure, this kid has already shown incredible grit and determination and willpower and resolve while going without the most basic support system.

“Grit,” the perseverance and passion for long-term goals such as hers is proven a far greater predictor of success in life than IQ or prodigy-level gifts according to study published jointly by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan and The United States Military Academy, West Point.

While this young woman has benefited over the last few weeks from the voluntary kindness of a stranger, whom I’m sure is equally impressed by her character and drive, she never plays the victim or shows an attitude or exhibits a sense of entitlement.

As one of the 12,500 young people, on average, who turn old enough each day this year to vote, she has already mastered the Character Tool Kit and she is living testament to Dr. Shelby Steele’s twenty-year classic The Content Of Our Character, published before she was born. Before her first day of college, she is already qualified to teach at The Kenan Institute for Ethics, a “think and do” tank for leadership here in Durham at Duke University.

Her example illustrates why we need to be very careful to only trim fraud and waste away from programs designed to give a hand up to social mobility for people like her and as Brooks pleaded in a February column in the New York Times, “cut wisely not stupidly.”

What true believer in the “American Dream” would hesitate even a second to voluntarily raise the tax on their income to help this young lady"?

Recent polls show that the percentage of people with libertarian views is on the rise but what they don’t realize and Brooks, a Conservative, so ably notes is that the growth of government is a result of flawed “individualist agendas” by both the right and the left when he writes that:

“these two individualist revolutions [‘60s on the left and ‘80s on the right] did not create loose free societies. They produced atomized societies in which the state grows in an attempt to fill the gaps created by social disintegration…”

Given these two examples, I choose to focus on the young, privilege-less girl as the poster child for why government must continue to fulfill its essential duty to promote and foster social mobility. It is as imperative to America’s survival as resolving the credit crisis.

This is why it is imperative that Republican leaders re-engage with bipartisanship. As Brooks noted in a debate at the American Enterprise Institute in March:

“…my problem with the Republican Party right now…is that if you offered them 80-20, they’d say no. If you offered them 90-10 they’d say no. If you offered them 99-1 they’d say no. And that’s because we’ve [Republicans]substituted governance for brokerism, for rigidity that Ronald Reagan didn’t have.

…this rigidity comes from this polarizing world view that they’re a bunch of socialists over there…I’ve spent a lot of time with the president [President Obama]…a lot of time with the people around him. They’re liberals!…But they are not idiots.

And they’re not Europeans, and they don’t want to be a European welfare state…It’s American liberalism, and it’s not inflexible.”

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