Southern University President Ronald Mason Jr. last week described a series of tough “business decisions” — from slavery through Jim Crow and the War on Drugs — that he says undermine efforts to create a nation where merit is the most important determiner of success.
He argued that state government’s fiscal starving of the colleges and universities, which historically has provided the means for social mobility, reinforces a system of social stratification.
Mason’s opinion seemed to resonate with the roomful of affluent people whose government is busy whacking away at funding for the hospitals used by the poor, criticizing federal efforts to cover workers who can’t afford health insurance and trying to block efforts to improve public transportation that many use to get to their jobs.
“It really angers me when I hear that ‘All they need to do is stop being lazy and pull themselves up by their bootstraps,’ ” said Democratic state Rep. Regina Barrow, whose north Baton Rouge district includes some of the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods in Louisiana.
The handful of people who voluntarily don’t work has become the iconic excuse to do away with efforts that give everyone an equal opportunity, she said.
The vast majority of the “working poor” is doing just that: working, often at two or three low-paying jobs to pay rent, buy food and provide for their children, Barrow said.
“They drive your trucks, teach your children. They are hairdressers and janitors. They serve you at restaurants,” Barrow said. Their industry means less time at home with their families, less time to improve their skills, she said.
The federal government’s definition of “poverty” depends on a multitude of situations. Generally, however, the 2012 guideline puts poverty at $23,050 for a family of four. A full-time worker earning the $7.25 minimum wage would make about $15,080 a year.
About 17 percent of the 440,780 people in East Baton Rouge Parish — 26 percent of those 18 and younger — fell below the poverty line in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Most of the people in Baton Rouge do not live in poverty, at least as defined by the federal government. But a large portion of the parish’s residents teeter nearby. The Census Bureau calculated that 41.9 percent of Baton Rouge families make less than $50,000 a year. Only 11 percent make more than $150,000.
U.S. Census Bureau calculations show about 15 percent of Baton Rouge residents have no health insurance whatsoever, and 29 percent of those who are covered use a public plan such as Medicaid. The federally supplemented, state-run program provides coverage for people whose incomes or situations qualify.
“The bigger issue is income disparity,” Barrow said, noting that poor and more-affluent populations pretty much stay in their own neighborhoods, mostly north and south of Government Street, respectively.
Barrow’s gut feeling is endorsed by a recent study on the inequalities of opportunities among children of different income brackets.
The report was released July 12 by the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government with the help of researchers from Stanford University, American University and the University of Oxford in England.
Their basic finding is that over the past 30 years, children raised in more-affluent households have the advantage of spending more time with their better-educated parents, who spend more money on education, tutoring and extracurricular activities.
The study called “Growing Class Gaps in Social Connectedness Among American Youth, 1975-2009” shows the economic gap is growing. Grades and test scores of working-class children continue to fall. Their chance of improving their situation by their own hard work — the idea on which America is based — is diminishing quickly, the study shows.
The scholars say that the data shows that America is casting aside its ideal of meritocracy and seems “heading towards a caste system where social standing and community involvement are inherited from generation to generation, a country cleaved along class lines.”
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@the
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