The American news media and the blogosphere are filled with talk of inequality right now. The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest in New York City has spread across the country, and the release last week of a report on income inequality from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has given some support to OWS protesters’ complaints about public policies that favor the rich. The CBO report indicates that while income in the Unites States has grown for everyone over the past three decades, it has grown far faster for the richest Americans. For the bottom quintile of American wage earners, income has increased just 18 percent since 1979, while income for the top 1 percent of earners has increased by a whopping 275 percent! According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, virtually all of the decline in the bottom 80 percent’s share of the nation’s income is reflected in an increase for the top 1 percent.
Such inequality is possible in the United States because of policy decisions made by those we elect to represent us—choices about what and what not to regulate. These policies and the resulting upward redistribution of wealth in the U.S. over the past thirty years have happened because we allowed them to happen.
Our system of representative democracy means citizens only need participate if we are interested enough to do so. We can influence the decisions of those we elect to represent us, run for office ourselves or get involved in issues that are important to us. Or we can choose not to participate.
This voluntary system assumes, however, that we all know how to participate, and that we all believe that our participation will make a difference. For many Americans, however, this assumption is not accurate. Public schools teach us about government but they don’t provide us with many opportunities to practice participatory skills like speaking at public hearings, working on a campaign for an issue or candidate, circulating petitions or working with community members to solve real-world problems. Schools also don’t provide us with access to people with influence, such as community leaders, business groups and politicians. Students usually spend more time analyzing literature and historical events than debating the pros and cons of current political issues.
What about families and communities? Students have role models, social networks and learning opportunities outside of school. For children in middle-class and more affluent neighborhoods, role models include well-educated, well-connected parents and their similarly high-status friends and colleagues. These adults tend to participate in politics and civic affairs at higher levels than adults in low-income and working-class communities, and their children observe and learn from their parents’ participation. The parents’ interactions with other adults provide their children with opportunities to meet influential people, establish relationships with them and learn how they communicate with one another. Children in these communities see the confidence—one might even call it a sense of entitlement—with which their parents and other adults exert influence, and they grow up with the same confidence in their own ability to influence.
Poor and working-class children have role models too, but theirs do not often participate in civic affairs and politics. In fact, adults in these communities often complain about how unresponsive politicians are to their needs. Poor and working-class kids have far less exposure to adults with influence, so they do not establish relationships with such adults or learn the “language” of power and influence as their higher-status peers do. Poor and working class kids do not see their parents and other adults participating in politics, so they do not develop the confidence in their ability to influence the decisions and actions of policymakers that more privileged youth develop.
Since they don’t believe the political system is responsive to them, don’t have the connections of more advantaged youth and don’t have many opportunities in school to practice participatory skills, disadvantaged youth participate in politics and civic affairs at lower levels than their advantaged peers. Their lack of participation, of course, only reinforces their lack of influence.
Public policy and politics represent the interests of those who are involved in shaping them. Since those who participate in politics are generally more affluent than those who don’t, policies are more likely to represent the interests of the wealthier classes. For the past three decades, the wealthiest Americans have been able to shape public policy in ways that have helped them become even more wealthy.
Whether American public schools have ever played a key role in preparing citizens for political participation, they certainly do not play such a role today. Civic education for most public high school students consists of one government course, usually completed in the senior year (which means those who drop out prior to their final year never take this course). The kinds of experiential learning mentioned above, aimed at developing students’ participatory skills, were already uncommon before our schools became so test-driven, and they are less common now.
More and more test-based accountability means that schools have less and less time to teach participatory civic skills, especially in poor, urban communities. Children growing up these communities are unlikely to find many civically engaged role models among the adults in their daily lives. If we don’t rethink our approach to preparing citizens, poor children will continue to grow up with few participatory skills, little belief in the responsiveness of the system and few personal relationships with influential adults. The advantages of access to influence that accrue to privileged children through their parents and family friends are likely to persist.
Communities seeking to change this dynamic, however, can ameliorate these disadvantages by providing opportunities for young people to participate in community decision-making. Meaningful youth participation allows disadvantaged youth to learn how to advocate for changes in public policy, and can connect them to adults who can help them accomplish the changes they want. Involving youth in evaluating youth services, for example, helps them to understand budgets and funding, as well as the trade-offs that must be made to fund one program over another.
There are many youth participation models to experiment with. It is very important, however, that communities design their approach with the following points in mind:
- Authenticity: Make sure the issues addressed by youth are important to them and to the community—that they are addressing real problems, and not just planning fun events.
- Trust: It will take time for youth and adults to trust each other. But if adults demonstrate that they value young people’s contributions, young people will take the work seriously and work hard to earn adults’ trust.
- Relationships: Develop strategies to nurture relationships between youth and adults. These relationships are extremely important to youth and young adults whose role models are mostly disengaged and disempowered.
- Influence: Find ways to connect youth to adults who have influence in the community. This can include community leaders, but it can also mean activists. It is important for young people to see how adults communicate and exert influence to promote positive change.
- Diversity and opportunity: Make sure all youth are aware of opportunities to participate and feel welcome. It will require more effort to engage disadvantaged youth, but you must get beyond “the usual suspects” to those who can benefit the most from such opportunities.
- Training: Both youth and adults will need training—skill-building and learning about the decision-making process for young people, and coaching in effective mentoring for adults.
- Support: Disadvantaged youth will need more support than their more advantaged peers, such as bus passes, meals during meetings and a dedicated staff person who is proactive about communicating with them and answering questions.
Polls indicate the majority of Americans agree with the OWS protesters that our political system favors the rich. Affluent, well-educated parents provide their children with the knowledge, skills and connections they need to influence politics and policy. It should be no surprise then, that our current politics reflect their interests.
Poor parents cannot provide these advantages. If we want our politics to be more representative of all Americans, including the poor and working classes, we must prepare all children to get involved and to advocate for their needs and those of their communities. Schools cannot do this alone. Local governments and community-based organizations must embrace their role in engaging all community members and preparing them for participation in our democracy.