There are many reasons to be concerned about poverty, even here in rich America. While I am almost sure that living on low income itself is not ipso facto that hard to do, it does correlate well with other things that are hard to do. For example, I intentionally make myself poor when I go backpacking for a week. Now the gear is nice, of course – but the point of the trip is to live on little material means. It is quite fun – and it works because I KNOW that I have a safe and secure place to come back to when I am done, that I have medicines should I fall ill, etc. In other words, the problem of poverty, in my view, is the fact that you are on the edge, not the fact that the plateau itself is uninhabitable. But that’s for another day.
Given that we have two young kids, it is a constant worry of mine whether I am doing right by them in the things that I teach them and try to do for them (or more often than not, try NOT to do for them). One of the most important things I want our children to learn is to be tough. But I mean tough beyond being able to take a hit in a football game. I mean mentally tough, emotionally tough — self-disciplined, or conscientious if you will. I actually have no idea how to do that, particularly if one does not wish to torture one’s kids. However, I think that spending as much time as I can with them, and having them see the way that other tough people live, will do some good.
Which leads me to today’s thought. It is often contended that the problem for the poor youths in America is that there preciously rare influences on them to be disciplined and conscientious. I suppose this makes sense to some people. But think about that for a moment. My former colleague Professor Mark Aguiar has a famous paper that demonstrates that not only has leisure time increased in America since the mid-20th century (by a lot – the equivalent of 4 to 8 weeks of vacation per year) but that this leisure increase has not been shared widely. In fact, it is families at the lower-end of the income distribution that have enjoyed the largest increases in leisure and that people in the top percentiles have actually seen increases.
Do you see my confusion? If conscientiousness and self-discipline and even parental influence is a function of the time parents spend with their kids, then what we should be seeing is that the children of the American poor should be becoming more conscientious and more disciplined vis-a-vis their wealthier counterparts. Case in point is that both my wife and I are working full-time and I barely have time to get my teeth flossed each and every day. I suspect many middle-income/above families are in similar situations. It might seem reasonable to think that families in these income categories have much less time to spend with their kids than other families.
There is much to write about here, but this idea is big enough for one post. Again, if the lower income families in America are the ones gaining the most leisure time, how come we are not seeing that reflected in their childrens’ outcomes? What are these families doing with their children? And does it require a lot of income to actually provide children with an environment for them to succeed in? How much income does it take to read to your kids? How much income does it require to make your kids do their chores? How much income does it require to make your children say please and thank you? How much income does it require to take your kids to the public library? How much income does it require to NOT allow your kids to play video games all day long? How much income does it require to NOT allow your kids to watch TV all day long? And so on. Remember, the canard about low-income families not having the time to spend with their kids is just a canard – it is the upper-income families that actually don’t “have” the time (I don’t buy this, that’s for another post of course). And it is the upper-income families who are arguably wasting some of that remaining precious time getting their kids tied up in all kinds of wasteful arms-races — from making them partake in 17 clubs and sports, to making them sit through SAT prep classes and so on.
Begin reflecting on these questions, and dare to articulate them, and say goodbye to dunking-for-apples at the neighbors’ Halloween party.