Thinking About the Poor   /   Fall 2014   /    Thinking About The Poor

Seeing the Invisible Poor

An Interview with Mike Rose

Mike Rose

First-year ironworker apprentices practice their welding skills, Wheeling, West Virginia, 2012; © Jason Cohn/Reuters/Corbis.

Poverty represents a society’s moral and civic failure.

Mike Rose has devoted much of his distinguished career to the educational and intellectual challenges of those living in straitened circumstances. Growing up poor himself, he was for a time mistakenly assigned to the vocational education track at his school, an experience that left him with a keen understanding of society’s evaluative gaze, of how its measurements, categories, and labels shape both the ways we are seen and the ways we see and think about ourselves. Many of his eleven books, including The Mind at Work (tenth anniversary edition, 2014), Back to School (2012), and Lives on the Boundary (2005), aim at disrupting this gaze by questioning the assumptions and structures that foreclose opportunities for the very people most in need of a fair chance. A research professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, Rose spoke to us about the difficulties in seeing the poor for who they variously are and for what they routinely face.

You’ve written very eloquently about the challenges facing people who live and work at the bottom of our socioeconomic ladder, and one of the things you’ve noticed—something you claim is greatly complicating their plight—is how many, if not most, of them are becoming invisible to the rest of society. What do you mean by this? How did it happen, and is it getting worse?

Well, they’re not literally invisible, of course. There are more than 46 million people in the United States living at or below the poverty line. But they are close to absent from public and political discourse, except as an abstraction—an income category low on the SES [socioeconomic status] index—or as a negative generalization: The poor are dependent on the government, the “takers,” a problem. Consider Congressman Paul Ryan’s recent comments about generations of men in the inner city “not even thinking about working.” Neither the abstractions nor the generalizations give us actual people trying to live their lives as best they can.

Because of the various layers of segregation in our society—from work to schools to places of worship—those of us who are relatively socially mobile have few opportunities to live and work closely with people who are at the bottom of the income ladder. We don’t know them. And because we don’t know their values and aspirations, the particulars of their daily decisions, and the economic and psychological boundaries within which those decisions are made, the poor easily become psychologically one-dimensional—intellectually, emotionally, and volitionally simplified, not quite like us.

Despite the growing gulf between the poor and “the rest,” you’ve been pretty successful in staying in touch with what might be called the invisible class. What’s given you this access, this connection?

Well, I wouldn’t want to claim any exceptional access or broad-scale knowledge. There are many poor communities—most, really—that I don’t know much about at all. I grew up poor—my father was chronically ill and my mother worked long hours as a waitress—so I have a personal, intimate sense of economic hardship and insecurity. And a significant amount of work I’ve done over the years, both my own teaching and mentoring and my research, has involved people who are behind the economic eight ball. That work has taught me a lot. It has also enabled me to develop some relationships in which people have opened up parts of their lives to me. And I suspect the knowledge I gained from my family’s own difficulties helps foster those relationships.

How do we almost reflexively diminish the capacities, ambition, imagination, and determination of the poor—and thereby add to the distance that separates the well-off from the less well-off?

It’s a complicated business, to be sure, but I think our separation, our increasing economic segregation contributes to the diminishment. With segregation comes ignorance and apprehension. Part of the way we establish our shared humanity is by what we imagine goes on inside the head and the heart of others. If we are separated from a group not only physically but psychologically, then it becomes all the easier to attribute to them motives, beliefs, thoughts—an entire interior life—that might be deeply inaccurate and inadequate. And it’s from those attributions we develop both our personal and public-policy responses to poverty.

How do we even begin to break down barriers, or bridge the gulf, between the poor and the rest of society?

There are so many structural impediments, from residential patterns that have developed partly out of housing policy to income inequality and the shredding of the social safety net. So, for starters, if we want to address the isolation I’m talking about, we need to do things that simply help poor people live a decent life: a higher minimum wage, tax credits, jobs programs, childcare, housing and transportation assistance. It’s hard to participate in society when you’re scrambling for your next meal or being booted out of your apartment. I’m not optimistic, given the focus on austerity and the terribly ungenerous cast to so many public policy deliberations.

We also need opportunities for people to develop and grow: educational and cultural programs, apprenticeships and job training, civic organizations. I’m thinking about places or occasions where poor people become more fully present actors on the societal stage, where their thoughts and feelings play out in ways that can have a positive effect on the direction of their lives. Social movements for civil rights or economic justice provide such a space. Cultural projects do as well—in churches and community centers, women’s shelters, prison art programs. And, in my experience, second-chance educational programs and institutions—literacy centers, adult schools, many community colleges—can also play this role.

But these are complex institutions. Given the intricate relation in our country among social class, educational resources, and academic achievement, the adult school and community college reflect educational inequality and can contribute to it. A lot of students never complete a certificate or degree. Some institutions do better than others with similar populations, so the quality of governance, services, and teaching matters. These institutions are among the few places in mainstream society where poor people can become more publicly visible and display to their advantage multiple dimensions of their lives.

Can you tell us how some of your own experiences in these places led to new understandings of the poor and their various plights?

Let me give you a recent one. I spent several years studying a community college that serves one of the poorest populations in Southern California. Many of the students are older, coming back to school once their children are grown, or after a series of dead-end jobs, or having spent time in prison. Those coming straight from high school typically went to underperforming schools. Most students have to take remedial English or math. The majority of students are on financial aid and are burdened with health, housing, or transportation problems. They’ve got a lot on their shoulders.

One of the things that struck me—and it happened in stages, as I saw one example, then another, then another—was the powerful desire that being at the college unleashed in these students. Parents wanted to improve their economic prospects and do better by their kids. People who hadn’t been in a classroom in decades spoke passionately about wanting to learn math this time or to become better readers and writers. Burly, trash-talking guys in a welding class were complimenting each other on welds being “beautiful” or “pretty,” and, in their math class, were arguing about the correct solution to a problem. From physics to fashion design, students were beginning to redefine themselves, to envision a future of possibility. As one young woman said, “You will grow in a way that you never in your mind would imagine.”

Of course, not all students at the college are affected so powerfully, and too many leave out of discouragement or because of financial burdens. But to witness repeatedly the mental vitality, the hope, the redefining of one’s sense of self, makes you realize what is possible when the conditions are right.

So, in addition to its practical economic value, college for these students yields other benefits as well?

Absolutely. Even for the most occupationally oriented students. One of the things that concern me about current education policy aimed at students like these is its strict economic focus. We need to get more people into college to enhance their economic prospects and to secure the nation’s economic future. Fine and true enough. The students want an economic boost, too. As one guy said bluntly in an orientation session, “I’m here because I don’t want to work a crappy job all my life.”

But so much else typically happens along the way. Students comment on how good it feels to learn new things, or to overcome old insecurities, or to have new intellectual and social as well as occupational avenues open up to them. If we don’t acknowledge and try to foster this rich dimension of their education, then we’re just repeating a long and troubling tendency in American education policy. Working-class students get a strictly functional education, heavy on job training and thin on everything else.

Could you say something about another important, but often overlooked, institution that is important to people with relatively few resources? I mean the public library.

When I was visiting public schools in small rural communities, I was struck by the role played by the local library. In addition to housing books and some films and music, it’s an information resource, a meeting place, an Internet outlet. And in places where the population is sparse and widely distributed, the traveling library is a godsend. I spent a week at a one-room schoolhouse in Montana’s Beaverhead Valley community, and there was a tiny library attached to the school, the only library around. It was the place kids got their books—and there were several intense readers in the class of fifteen, always hunched over a book. What a resource!

Rural or urban, libraries are a national treasure, and it’s easy in these days of connectivity and constantly streaming media to forget how important they are to so many who can’t afford all the technological bells and whistles. It’s shocking, I think, that libraries are being forced to reduce hours and staff and close local branches. And this is at a time when only about two-thirds of the nation’s libraries provide the only free Internet access in their communities—and when government and employment information and forms are increasingly going online.

There’ve been many debates over the touchy subject of intelligence, what it is, how we measure it, and how such conceptions and measurements affect life chances and opportunities. How does what you call “a reductive view of intelligence” stand in the way of appreciating the inner lives of individuals who are often dismissed as society’s less able or less gifted—and who are undercompensated as a result?

As a country, we seem to be obsessed with intelligence, with measuring it, with boosting our kids’ intelligence through products like Baby Einstein, with getting “smarter” workers into the new “smart” workplace. But the odd thing is that we tend to rely on a fairly narrow way of determining intelligence: We identify it with a score on a standard intelligence test (an IQ score) and with the traditional school-based tasks.

If one does well on an intelligence test or in school that clearly indicates some kind of cognitive competence. But if one doesn’t do well—and, historically, poor performers include many low-income people—then the meaning of the score is much less clear. To do well tells us something about intelligence—and, usually, schooling—but not to do well provides much less information about intellectual capacity…though that poor performance may speak volumes about educational opportunity.

What struck me as I did the research for The Mind at Work was the number of instances of reasoning, of problem solving, of learning and applying that learning that fell outside what gets assessed in an intelligence test or the traditional school curriculum. There is the waitress at rush hour prioritizing on the fly a number of demands from customers, the kitchen, and the manager. And the plumber diagnosing a problem by feeling with his hands the pipes he can’t see behind an old wall. And the hair stylist figuring out the style a customer wants through talk and gesture. This kind of brainwork surrounds us, yet might not be considered when we talk about intelligence.

You’ve talked about some of the ways the lives of the poor are made harder by their growing “invisibility,” but how is the rest of society, including the better off, made worse—and even impoverished—by the “disappearance of the poor”?

Poverty represents a society’s moral and civic failure. It also constricts our collective intelligence and creativity as so many people’s potential is squelched. Thank goodness, the notion of an “opportunity gap” is finally making its way into public discussion. That gap hurts all of us.

One more thing: The marginalization that poverty begets keeps from the mainstream entire categories of experience and points of view that can enrich our culture and the way we understand and try to solve a whole range of problems. I don’t want to romanticize the kinds of students I spent time with at that community college or claim that as a group they have superior gifts or insights. But some of them, because of their backgrounds, ask different kinds of questions, draw on fresh illustrations, come at problems in unusual ways. Nurturing that kind of intellectual and social diversity benefits us all.