The poor don’t need armchair quarterbacks

Last Wednesday Gene Marks sparked some conversation with his “If I Were A Poor Black Kid” column over at Forbes.

Of course Marks was not a poor black kid growing up; he was a middle class white kid. Several people wondered why, having no personal basis for using such a specific example, he would write from such a frame of reference. Indeed, it looks like his intention was to simply frame an issue centered around his preferred panacea for boosting low-income upward mobility. I have no idea why he chose “poor black kid,” expect it appears that he’s especially referring to the ‘inner city.’ But why not just “poor kid?” And his preferred solution? This:

If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently.   I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city.  Even the worst have their best.  And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities.  Getting good grades is the key to having more options.  With good grades you can choose different, better paths.  If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have.

Very insightful. Not that I’m downplaying the general importance of school performance for the poor. Far from it. But this is a really simplistic use of logic applied by person whose frame of reference is inadequate to the task. For example, here’s Meghan McArdle mentioning several barriers that one might run into being a poor black kid that Marks completely excludes from his analysis:

1.  Not knowing anything different  Middle class people have a very strong image of everything they’d lose if they’d end up in a housing project.  Kids from poor neighborhoods, who do not see, say, successful people who have gotten out, have a much less clear idea of what leaving would look like.  It’s hard to work towards something you can’t really imagine.

2.  Leaving means living among strangers.  Most of the middle class readers of this blog would–quite apart from the crime rate–find it very difficult to start a new life as a welfare mother in a housing project in the South Bronx.  The kids from the housing project find college just as alien.  That’s not to say that poor people somehow prefer the irritations of crappy housing projects, high crime, and hassling with various government bureaucracies–they do not.   But that doesn’t therefore mean they actually want to abandon their friends and loved ones and the world they know.

3.  Economically sound long term decisions have uncertain payoffs.  Middle class kids can assume that if they work hard enough, they’ll make it through college and get some sort of a decent job.  Most poor kids can’t assume that–a lot of those who try, flunk out–and those who try and fail won’t have much help to get a second chance.

4.  Their payoff matrix is different.  Middle class kids can make $75,000 out of school if they get a solid degree in engineering, or a job at an investment bank.  But most poor kids who study hard and go to college are not going to get one of those jobs.  Realistically, dealing drugs probably offers many of them a more certain chance of making good money in their twenties than staying in high school.

Is it crazy that poor black kids focus on being entertainers and sports stars?  Numerically, yes.  But the odds must seem longer still of becoming an investment banker.  People from their backgrounds become rap stars and football players.  Few of them end up as the president of Merrill Lynch.

Go here to read the rest.

And here’s Karl Smith, an economist who happened to grow up as a poor black kid, explaining it a different way (apologies for the long quote):

[…]The life choice that Mark’s outlines and that is advocated as prudent and reasonable by society is in fact incredibly risky.

I probably can’t convey the view-quakiness of this revelation because its now so entwined with the way I see the world. However, imagine the choice of a poor teenage girl deciding whether or not to have unprotected sex and possibly become pregnant, or to study hard, make good grades and stay in school.

Forget the unprotected sex itself, which we almost all find enticing.

The key is the pregnancy. For a 16 year-old girl regular unprotected sex will result in a full term pregnancy in the modern world with roughly probability one. There is little chance she will die in child birth. Late term miscarriages at her age are rare.

Now, just like any other parent the birth of that child will be the most important event in her life. And, the love of that child will be the most valuable thing she experiences. Some people say that looking back their career was more important than their children, but those people are few and far between.

So, if the girl has unprotected sex she gets right here, right now, the most important and valuable thing in life will happen immediately with PROBABILTY ONE.

Its difficult to get better than that. Waiting at all creates a risk that something will happen to prevent this. Even, if you can be sure it won’t – and many couples find out unfortunately that you can’t be so sure – you still have to discount the time. You have wait for the most valuable thing in your life.

Mark’s would have her set all that aside. Put away time that she will never get back – you must remember that no matter what you will never get these days back – for the chance that supposedly she will go on to college and get some job and meet some guy and then later have a different child under what might be better circumstances.

This is a risk. Taking Marks advice means that you lose a sure shot at the greatest thing in life. It means that you potentially waste time and time is the currency of life. He wants to convince you that the gamble might pay off.[..]

Read more from Smith here.

It’s not as though one shouldn’t be concerned about the poor, or even inner city poor black kids, without a comprehensive understanding of the culture, policy and economics involved with poverty. Yet sentiment alone is not enough when thinking of ways to boost positive socioeconomic mobility. I guess for some it might be tempting to project simple solutions onto complex issues, and in this case it seems it was too tempting for Marks


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