Grit Poverty

Grit Makes a Come Back

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Just when you thought we were done with discussing, debating, and dissecting grit, the New York Times publishes an article about those “character strengths” that affluent children seem to have more of. Thomas Edsall writes about the subject here.

While there are substantial numbers of low-income children who have strength of character, the measures used continue to show that income and whatever is measured are correlated.

Attempts to develop educational strategies to promote the development of noncognitive skills are still in the beginning stages. Many experiments are being conducted in high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods where the challenges in developing noncognitive skills have been most acute.

He goes on to cite James Heckman, Angela Duckworth, Paul Tough, and others who have written about the non cognitive skills that lead to success. Citing a researcher, he says that “noncognitive skill levels rose significantly not only as family income grew but also as the mother’s education level rose. In addition, children in continuously married two-parent families did better than children with single parents.”

What precisely is being measured?

Edsall sees a political angle to these issues, namely, Trump’s claim that Democrats and liberal policy is responsible for not teaching grit, perseverance, and character:

What is to be made of all these findings?

First, the spectrum of noncognitive skills and character strengths are a major factor in American class stratification. Whether these factors are more or less important than extrinsic forces like globalization, automation and declining unionization remains unclear, but changing family structures are evidently leaving millions of men and women ill-equipped to ascend the socioeconomic ladder.

Second, neither religious leaders nor practicing politicians nor government employees have found the levers that actually make disadvantaged families more durable or functional. As a corollary, the failure of government efforts to affect or slow down negative developments has left an opening for conservatives to argue that government interventions make things worse.

For liberals and the Democratic Party, the continued failure of government initiatives to achieve measurable gains in the acquisition of valuable noncognitive skills by disadvantaged youngsters constitutes a major liability.

This liability played a role in the outcome of the 2016 election. Throughout the campaign, President Trump repeated comments like this one:

The Democratic Party has run nearly every inner city for 50 years, 60 years, 70 years, and even more than 100 years they have produced only poverty, failing schools, and broken homes.

This and related charges will continue to dog Democratic candidates in 2018 and 2020 unless progressive policy advocates can find ways to more effectively highlight and capitalize on the ample supply of character strengths evident everywhere among America’s poor. This is extraordinarily important.

Advocates for the disadvantaged must also highlight and capitalize on the many demonstrably effective antipoverty solutions already well known to the academic, research and nonprofit communities. Without better funded and better crafted organization and advocacy on behalf of the poor, the propaganda and accusations now emanating from the right will ineluctably reshape the law of the land — and once institutionalized, such “remedies” could prove staggeringly difficult to reverse.

In my book Reign of Error, I responded to these claims, one by one. First, pointing out that test scores and graduation rates are at an all-time high, and dropout rates are at an all-time low. Then by explaining patiently that poverty takes a toll on children and families. They often lack decent health care, decent housing, and safe neighborhoods, which affects school performance and motivation.

Trump plans to take a wrecking ball to America’s public schools. He has no ideas, and his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has only one idea: to promote alternatives to public schools. Did people like them succeed because they have grit? No, they were born rich. Trump was born on third base; DeVos at home plate.

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