Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Inequality

When I was working in the inner city, I noticed that the kids were rarely unaware that they had less than other kids.  When we went on field trips, they would ask me, "Is this where the rich people live?  These house look like rich people houses."  They would often point out that white people in the grocery stores buy more food than their family was able to, and that other people didn't have to live where there was shooting most nights.

As I've been doing private tutoring, I have obviously been working with many students whose families are much better off financially than my former students' families. One of the interesting things to me is that many of them are not aware how fortunate they are.  At one point, a student who goes to a prestigious private elementary school asked me if I tutored any of my former students.  When I said no, she asked me why.  I simply said that most of them couldn't afford tutoring - didn't explain further.  She looked at me for a minute or so and said, tearing up, "That is so sad."  She wasn't being sarcastic or petty; she was serious.  She had no idea that some of these kids didn't have enough food - not being able to have a tutor was enough for her to get visibly sad.

Another student who goes to a very good middle school in a fairly wealthy area asked me why so many people eat at McDonald's.  Her family is big on whole grains, vegetables, and homemade soups.  She likes to really understand things, so we talked about how fast food is easy and fast and somewhat addictive.  She kept saying that she still thinks it's gross and that people shouldn't feed fast food to children.  I told her that I agreed but then tried to explain the concept of a food desert, and how some people don't have cars to get to grocery stores, don't have grocery stores in their neighborhoods, and don't have enough money to buy food, so the dollar menu might end up looking pretty attractive.  She's a smart girl and she got it.  She had never realized this before and asked me a few times if I was sure there were neighborhoods without grocery stores.  I described the neighborhood where I had taught and told her that a lot of the families were only able to shop at liquor stores.  She took it all in and said, "I wish there was a way we could get good food to them."  Amen, sister.

The last conversation I've had about this subject was this week, with another private school student.  She was looking through the photos on my phone and commenting on my dog and my niece and how cute they are.  She happened upon a photo of me with my Little Sister and asked who she was.  She was confused because my Little Sister is black so "she isn't related to you, right?"  I didn't explain that families can be interracial (thought of that later), but told her she was a girl I volunteer with.  She asked me why and what did I mean and I sort of explained the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.  I was not prepared to explain as much as I did, but she kept asking me more.  Why did the kids need people to volunteer with them?  Did they all have only one parent?  What did it feel like to have one parent in jail?  Do kids with parents in jail know why their parents are in jail?  Do they think their parents are good people even if they're in jail?  What do I mean some parents don't have cars?  How do they get their kids to appointments though?  Don't they get to go on vacation?  Some people don't make enough money to go on vacation?  What do they do if they need help in school and can't afford a tutor?  What if they need to go to the hospital and they don't have a car?  So, the things I do with my Little Sister are just things that she does with her own parents?  Why do I spend time with this girl when I'm busy?  

She ended with: "Can you write down the website for this program?  I think I'd like to learn more about it."

It astounds me that none of these kids had any idea about how the other half lives.  These aren't celebrity children and none of them live in gated compounds.  They have just never been around poor children.  And they could easily spend their whole lives having no idea that there are people who are struggling to get enough food - not even two miles away.

On the other hand, the kids in the low-income neighborhoods are totally aware that there is an "other half."  They may have many misconceptions about them, but they know they exist.

I feel like this needs to be addressed.  I'm not sure how, but I'd love to hear ideas.

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