Looking up in America

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“My wife said I can’t watch the news anymore,” said my white-haired Political Science professor. “It makes me too grumpy. I get all worked up.”

A man who taught everyday about the circumstances surrounding warfare and economic hardship couldn’t tolerate the phony, hypocritical way in which the media reports rather blasé facts, while our politicians seem to have as much power as they can afford to buy. That was back in 2007. Now, we face another possibility for America, two very different candidates, and for some reason our priorities remain askew.

Black Lives Matter protestors at the Republican National convention in Cleveland
Black Lives Matter protestors at the Republican National convention in Cleveland

We’ve had the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, and still see countless reports (and videos) of obscenely inappropriate police actions toward people of color. Our costs of living have increased, and yet people complain about the adjustments that will be necessary to raise our minimum wage. I currently have the 2016 Guidelines for the Federal Poverty Level posted up on my wall next to my work desk, and I refer to it more often than I’d like. According to the Department of Human Services, someone making $11, 770 meets 100 percent FPL eligibility. The same can be said for a family of eight surviving off $40, 890. You can check out the numbers, if you’re curious, by clicking here, or almost any government website.

This is not meant to be a lament or wake up call, as neither would be suitable; It’s meant to be a viewpoint. When you’re on a long trip, you need to get out and stretch every so often. You need to get your bearings. We, as a country, should probably stop the vehicle, and get out to look around. What was happening decades ago is still happening, and the distractions of this election season cannot outweigh that. Rather than just watching news pundits spouting out poll numbers, I might recommend finding and watching the documentary series beginning with “Age 7 in America.”

This series followed the lives of several children from various walks of life, all starting at the age of seven. It was filmed over twenty years ago, by Michael Apted, responsible for the “7 Up” series in England and narrated by Meryl Streep. Watching the series, I was most interested in the lives and futures of children who came from lower-income families in inner-city, suburban areas. For them, life was uncertain. Their family systems were less likely to be composed of two parents, they were more likely to witness violence, and they lacked some of the clear financial and educational advantages of the children from higher-income families. Still, I noticed that temperament, beliefs about themselves and others, and the strength and positivity of their relationships and education, made a difference in the overall outcome of fourteen years.

From age seven to age twenty-one, each child develops according to some constant — and some changing — variables present from their early years. Some are predictable, and some are not. For instance, in the case of LeRoy, an African American child who grew up in the Robert Taylor Housing Projects in Chicago, life was extremely unpredictable. At the age of seven, when asked why he didn’t ride his bike below, on the sidewalk, he replied that someone might take it. Much more disturbingly, he referred to a sense of insecurity regarding his own safety, and described a man getting shot in the head. Contrast his situation to that of the three girls who, at seven years old, attended Nightingale — an elite private school in New York City — together, and you see the difference in both predictability of an outcome and security.

Lucy, Alexis and Kate (YouTube)
Lucy, Alexis and Kate

Lucy, Alexis and Kate are all Caucasian, come from two-parent families and live the considerably wealthy Upper East Side, in apartments with doormen who open the doors for them. They wear uniforms at school, and have a sense of belonging. They discuss why it is better to be married when you have a baby, and why it is better to be rich than poor. Their daily routines did not include a conscious likelihood that they might have property taken from them or suffer a gunshot on their way home. This knowledge of what will happen on a daily basis, what is expected of them, and where they belong in terms of social status and standing played a critical role in determining their thoughts about the world and their place in it.

Socioeconomics of course influenced what kind of education each child received, what they aspired to do, and how they identified with their peers. Kennisha, LeRoy’s playmate who lived in the same building, expressed ambivalence about the idea of growing up and getting married. She shrugged, and looked at LeRoy with an upraised eyebrow when he said that girls were “crazy” and he “[couldn’t] trust them.” Both children were fourteen by the time questions regarding relationships with the opposite sex were being posed. In comparison, Eric, an only child who had been raised in an upper-class suburb of Chicago and then moved to China, was not only starting a business by the age of fourteen, but had no doubt that he would soon have a girlfriend. He told the interview he was single at the time, but would have “no problem” finding a new girl.

However, economic background and life obstacles were not all important factors. Temperament, especially qualities like a generally optimistic view of life, diligence, and a good sense of humor, appeared to increase social status, confidence, a child’s ability to cultivate meaningful relationships, and eventually their likelihood of getting into a good job and/or school. Luis, who grew up in a homeless shelter in New York, had all the odds against him. He lived in an urban environment, had a mother who was addicted to drugs, and was expected to take care of his younger siblings from an early age. By fourteen, he expressed the sentiment that “Things were bad before, but they got better … Things are bad now, but they’ll get better.” His natural disposition, perhaps in combination with his responsibilities in an unstable family, appeared to help him. By the time he was twenty-one, he was in the Army, had a girlfriend of five years, and was still instrumental in keeping his family tied together. His dreams mostly seemed to be for peace within his family, as opposed to just fulfilling his own needs.

Luis (YouTube)
Luis (YouTube)

This emphasis on family was a common thread for many of the children who grew up in lower-income families. While Lucy, Alexis, Kate and Eric were mainly concerned about their own ideas and goals, Luis and Kennisha both expressed a need to look out for family members. At the age of fourteen, Kennisha was taking care of her elderly grandmother, and by the age of twenty-one, she had a daughter. Luis, on the other hand, spoke of the internal struggle he faced when determining whether he would invest time and energy in taking care of his younger siblings, or he would take care of himself. He ultimately decided to first attain stability in his own life and career, and then reach out to his younger brothers and sisters. Eric, on the other hand, struggled with a sense of loneliness amidst his great financial stability and occupational success.

From the time of childhood to the time of adulthood, it seemed that those children whose lives were more structured by the adults around them faced more internal changes. In other words, the girls who went to the private school, where their values and time were strictly managed, entered a time of great inner turmoil in regards to their identity, career choice and decisions about relationships with other people. Alexis had to struggle with her perfectionism suddenly leading to depression as she discovered that not everything would go her way in school and romance, and Lucy and Kate both experienced great change in their own self-perception. One decided to be adventurous and enjoy the outdoors, although that had never been part of her life, and the other decided to see the world via road trip if she wanted to pursue writing and humanitarian work.

All these lives, captured and examined, could be a reminder that the same spheres of influence, the same events, the same factors of money and education and social belonging, continue to affect us — and the next generation. And that’s old news, but arguably much more relevant than Donald Trump’s sex allegations or Hillary Clinton’s email server. I know the elections are coming up, and for some the thought of either candidate in office is terrifying. Let’s take a deep breath before the plunge and get grounded in who we are and what we all face on a regular basis, rather than the choices we make every four years.