Poverty, Academia and PC Speech

Like many of you, I have been increasingly concerned about the stifling of free speech on US university campuses. Meanwhile, a lifetime concern of mine has been the elimination of poverty, both US and worldwide. These two interests converge in this disturbing article in Inside Higher Ed.

The piece opens with

Lehigh University asked professors in its business school to advise the new Biden administration on their areas of expertise via short “kitchen table talk” videos. But one professor’s short talk on poverty, including its relationship to race, proved divisive — and that the topic needed a more thorough analysis, the university said. So after temporarily removing the video for review, Lehigh reposted it alongside additional context from other scholars.

“Relationship to race” here meant that the professor, Frank Gunter, downplayed the Race Card: “Gunter explains that he wants to dispel the following ‘widely held’ beliefs about poverty: that it is ‘mostly a matter of race,’ that it’s a ‘generational curse’ and that the poor have ‘no agency.'” In particular, Gunter cites a Brookings study that found that three simple actions would in most cases enable the impoverished to join the middle class: “finish high school, work full-time, wait until age 21 to get married and have children after marriage.”

Of course, this is similar to the views of sociologist/politician Daniel Moynihan back in the 60s and 70s, which later fell out of favor, and I’ve generally been critical of Brookings for its “hired gun” nature. Yet the study is bipartisan, and even Gunter’s critics don’t seem to be vigorously disputing its points, merely calling the Moynihan view as “discredited.”

The critics do correctly note a major error of omission in Gunter’s video: Though his statement that most of the poor are not black, and most black people are not poor, as is indeed correct, he fails to note that the poor are disproportionately black; the poverty rate is higher among black people than in the general populace. Gunter was remiss in not including this in his original video.

The critics also note that various government programs have been successful in reducing poverty. One may debate as to whether Gunter erred in not mentioning this, but the critics themselves are remiss for not mentioning a government program that research shows has contributed to black poverty — an immigration policy that brings high levels of low-skilled immigration.

In addition, the debate seems to have overlooked the obvious key point: If indeed the three “silver bullets” of the Brookings study are statistically accurate, then why are many young black people not taking advantage of them? And even more importantly, what can be done to change that?

As the Lehigh faculty senate commented, “Too many times statements are made in response to uncomfortable topics that do little to address the issue at hand.” Lehigh, by now restoring the video and pairing it with one expounding an opposing view, should be applauded for attempting to start a genuine debate. This would not happen at many other universities these days, and sadly, I don’t expect it to occur within the Biden administration.

5 thoughts on “Poverty, Academia and PC Speech

  1. The answer is a self-fulfilling statistic: many black children are told — by peers, by neighbors, by well-meaning “experts” — that doing the 3 things listed (study hard, work full time, marriage and then children after age 21) means “acting white”. So by not “acting white”, children do not “succeed white”.

    The latest thing in education is to abolish grades, advanced courses, and tests, because they are “racist” or even “white supremacist”. It’s like having a person find a key to a treasure chest, but his/her friends refuse to use it because they consider it tainted since the person who found it first was white.

    Imagine what this trend will mean for society, namely, dumbing down all students to the lowest common denominator. No Child Gets Ahead.

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  2. I agree it’s concerning when views get swept under the bed for ideological reasons.

    As to Gunter’s arguments, though, I think he doesn’t understand how disadvantage works. Finishing high school is a fine idea, but students in disadvantaged households often don’t have a desk or even somewhere quiet to study. It’s therefore very hard for them to keep up with their work.

    Similarly with working full time. Fine advice for the children of the upper middle classes, but often not an option for disadvantaged people. For them, the only options are casual jobs that go nowhere.

    Economics really needs a makeover, with more diverse sources of expertise.

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    • There are ways around these obstacles, such as usin the public library for a quiet study place. Low-wage jobs at least provide income, and they teach responsibility and so on, in preparation for better jobs.

      The problem of black poverty is largely, though certainly not entirely, one of young black men. Young black women tend to do better, in spite of the obstacles you correctly cite.

      To me, the key issue is determining the WHY. If it is indeed at least partly a problem of lack of personal responsibility, then WHY does that lack exist? And how can it be fixed? Very few gov. programs, if any, address these issues. The whole topic of personal responsibility is verboten for discussion, let alone addressed with effective action.

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  3. U.S. universities are well on their way to meaninglessness, which will be achieved in this decade, as far as doing actual useful research is concerned. Their restrictions on speech will be a major component of this decline.

    The other problem is that funding for research is also being directed towards politically motivated topics, and to “hot” topics rather than areas in which real innovation is possible but where the problems are hard. Mediocrity is being normalized, and the politicization of everything at universities is being given top priority.

    The end result will be that the majority of people who will “study” at US universities will be foreign students, obviously with the sole intent of converting their F-1 visas into green cards.

    It is all a giant scam.

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