by Duane Wright
My son is in 6th grade at Birch Lane Elementary and right now they are doing a “parenting” unit. Part of this unit consists of the cutesy activity of carrying around a sack of flour for a week, as if it was a baby they had to take care of. Another part of this unit was for the students to figure out a budget, with the stated intention of showing them the cost of having a baby. However, the implicit lessons being taught were not about being a responsible parent, but rather were subtle ideological messages about the “undeserving” poor, about who should and should not be reproducing, and about the value of life. This is a lesson that seems to be taught across DJUSD for years now and not something isolated to my son’s class or school.
For the budget exercise the teacher told them all to imagine that they were high school students who had a baby, and that in order to support their newborn they had to get a job working at McDonald’s, for 40 hours per week for $15 per hour. When students put together their budget, rent, utilities, food, transportation, healthcare, etc. they were supposed to see how difficult/impossible it would be to survive in Davis this way. They ultimately discovered that they would be dependent upon assistance, whether from their family or in the form of government aid.
This should have been an opportunity to give a social studies lesson on changes in the workforce and the economy and to discuss the ways in which our own city of Davis maintains its fiction of being a happy little liberal utopian experiment, by not actually having to deal with many of the social problems that come with poverty by maintaining class and racial segregation and pushing those problems into Woodland or West Sacramento or other neighboring areas.
The teacher could have explained that even the scenario the students were given was painting a relatively rosy picture. No one is getting $15/hour and working 40 hours at McDonald’s. McDonald’s is like many employers today, in that it tends to hire near the minimum wage and for only part time, in order to avoid paying out benefits to its employees. With the erosion of union membership in this country, spurred by one-sided trade deals which make it easier to outsource production to countries with less labor rights, we have seen a stagnation or decline of the average wage, despite a huge rise in productivity. Meaning that while workers are producing more, they are getting a smaller and smaller share. This is what is behind the rising inequality and the historic level of wealth owned by the richest 1% of Americans. The teacher could have even talked about current efforts to support working parents, such as the Raise the Wage Davis campaign in our own backyard, fighting to get a $15 minimum wage in Davis.
What transpired however was not a sociological lesson, instead it was an opportunity for poverty shaming and an implicit lesson in Eugenics. After students realized that realistically they wouldn’t be able to survive without the support of family and government assistance the teacher explained that that is why they shouldn’t be having sex. He then said that is wasn’t “fair” to the people who would be supporting them. He then added “Do you know who would be paying for your support? Me.”
The very next day his teacher explained that he didn’t want the kids to think that he was “against welfare moms”, but that the only message he was trying to send was that people shouldn’t be having kids in high school. However, the problem here isn’t any particular comments the teacher made, the problem is still the implicit signals in the lesson that is being taught across DJUSD. If it was only teaching kids not to have sex in highschool that might be something that many people would support, but lets think for a moment about this: What changes after graduation? Does getting that diploma magically change the reality of the economy? Does turning 18 somehow reduce corporate power or wealth inequality in this country? Having a college degree doesn’t even guarantee a well paying job with security and benefits anymore, so the budgeting lesson isn’t something that can be reduced to an “abstinence while in high school” message. Just take me for example, I am 32 years old, the father of a 12 year old, and I am a Teaching Assistant at UC Davis. I make about $18,500/year — significantly less per year than the the imaginary McDonald’s worker who makes $15/hour for 40 hours per week! Furthermore, I take out student loans every year, not to pay tuition, that is covered because of my union contract, but to help me pay rent. Graduation changes nothing about the budget exercise, and the message that students take away, which I am about to explicate, should be seen as applicable to anyone of all ages, not just high school parents.
Let me break down the various messages in the “hidden curriculum”, as scholars of education refer to the subtle ideological lessons learned in school, of this “parenting” unit lesson. First, people in poverty are not deserving of assistance because they have made bad economic choices. This is what we call poverty shaming. Second, you are only worth as much as the “market” says you are; you should not question the power dynamics of the economy, and never ask for a living wage.
Now we get into the biopolitics of the lesson. Third, poor people shouldn’t reproduce. Reproduction is a rational economic decision and if people “can’t afford” to have kids then they just shouldn’t have kids. This means that people who will never make $20/hour in their life, just shouldn’t reproduce. Again, let’s forget about the various inequalities of resources and opportunities that have made it easier for certain people to get better paying jobs while others are constantly stuck being working poor. My son and his classmates were being taught that it’s ok for the rich to have kids, but that poor people shouldn’t because it is “unfair” and they are a drain on society.
But that’s not the worst of it. Because of the institutionalized/structural racism People of Color face, they disproportionately make up the poor. Also, since welfare and other government assistance programs for the poor have been racialized in the public discourse for decades now, since the attack on the welfare state began in the 1980’s, most people are socialized to associate Blackness with poverty. So whether these kids make the connection now, or later when they’re a bit older, many of them are going to start to associate poverty with People of Color, and when the implicit message they were taught in school was that poor people shouldn’t be reproducing, will we act surprised when many former students of this class grow up and espouse ideas that harken back to Eugenics – that People of Color shouldn’t be reproducing?
Does the DJUSD have, to quote the hip-hop group Public Enemy, a “fear of Black planet”? Are these the lessons that we want our children learning? Or do we want to raise critical thinkers who develop sociological understandings of the world they live in?
My last point is one that is less macro in scope, and maybe in the long run, will end up being the most personally disturbing. What about those kids, like my own, who were born to young working class parents, parents who have always struggled to get by? What do they internalize about themselves from this lesson? Do they think that they are a mistake? Will they think of themselves as a bad choice, or a drain on society? We know that mental illness is higher among the poor, and that it is a problem among People of Color. Is this how it starts? A young kid, full of life, goes to school and is slowly beaten down, told that their life isn’t worth as much, that they are a drain, a mistake?
Is this “parenting” unit teaching our youth how to be responsible parents, or is it just reinforcing white supremacist heteropatriarchal capitalist notions of life while inadvertently creating a mental health problem?